U.S. Interests and Priorities in the Eastern Mediterranean

By
Col. Steve Norton

The following is excerpted from a presentation delivered at a conference, "Greece in Southeastern Europe: Security, Commerce, and Geopolitics," organized by the Western Policy Center on April 25, 2001.
May/June 2001 - The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire presented the modern world with two unresolved problems: the Balkans and Cyprus. There are many differences between them, but two compelling issues of commonality involve ethnicity, which includes religion, and security.

In Cyprus, the ethnic Greek and Turkish communities have been separated since 1974, partly because of outstanding strategic and personal security issues.

In the Balkans, the problem is more complex, but it still revolves largely around ethnicity and security. Only in the rather "ethnically pure" Slovenia does one find a stable, peaceful former republic of Yugoslavia.

With a new U.S. administration in place, this is an excellent time to review this region of the world and define-or redefine-what America's regional policies and priorities should be.

Should the U.S. focus be on the Balkans, where it has soldiers on the ground? Should it be on Cyprus, where Greek and Turkish soldiers face each other along the entire width of the island? Or should it be on Greek-Turkish issues in the Aegean Sea region, where NATO solidarity needs strengthening?

The Aegean Sea is the epicenter of bilateral problems between Turkey and Greece. There are many facets to the "Aegean Question," dating back to the early 1970s, including the delineation of the seabed, the militarization of selected islands, territorial air and sea limits, and, as of 1996, the sovereignty of rocky islets.

But why is the Aegean important to the U.S., and what interests are affected, either positively or negatively, by these two nations?

Looking at Turkey first, NATO solidarity tops the list. NATO faces more threats in the southern region, along Turkey's borders, than anywhere else.

Turkey's strategic position directly influences U.S. policies vis-?-vis Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus.

It has a growing strategic relationship with another long-term American ally, Israel, and it controls access to the Black Sea.

The successful exploitation and security of Caspian oil and natural gas reserves will certainly involve the transport of energy resources through Turkey, either overland or through the Bosporus, or both.

Turkey is a Muslim democratic country. The successful melding of Islam with a democratic, Western-oriented government serves as a model for many other nations in the region.

With regard to Greece, the strategic importance of the country has increased because of events in the Balkans over the last 10 years. Greece is certainly the most stable and economically viable country in that region. Greece's role in the region's development will grow even more as Balkan countries continue to struggle with their future.

Access to the port of Thessaloniki and the natural terrain features connecting Greece with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo are key to keeping the logistic lines of communication open to U.S. and other NATO troops.

Greek American influence within the U.S. political process is a reality. The interests of the Greek American community, and the community's impact on bilateral U.S. relations with Greece and with Turkey, are best addressed by promoting solutions to problems in the eastern Mediterranean.

Several hundred miles east of Greece lies Cyprus. Why is this an important issue for the United States?

Above all, Cyprus is a country with strong ties to Turkey and Greece. So intertwined are the interests of Athens and Ankara in Nicosia that a settlement of the Cyprus problem will significantly, perhaps radically, alter and improve the future of Greek-Turkish relations.

Conversely, if the situation should badly deteriorate, Cyprus, as we have seen in the past, could also be the making of a Greek-Turkish conflict.

Regardless of the forward pace of rapprochement between Turkey and Greece, there will assuredly come a point beyond which progress will cease without some settlement of the Cyprus issue. Similarly, it is hard to imagine how Turkey's quest for full EU membership will be fulfilled with a divided Cyprus.

At the other end of the region lie the Balkans, much like the eye of a storm. Though some limited sense of security exists in the area, changes in-and threats to-the existing political and military situation swirl about the fledgling countries.

In Bosnia, people are still divided along ethnic lines, and there is an active movement seeking independence from Yugoslavia within Montenegro.

Kosovo, home to over 40,000 soldiers from NATO and other countries, is an area of Serbia with a sad history and an uncertain future, and Macedonia is facing challenges from KLA-supported Albanian rebels.

Given this whirl of instability in the Balkans, Washington should continue to build on the very good work being done by NATO military forces and Western diplomats working in the region.

However, it should be the responsibility of indigenous military forces to provide for their own security. In this regard, the U.S. should be looking at training military forces in friendly countries such as Macedonia.

Renewed conflict in the region could trigger a massive flow of refugees toward Greece's border. If this should occur, helping this NATO partner with the situation could quickly become a priority issue for the U.S. and the rest of the alliance.

The Bush administration should also recognize that Balkan problems are neither new nor will they be solved quickly. Without clear military assignments, it will be difficult to sustain U.S. ground forces in the area.

In the end, the key to building a peaceful, democratic, and economically strong region is a better relationship between the two nations in the eastern Mediterranean that are the most stable and the most affected by Balkan instability: Greece and Turkey.

In many ways, the center of gravity for the region is Cyprus. A solution to the Cyprus problem that incorporates the interests of all Cypriots, as well as those of Turkey and Greece, will significantly and favorably impact on the issues separating Ankara and Athens.

In fact, a Cyprus solution is possible. If a new security architecture can be developed for Cyprus, providing for the same level of personal security that Turkish Cypriots now enjoy, while ensuring a stronger sense of strategic security for Greek Cypriots, then political progress will follow. However, it is important to work out the security architecture first. The notion that security issues should be addressed after political issues is a major reason why a political settlement in Cyprus remains elusive after 27 years.

The dynamics of a new Greek-Turkish relationship will be felt, not only in the Balkans, but also in Moscow. One day, a resurgent Russia may look to expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean. The state of Greek-Turkish relations will, as it has in the past, impact once again on Russian thinking in the region.

In summation, U.S. policies and priorities in the eastern Mediterranean should involve:

Promoting better Greek-Turkish relations. There should be no "zero-sum" thinking here. Greece needs a friendly ally and neighbor to the east. Turkey needs Greece to advance its European orientation. The U.S. needs a strong, united southern region in NATO. Greek-Turkish differences may be complicated, but they are not insurmountable.
Staying engaged in solving the Cyprus problem, with a focus on a new security architecture that complements political initiatives. Adding a military component to the U.S. diplomatic team to work on the security factor can be of immense value. The benefits of a Cyprus solution to the U.S., Turkey, Greece, NATO, the EU, and all Cypriots are simply too great to allow for neglect.
Assisting Turkey with its European and trans-Atlantic orientation. This includes promoting full Turkish membership in the EU.
Defining clearer political and military objectives for the Balkans, including the disposition, size, type, and deployment duration of U.S. ground forces in the region.
Planning for assisting allies with potential refugee problems, which may be especially critical for Greece.
Training friendly forces to provide for their own security, as in Macedonia, while simultaneously reducing U.S. combat forces.
Many years ago, I received good advice from my first platoon sergeant: "Lieutenant, if you know where you want to go, you will figure out how to get there. If you don't know where you are going, well son, you will never get anywhere."

The same advice can be helpful as the U.S. works to find solutions for the unresolved legacies of a century ago in Cyprus and in the Balkans, as well as in the twin pillars of Washington's national interests in the eastern Mediterranean: Greece and Turkey.
 

EMAIL UPDATES

Upcoming Events

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant