The New Region of the Eastern Mediterranean

The Eastern Mediterranean has existed geographically throughout the ages. However, developments in the 21st century have necessitated viewing it conceptually as a distinct "new" region with specific characteristics.

Comprised by Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Turkey, the region is assuming increased significance in world affairs.

This reverses a long period of relative decline for the entire Mediterranean, known as the Great Sea. Beginning in the 16th century, the Mediterranean gradually lost out in importance to the Atlantic rim. Not anymore. To quote Stratfor's Chairman George Friedman: "What happens anywhere along the Mediterranean's shore has the potential to influence and shape events on any shore."

The Eastern part of the Mediterranean is indeed witnessing some of the most intriguing, worrisome and dangerous events in today's world. Consider the civil war raging in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the unraveling of Libya, the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, the outbreak of Islamic sectarian conflicts, the uncertainty about Egypt's future (and that of the Arab Spring more generally), the ambition (and some would argue unpredictability) of Turkey, substantial new energy findings and, more recently, a refugee crisis.

As regards the role played by the various Great Powers in the Eastern Mediterranean, what is being evinced is a less engaged United States (though still the most powerful actor in the region), an ambitious China, a tenacious Russia and a perennially weak European Union. Quite possibly, there are operative conditions of multipolarity at a regional level. Almost certainly, the Eastern Mediterranean is becoming a big "laboratory" where balance of power policies are being tested.

Thinking of the Eastern Mediterranean as a separate "new" region (and not as merely an extension of the Middle East or of South Eastern Europe) has several advantages. First, regions are becoming a more useful analytical concept for the international relations of the 21st century. The world is simply too diverse for "one size fits all" policies like that of containment in the past.

Secondly, there is the issue of energy. The United States Geological Survey estimates that some 122,378 billion cubic feet of natural gas exist in the Levantine Basin. The exploitation of such resources produces incentives for cooperation. Already, Israel, Cyprus and Greece have created an "energy triangle" of sorts (with plans for a natural gas pipeline and an electricity cord linking all three). There is also the tantalizing prospect of Egypt joining them soon through the use of its idle LNG facilities. The region's new-found energy wealth may ultimately contribute to the lessening of Europe's energy dependence to Russia. At the same time, the possibility of friction and conflict over these resources among regional actors cannot be discounted.

These energy politics are best understood through an Eastern Mediterranean prism that facilitates the focus on a specific set of relevant issues. In such a framework, the Palestinian Question is only of marginal importance while the delimitation of Exclusive Economic Zones and the potential construction of pipelines at the very heart of developments.

There is one other reason that requires the region to be viewed separately: It constitutes possibly the most important border within East and West. In today's Eastern Mediterranean, the forces of modernity democracy, secularism, peace and toleration--let us say the best of the "West," meet (and inevitably clash) with the forces and ideologies of authoritarianism, theocracy, terrorism, intolerance, fundamentalism and perpetual conflict--the worst of the "East."

Ultimately, understanding the Eastern Mediterranean as a "new" region with the aforementioned characteristics can lead to more prescient analyses of shared regional challenges and, perhaps more importantly, actions and initiatives aiming at cooperation and stability. The United States will inevitably be required to play an even more active role given these circumstances.