The Atlantic world—those nations that share the great ocean’s borders from the high north to the Antarctic Ocean—shares obvious common interests but lacks unity. What’s needed is leadership, and it doesn’t have to come from being a great power or having a great navy. The driving force that can unite the Atlantic space and propel those nations toward greater freedom, security, and prosperity is ideas, and those ideas can come from thought leaders anywhere in the free world.
Old and New
Once the Vikings put to sea, the vast expanse of the Atlantic was transformed from a barrier that divided people to a thoroughfare that connects them. Like all grand human endeavors, this led to both suffering and blessing. The ocean became an avenue for tragic exploitation on an unimaginable scale. The Atlantic world became embroiled in some of the greatest conflicts in modern history. In contrast, since the latter half of the twentieth century, the Atlantic space has been an engine of massive economic growth and a foundation of transatlantic security.
Today, the Atlantic space shares many challenges—environmental, economic, and social—facing the rest of the world. But the single greatest destabilizing threat today is China. Beijing is actively undermining the capacity of nation states to secure their own interests and threatening to become an aggressive presence. If China is left unimpeded to implement all of its designs, then the Atlantic community in Africa, Latin America, and southern Europe could become a violent, contested space within a decade the Atlantic community.
Many governments are reluctant to engage in forums that explicitly oppose Beijing’s activities. That is understandable. The regime ostracizes and punishes governments that push back against its malicious and destabilizing behavior.
Protecting free and open spaces, however, is not an explicitly anti-China project. This is about like-minded nations demonstrating the resolve to protect their national interests and demand respect for free and open practices. By articulating their shared interests in public forums and forming transparent networks to pursue those interests, nations can establish a legitimate and responsible path for collective action.
Put another way, what is needed is a free and open Atlantic forum, a bookend to the Indo-Pacific forum adopted by like-minded nations to protect their interests and freedom of the seas in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In Asia, the engine of leadership is the region’s great democracies: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. They are also significant regional military and economic powers. Who, however, should lead in the Atlantic space?
Forum of Atlantic Leadership
Competition in the Atlantic space has not yet become an arms race, nor does it need to become one. Moreover, NATO, which is responsible for safeguarding the Atlantic bridge among member states, can shoulder the most significant transatlantic security tasks. Consequently, the leaders of an Atlantic forum don’t necessarily have to be significant military powers.
And unlike the Pacific world, the Atlantic world is not an integrated economic community. The value of transatlantic ties varies considerably among the nations bordering the Atlantic. What the space does share, however, is a range of common problems and challenges that are best addressed by the joint action of like-minded states.
Not too long ago, the Indo-Pacific had no multinational framework or organization to address common needs in an integrated manner. This deficiency was addressed by establishing the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), which overlays a nested framework of bilateral and trilateral relationships that also include other countries, the “Quad plus.” That same framework might serve the Atlantic world well, but who would lead?
Geopolitics of the Atlantic Space
What is needed is integrated thought leadership that shares the values and aspirations of the free world, with the vision to span from the high north to the Antarctic—from east to west.
It would be hard to start without the United States and Canada, but this is more of a challenge than it might seem. In both countries, successive regimes—both conservative and liberal—have lost focus on security cooperation. That is a problem that needs to be fixed. Perhaps tackling the sober responsibilities of the Atlantic strategy could help recapture the kind of joint action needed.
Iceland would be a valued member of the group as well, bringing both another Arctic voice and a key strategic country in the Atlantic bridge.
Great Britain, now outside the European Union, has reasserted its traditional role as a transatlantic nation and would be an important addition to the leadership group. The United Kingdom is also important because, like the United States, it is a member of the Antarctic Treaty. The Antarctic is a too often forgotten space of suspicious and potentially troubling Chinese activity.
Norway, both an Arctic nation and a signatory of the Antarctic Treaty, would be another valued partner in the high north. Norway also has an active interest in African affairs.
The other natural European partners are Portugal and Spain, and not just because southern Europe is a linchpin in the Atlantic world. Both Lisbon and Madrid maintain strong traditional and commercial ties in Africa and Latin America which make them important thought leaders and influencers in the global south.
There cannot be an Atlantic world without Brazil, which is unique among the nations of Latin America in retaining a strong Atlantic identity. In the past, Brazil has considered promoting a “South Atlantic identity” to protect its environment and regional resources such as fishing. The proposal raised both concerns and possibilities. Nevertheless, for practical reasons as well as its historic and traditional ties to Europe and Africa, Brazil is fundamentally an Atlantic nation.
In Africa, there is no single nation that adequately represents the diversity of interests, capabilities, and history. Yet, the concept of an Atlantic community without thought leadership from the continent is unthinkable. Morocco and Namibia could well be candidates with important perspectives on a range of issues.
At first glance, such diverse nations appear unlikely to enter into a partnership. They have vastly different capacities, and each has its own peculiar set of interests and problems. Taken together, however, they well reflect the diversity of the Atlantic world and the perspectives of its peoples. More importantly, they have a shared commitment to the hopes of peace and prosperity among neighbors, partners, and friends. Further, like the Quad in Asia, the Atlantic forum could act as a “plus” framework—one that sees active participation by non-core but like-minded nations on particular issues from the defense of fishing resources to environmental concerns and maritime situational awareness.
Forging relationships like this is not only possible but essential. Such a framework transcends the “old think” of hard spheres of influence or a non-aligned world. The free and open Indo-Pacific framework has proved to be a new, flexible, and effective instrument for constructive national diplomacy in the twenty-first century. The Atlantic community could benefit from this example and build something of equal value.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/feature/forging-new-leadership-atlantic-world-203864