Help Wanted: Multilateralism in the Eastern Mediterranean

The United States appears to be going through a unilateral moment. Visible tensions at the G-7 Summit in Charlevoix, Canada, the threat of trade sanctions on close U.S. allies, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran are all signs in the last month that traditional U.S. approaches to international relations are in transition. It is wrong to pin this all on President Donald Trump. In fact, he seems to have seized on a vein of popular discontent with the international order. After all, if Americans genuinely supported the institutions and alliances he is challenging, there would be a wave of Republican opposition to these new strategies that contravene everything the party has represented for more than a half-century, and Democratic politicians would be wooing disgruntled Republicans to bolt the party. Nothing of the sort is happening.

And yet, many of the challenges that the United States faces in the world do not lend themselves to unilateral approaches. The necessity for multilateralism is well illustrated in the Eastern Mediterranean, where such an approach originated more than 70 years ago. While the structure of U.S. engagement in the region requires revision, the necessary U.S. response is not to engage less with allies, but rather to engage more comprehensively.

Despite dramatic changes on the ground and at sea, U.S. policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean region has become increasingly military and unilateral, even before the Trump administration. The diplomatic engagement, economic investment, and security presence of the United States, all hallmarks of U.S. policy since the 1940s, have dramatically receded. Especially in the last decade, other powers—primarily Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran—have increased their strategic footprint, weakening regional governments’ ties with the United States and Europe.

The region has changed dramatically in other ways. Regional conflicts and state fragmentation have caused millions to flee their homes, creating one of the largest migration crises since World War II. While some believe the United States can insulate itself by shutting its borders, the effect on Europe is profound. The migrants’ arrival has polarized domestic politics in Europe and in the Eastern Mediterranean and created security threats, economic challenges, and social strife. U.S. interests will suffer significantly if the downward trend continues.

There are also economic upsides that may not be captured. Significant natural gas deposits discovered off the coasts of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt, many of which are being exploited in part by U.S. companies, could boost regional economic prospects as a potential energy-producing region. Yet historical animosities, a divided Cyprus, as well as a lack of infrastructure connectivity, hinder this regional economic potential.

A Europe in turmoil harms U.S. interests, and an Eastern Mediterranean region that once again looks to the United States for leadership advances those interests. Bolstering security partners is the most obvious benefit, but contributing to resilient states that honor the rule of law, promote fiscal transparency, and engage in open trade provides the best opportunities for U.S. business and investment. To get there, resolving the Syrian conflict is essential for Eastern Mediterranean stabilization, and developing an appropriate policy approach toward an increasingly antagonistic and antidemocratic Turkey is the key to solving the Syria puzzle and re-anchoring the region toward the Euro-Atlantic community.

On the first point, the United States must work to resolve the Syrian conflict on terms acceptable to the United States. U.S. interests call for more than merely denying safe haven to jihadi-salafists and reducing the likelihood of Israeli-Iranian conflict or U.S.-Turkish conflict within Syria. The United States also has a keen interest in ensuring that U.S. foes do not establish a strong and permanent foothold in the country.

Doing so requires a series of steps the U.S. administration has been unwilling to take: engaging energetically in negotiations to resolve the Syrian crisis, committing to maintain the U.S. military footprint in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in cooperation with key European allies, and supporting reconstruction and stabilization in areas held by U.S. allies. The outcome in Syria will strongly affect U.S. interests for years to come. Working closely with allies is the key to amplifying U.S. influence without inflating U.S. costs.

On the second point, the United States must seek to re-anchor Turkey to the West while strengthening U.S. bilateral relationships with Eastern Mediterranean littoral states. Turkey has been the linchpin of a stable Eastern Mediterranean region and of U.S. strategy for decades, but rising bilateral tensions mean it is only prudent to enhance relations with nearby countries such as Greece and Cyprus to hedge against a further slide in ties. Allies are the key to both parts of this equation. Traditional allies help move Turkish policies in directions more consonant with U.S. interests, and new allies help guard against the possibility that U.S.-Turkish tensions will continue to rise.

Other regional strategies are also worthy of attention. The United States could work more closely with Israel to further regional maritime security and counterterrorism policies, and work with NATO allies to incorporate Israel’s naval capabilities into operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. It could explore an Eastern Mediterranean dialogue intended to foster economic cooperation and growth in the region. All of these efforts lower the costs for the United States while advancing better outcomes.

As we discuss in our recent report, Washington cannot rest on an old regional policy architecture that ignores profound changes in the region, it cannot go it alone, and it cannot insulate itself from the region’s growing weakness. U.S. interests require broad engagement, and they require building a series of strong and integrated relationships. Any fair reading of U.S. interests requires the United States to restore U.S. influence in the region, and most governments in the region are seeking exactly that. The United States not only has a unique opportunity to loom large in the region’s future, but doing so would also push others to share in the burdens. Failing to do so is not merely a missed opportunity. It would represent an expensive mistake.

(This commentary originally appeared in the June issue of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program