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Why the Atlantic, Not the Pacific, May Dominate the 21st Century

Posted: 12/11/2013 11:37 am

In recent years, much of the foreign policy debate in Washington and European capitals has focused on the rise of China and the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region. Fewer have paid attention to another, perhaps equally important trend: the rise of 'the Atlantic area' as globalization's new center of gravity.

To see why the Atlantic area will grow in relevance in coming years is not hard. While the old powers in Europe and North America might be in relative decline, they still share half of the global GDP and the world's strongest military alliance, NATO. At the same time, the Atlantic is also the home to two BRICS countries, Brazil and South Africa, and emerging actors such as Mexico, Nigeria and Angola. Their economic growth rates, global profile in oil and gas production, and military investments have already attracted the rapidly growing interest of China and India.

Take energy for example. While China and other Asian states are becoming more dependent on oil and gas imports, the Atlantic region is currently undergoing an energy boom -- one that is already having a transformative impact on global politics. Thanks to the shale gas revolution, North America is evolving as an energy-producing giant. According to the International Energy Agency, by around 2020 the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer and Brazil is poised to be also among the top of world's producers. The U.S. and Canada may soon even become major exporters of gas to Asia. Further south Mexico is undertaking crucial reforms to modernize its own energy sector while Brazil is underway tapping into the huge reserves of offshore oil sites along its coast.

And on the other side of the South Atlantic, West Africa's share of global oil and gas production is also steadily increasing. While Nigeria ranks as one of the top 15 producers in the world and a top five oil exporter, other regional states such as Angola are also quickly catching up. As China seeks to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, it will increasingly turn to Africa and South America for a more dependable source of energy, offering in return financial support to countries like Angola and Brazil which will help them to solidify their growing regional roles. China already gets about a fifth of its oil from the Atlantic area.

At the other end of the Atlantic -- in the 'High North' -- trade and economic resources have already attracted global attention from emerging powers such as China. The Arctic holds huge reserves of undiscovered oil and gas -- not to mention other mineral resources. Moreover, the trans-Arctic shipping routes offer economic and strategic advantages by cutting distances and offering savings in fuel costs. Connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, Arctic routes will also allow ships to bypass the congested, and sometimes contended, Hormuz and Malacca straits. For China, the northern route between Shanghai and Hamburg is 1,200 miles shorter and 35 percent cheaper than the Suez route.

Geopolitically speaking, the 'Atlantic basin' accordingly has everything needed to preserve the historical preeminence of the North while also re-sizing the global status of the South: global and rising powers (e.g. the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Angola, South Africa), critical investment networks (more trade and investment flow across the Atlantic than any other part of the world), huge metropolis (e.g. New York City, Chicago, London, Paris, Sao Paulo, Lagos, Johannesburg), high population rates (most African countries have annual population growth rates above 2 percent), powerful military industries (13 of the 20 biggest defense spenders are all located in the Atlantic area), global languages (e.g. English, Spanish, French and Portuguese) and strong educational systems (e.g. Harvard and Oxford but also world-class institutions like University of Sao Paulo).

However, juxtaposing the Atlantic area's growing global role is also a number of regional challenges that needs to be addressed, particularly in the South Atlantic where emerging risks are becoming more pressing.

These include threats like drug trafficking from South America to the Gulf of Guinea, which can serve as a source of financing for local terrorist networks in Colombia, Nigeria and Mali. Guinea-Bissau is already a de facto narco-state, and more failed states would further destabilize an already fragile region. Moreover, piracy and organized criminal networks targeting the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Guinea threaten energy and trade routes in the Atlantic. In other words, there are sufficient reasons to justify the need for further investments in energy security coordination, safety of essential maritime routes and anti-piracy instruments in the South Atlantic.

In the Arctic, security challenges are less acute, but definitely lurk around the corner. Efforts to accommodate the growing Chinese and Russian presence in the region and promote a peaceful, non-militarized Arctic will become a growing priority for the West in the years ahead.

As a result of the growing opportunities but also challenges in the Atlantic area, the old powers in Europe and North America should promote an integrated 'Atlantic Basin' approach. In particular, efforts to foster new forms of pan-Atlantic cooperation to address common issues and challenges should be put forward (such as military cooperation around common threats, university exchange programs and health research cooperation). Along these lines, the transatlantic trade talks currently explored between the EU and the U.S. should eventually be extended to other Atlantic powers as a way to tie the region closer together economically and politically.

The 21st century will not necessarily be a 'Pacific century'; it may well be an Atlantic one.

 

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