France sends a warship and fighter planes to support the Greek and Cypriot navies. President Recep Tayipp Erdogan responds with a warning that Turkey “will take what it is entitled to” in the Eastern Mediterranean. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mediation efforts fail as Turkish and Greek warships collide. Who imagined that the West’s next war could be fought within the NATO alliance? Welcome to the new international mess.
Those mapping the contours of the international landscape now emerging from the ruins of Pax Americana should take a look at recent events in the eastern Mediterranean. The global picture, of course, is drawn by a great power rivalry between the United States and China. But the world is also witnessing the return of regional disorder. In the absence of an American referee, old wounds are reopened, old enmities rekindled.
The ingredients of the new instability – the efforts to undermine the status quo of revisionist powers such as China, Russia and Turkey, the withdrawal of the United States from past commitments and the reluctance of Europeans to play the harsh geopolitical game – are exposed in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean. The confrontation between Greece and Turkey is a lesson in how quickly the restrictions and accommodations that have long been woven into the regional fabric can unravel.
The outbreaks between Athens and Ankara in this part of the world are hardly new. Cyprus is an open sore. The same applies to the disputed scope of the maritime borders of the Greek Aegean Islands. The discovery of rich submarine gas reserves has heightened long-standing tensions. The race for gasoline also attracted other regional players and, with them, distinct animosities. Israel and Egypt already operate their offshore gas fields. Lebanon and Libya have interests. There are joint exploration and production agreements to be made, pipelines to be built.
None of the above should necessarily prevent peaceful carving. Not so long ago, Europe could have turned to the United States. Washington was banging its head in Athens and Ankara and, if things got really tense, would send a few ships to the Aegean Sea. Those days have passed. The aircraft carrier Dwight D Eisenhower was indeed in the Mediterranean in July. Not so long ago, however, that no one noticed.
Ankara was encouraged by the absence of the United States. Competing gas claims have become inextricably linked to opposing alignments in Syria and Libya, and Mr. Erdogan’s desire to promote Turkey as a dominant regional power. The dispute with Greece is entangled in this larger regional power game as Turkey seeks to settle old scores, among others, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Erdogan is not the only one seeking to overturn the status quo. It is a rule of the new world disorder that when the United States leaves, Russia will arrive. By supporting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war, Vladimir Putin has secured a strategically important naval base in the Mediterranean. Today, the Russian president expresses Moscow’s interest in the Libyan civil war by supporting the rebel leader General Khalifa Haftar.
The US decision to withdraw was not entirely that of President Donald Trump. His predecessor, Barack Obama, was never convinced that vital American interests were at stake in Syria and Libya. What he missed were the ripple effects of his decision. Mr. Trump’s behavior has been inconsistent and indifferent – a signal for everyone to take whatever they can grab. The president likes “strongman” leaders, so Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin get a free pass.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s conclusion that the EU would do better to shoulder the responsibility that has been abandoned by the US is inevitably right. The same is true of his view that European governments cannot shirk hard power when dealing with leaders like Mr Erdogan. Many of Turkey’s claims defy international law – a position underscored by Ankara’s refusal to join the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
This does not mean that Europe is united. France’s support for Greece corresponds to its own desire to maintain its influence in the region. Italy and Spain are keen to avoid a military confrontation. Ms Merkel fears Turkish reprisals against the EU in the form of reopening its borders to allow the flight of Syrian refugees to Europe.
None of these differences are insurmountable. Under the old rules, they would have been covered by the American intervention. What has changed is that the Europeans now have to find an agreement among themselves. As long as Mr Erdogan can pit one Member State against another, the EU has no leverage.
The answer is an EU policy towards Turkey that corresponds to a firm position in the Eastern Mediterranean – supported, if necessary, by a show of naval force – with increased economic engagement. In dealing with Turkey, there is ample room for Mr. Macron’s military resolve and Ms. Merkel’s diplomacy.
Mr Erdogan’s march towards authoritarianism has ensured that Turkey’s prospect of EU membership is as close to zero as it has ever been. This should not prevent better trade and investment relations between neighbors and a longer-term refugee settlement. The starting point, however, must be an EU ready to think and act for itself.