The Mediterranean is the cradle of Greek culture, of the Roman Empire, of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is a sea with many names: Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea,” for the Romans; Akdeniz, or “White Sea,” for the Turks; Yam Gadol, or “Great Sea,” for the Jews; Mittelmeer, or “Middle Sea,” for the Germans. Africa, Asia, and Europe meet here, forming a vast, complex, and plural history.
Today, however, the Mediterranean is at a crossroads. It represents much more than just Europe’s southern boundary. It could become the Unstable Sea or the Peaceful Sea, depending on our actions there.
Italy occupies the historic and geographic center of the Mediterranean and therefore has a vested interest in the region’s stability. But the region should not be solely Italy’s concern. Alongside Italy, the European Union and the United States should pivot to the Mediterranean because the region has become the center for three big global challenges.
The first challenge is terrorism. Stretching from the Gulf of Guinea to Pakistan, the threat pervades the region. North Africa, the Middle East, and Yemen are epicenters of instability, with regular clashes and proxy wars between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities and within the Sunni community itself.
The second is Africa. For too long, European governments have associated the continent with hunger, diseases, corruption, tribalism, and violence. But the new century has highlighted a different Africa, one still plagued by institutional failures but that now also boasts impressive growth rates, improvements in human development, and new multilateral institutions, such as the African Union. For Europe, the Mediterranean can and should be a bridge to Africa, now often considered “China’s Second Continent,” given the country’s long-term investment in African infrastructure.
The third challenge has to do with demography. As wars and other conflicts ravage countries in the Mediterranean basin, thousands of refugees have either been hosted in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey or arrived at Europe’s doorstep. And migration flows within Europe will continue to be a permanent feature of Mediterranean politics, given the demographic imbalance between aging northern European countries and the younger southern shore.
Today’s Mediterranean is in search of a new order to address these global challenges. The balance of power in the region has become increasingly complex. For one thing, Israeli-Palestinian tensions have heightened. Thanks in part to U.S. leadership, Israel and Palestine took several steps toward a peace settlement in the 1990s, only to fall short. In the last decade, the relationship between Israel and Palestine has worsened, making the oldest conflict in the Mediterranean one of the many factors contributing to regional disorder. A balanced nuclear deal with Iran, one that will give the international community confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is and will remain exclusively peaceful, coupled with Iran’s reintegration into the global community, may help stabilize the Middle East, but Europe and the United States will have to work to ease the transition.
Meanwhile, Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, is another threat to Mediterranean peace. The group represents a new and vocal brand of terrorism, able to capitalize on the fragility of Mediterranean states and on the tensions among Muslim countries. It also provides an inward challenge, for Italy and for Europe, with its ability to attract foreign fighters through its proselytizing and barbarism.
Italy is playing a crucial role in combating terrorism and other threats to the Mediterranean. We are deeply committed, for one, to countering jihadist propaganda in Italy. Although we strongly defend freedom of speech, we have introduced harsher penalties for the use of social media to instigate terrorism. In Libya, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is expanding. We are ready to take a leading role in assisting, within a UN framework, a Libyan government of national accord in all fields, in order to stabilize the country and address its major challenges, including terrorism and migrant smuggling. But the struggle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State cannot be won only militarily. Victory will require a complex counterstrategy, including draining the group’s financial resources, as Italy has worked to do as co-lead of the Counter-ISIL Finance Group. On March 20, the group first met in Rome and adopted an action plan to disrupt Daesh’s access to the international financial system.
Italy’s soft power will also be invaluable to strengthening cultural and commercial relationships in the region. We condemn and fight the fanatic intolerance and killing of Christians, whose very existence has been threatened by terrorism. We have reached out to Jordan’s King Abdullah II to support his efforts against the terrorist group. And we have offered academic grants and visas to the survivors of the 2015 Garissa terrorist attack in Kenya.
Beyond soft power, Italy is ready to lead multilateral efforts in a number of key areas, including managing migration flows, fighting terrorism in Libya, and playing a substantial role in its stabilization.
Toward a peaceful sea
The Mediterranean is not simply an Italian concern. The southern borders of Europe should matter to the European Union and the United States because they embody the key risks to modern society: migration, terrorism, lawlessness, statelessness, religious conflict, youth unemployment, poverty, social and political exclusion, and inequality. At the same time, they embody opportunity. A new order in the Mediterranean could spread stability to three continents.
A pivot to the Mediterranean is clearly in Italy’s interest. With a coastline of five thousand miles, Italy is highly exposed to instability in near waters, including smuggling and human trafficking. It is key not only for our stability but also for our values to destroy this economy of trafficking and terror, striking its vessels and networks.
But we firmly believe that a new Mediterranean order is in the interest of the United States and Europe, too. For the United States, a pivot to the Mediterranean would not require neglecting the country’s pivot to Asia. On the contrary, the two pivots complement each other. China has already grasped the importance of the Mediterranean to its global strategy. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China plans to build a network of overland road and rail routes, oil and natural gas pipelines, and ports and coastal infrastructure stretching to the northern Mediterranean Sea. For evidence of China’s investment in the region, one need look no farther than Athens, Greece, where China has pumped more than $1 billion into revitalizing the port of Piraeus. The United States should continue to invest in the region as well.
For Europe, a Mediterranean pivot is an economic opportunity. A Mediterranean Marshall Plan, focused on infrastructure, energy, defense, trade, and the knowledge economy, can boost investment and employment in southern European countries and provide a gateway to African markets. Such a plan could also be a cultural and diplomatic platform for political stability. The European Union has made some effort to prioritize the Mediterranean with the instruments provided by its Neighbourhood Policy: it has considered the recent tragedies at sea a turning point for the European Agenda on Migration. The EU has increased resources to strengthen its presence at sea, while working on burden sharing among member states. But Europe still punches well below its weight, and U.S. involvement will be crucial to security stability in the region. For all players, the time for a pivot is now.