© Ingram Pinn/Financial Times

France sends a warship and fighter jets to support the Greek and Cypriot navies. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responds with a warning that Turkey will “take what it is entitled to” in the eastern Mediterranean. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s mediation efforts falter as Turkish and Greek warships collide. Who imagined that the west’s next war might be fought within the Nato alliance? Welcome to the new international disorder.

Those mapping the contours of the international landscape now emerging from the ruins of the Pax Americana should cast a glance at recent events in the eastern Mediterranean. The global picture, of course, is being drawn by great power rivalry between the US and China. But the world is also witnessing the return of regional disorder. In the absence of an American referee, old wounds are being reopened, old enmities revived. 

The ingredients of the new instability — efforts to undermine the status quo by revisionist powers such as China, Russia and Turkey, the US retreat from past commitments and European reluctance to play geopolitical hardball — are on display in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean. The confrontation between Greece and Turkey presents a lesson in just how quickly restraints and accommodations that have been long woven into the regional fabric can fray. 

Flare-ups between Athens and Ankara in this part of the world are scarcely new. Cyprus is an open wound. So too is the disputed reach of the maritime borders of Greece’s Aegean Islands. The discovery of rich undersea gas reserves has sharpened the longstanding tensions. The dash for gas has also drawn in other regional players and, with them, separate animosities. Israel and Egypt are already exploiting their offshore gasfields. Lebanon and Libya have interests. There are joint exploration and production deals to be done, pipelines to be built.

None of the above should necessarily preclude a peaceful carve-up. Not so long ago Europe could have looked to the US. Washington would bang heads in Athens and Ankara and, if things got really tense, send a few ships into the Aegean. Those days have passed. The aircraft carrier the Dwight D Eisenhower was indeed in the Mediterranean in July. Not for so long, though, for anyone to notice.

Ankara has been emboldened by the absence of the US. The competing gas claims have become inextricably tied up with the opposing line-ups in Syria and Libya, and with Mr Erdogan’s drive to promote Turkey as the dominant regional power. The dispute with Greece is enmeshed in this broader regional power play as Turkey seeks to settle old scores, among others, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. 

Mr Erdogan is not alone in seeking to overturn the status quo. It is a rule of the new global disorder that when the US leaves, Russia will arrive. By backing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war, Vladimir Putin secured a strategically important naval base in the Mediterranean. Now the Russian president is staking out Moscow’s interest in the Libyan civil war by backing the rebel leader General Khalifa Haftar. 

The US decision to pull back was not entirely that of President Donald Trump. His predecessor, Barack Obama, was never convinced that vital American interests were at stake in Syria and Libya. What he missed was the ripple effects of his decision. Mr Trump’s behaviour has been inconsistent and indifferent — a signal to everyone to take whatever they can grab. The president likes “strong men” leaders, so Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin get a free pass.

French president Emmanuel Macron’s conclusion that the EU had better take on the responsibility that has been given up by the US is inescapably right. So, too, is his judgment that European governments cannot shy away from hard power when dealing with leaders such as Mr Erdogan. Many of Turkey’s claims defy international law — a position underscored by Ankara’s refusal to join the UN’s convention on the law of the sea.

That is not to say Europe is united. France’s support for Greece happens to match its own drive to sustain its influence in the region. Italy and Spain are keen to avoid a military confrontation. Ms Merkel fears Turkish retaliation against the EU in the form of reopening its borders to allow the flight of Syrian refugees into Europe.

None of these differences are insurmountable. Under the old rules, they would have been subsumed by American intervention. What has changed is that Europeans must now hammer out an agreement among themselves. As long as Mr Erdogan can play one member state off against another, the EU has no leverage.

The answer is an EU policy towards Turkey that matches a tough stance in the eastern Mediterranean — backed up, if necessary, by a show of naval force — with greater economic engagement. In dealing with Turkey there is ample room for both Mr Macron’s military resolve and Ms Merkel’s diplomacy.

Mr Erdogan’s march towards authoritarianism has ensured that the prospect of Turkey joining the EU is as close to zero as it has ever been. That should not preclude better trade and investment relations between neighbours and a longer-term understanding on refugees. The starting point, though, must be an EU ready to think, and act, for itself.

philip.stephens@ft.com




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