The predictable lack of coverage of the opening of the Union for the Mediterranean is symptomatic of a broader disinterest in the ever more rapid geopolitical evolution taking place across the globe. This follows, I think, from a tendency in this rather consistently narcissistic political culture to dismiss the creation of institutions lacking imperium, in the classical Roman sense. If a body hasn’t got an army, how can it be of any concern to the United States? Add to this the short attention span of American politicians and pundocrats and the national disease of the United States become clear.
Many Americans are missing the exciting developments that are building the world order of the 21st century. The axis of world power is shifting from a predominantly vertical one to an increasingly horizontal one, in which political and economic influence is no longer wielded by the global North over the global South and more and more between Southern actors (as well as Northern ones). The pace of South-South cooperation has become quickened over the past decade, the result of higher gas prices, a bemused America, a stronger EU, and more robust globalization. Poorer states have become less poor, more integrated into the global economy, and their ambitions less opaque. They have grown accustomed to an increasing degree of agency over their own markets and others. The failures of many of the initiatives and consensuses that marked the era of American “hegemony” in the international order have encouraged many of them to pursue alternate paths to wealth and power. States in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have adopted regional strategies of integration, building ever more relevant nodes of influence that will shape 21st century world politics. The AU, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, IBSA, and Mercosur are just a few examples of the regionalization of world political and economic power. Each of these groups has its headman state, that will take a place the leader of one of the various poles within the international system that will emerge in coming decades.
The Union for the Mediterranean is not in itself the construction of a new pole; it instead is an attempt to fortify the EU pole, and, inside of that, to strengthen France’s position. It seeks to put France in a headman position, so that it occupies a place of primary leadership within its region that is comparable to Brazil’s within Mercosur, South Africa’s within the SADC, and China’s within the SCO. Concerns over immigration agriculture aside, France seeks to balance off Germany, whose rising sphere of influence is in the new EU member states of Eastern Europe, by picking up new partner states in the eastern and south-western Mediterranean. It is very likely that France’s attempt to pick up prestige by approaching the Middle East with more realism than the United States has, engaging all regional actors – radical and conservative, Israeli and Arab – on “equal footing” and without human rights pressures, will not amount to much.
While the organization’s inaugural meeting was dubbed a success for bringing together Syria and Israel and making an otherwise impressive show of attendance from around the Mediterranean basin, the Europeans remain skeptical of its purpose and utility and many of the region’s conflicts seem to be deeper than the club’s teeth can reach. The Algerian-Moroccan rivalry seems stronger than either state’s genuine interest in the Union, as evidenced by Mohammad VI’s no show and Algeria’s rather lukewarm endorsement. Libya snubbed the event, terming it a “humiliating” effort to divide the Arabs from Africa and frustrate efforts at Arab and African unity.
The American response has been muted, and the Americans did not even take an observer seat at the Union’s meeting. The Americans do not seem to believe that effort will mount to much, and the presidential candidates are not particularly interested in it. Americans see themselves their influence and utility as a fact of life. They often look at EU policy in the Middle East as being at least vaguely complementary to their own, and do not seem to see the Mediterranean project as a challenge to their own role in the region (especially because they perceive it and other regionalization mechanisms as being so weak), even if they view it through the offshore balancer lens of realism.
American presidential hopefuls are obsessed with Manichean dichotomies and the restoration of American leadership. Both speak of a division between a grand and sacred America and an existential and evil Islamist (or Islamic) terrorist threat, though one does so more out of conviction than out of conformity. Both place this within a wider framework of a militarized American exceptionalism being America’s claim to international legitimacy, as opposed to its adherence to international law and norms. It is a zero-sum perspective that finds its root in the troubled pre vs. post-9/11 dichotomy upon which much of the Bush Doctrine was based.
Those who seek to “restore” America’s place of leadership in the world are problematically confronted with a world system that will not accommodate the kind of leadership that they seek to reinstitute. The unipolar leadership Americans remember so fondly existed for a fleeting moment that has since passed. The regional bodies and cooperatives taking root the world over are the building blocks of a multipolar world. American leadership in the 21st century should be based on a recognition that its preponderance of influence is increasingly ephemeral, and that the only way for the United States to remain as an institution of global agency and to ensure that its values survive in the coming order is to lead the transition from the Post-War era to the post-post-war era. The Euro-Atlantic institutions that have been the basis for global governance and order for more than half a century are increasingly out date. From the organization of the United Nations to world financial relief and aid agencies, the international system needs amendment. A nation intoxicated with dreams of singular dominance in which increasingly powerful states, long denied prestige and broadness in their freedom of action, are mere partners. Americans need a leadership that is confident enough and brave enough to press through a strategic adjustment in the country’s foreign policy and structural adjustment in the international system.