Bridging Free and Open Spaces Serves U.S. Interests
Active diplomacy, encouraging foreign direct investment, security cooperation on key strategic projects, and building stronger bridges can do more than raw military force.
American interests are advanced by bridging the world’s free and open spaces, thereby preventing authoritarian regimes from dividing the world into hard spheres of control. In the face of a bellicose China, a destabilizing Iran, and a marauding Russia, American interests call for holding firm on free and open Indo-Pacific and transatlantic communities, normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab nations; and using these partnerships to connect with free and open spaces throughout the greater Atlantic region, the Mediterranean, and North and East Africa.
This can best be achieved, not with military force or blank checks of foreign aid, but with active diplomacy, encouraging foreign direct investment and security cooperation on key strategic projects, and building stronger bridges between the transatlantic community, Eurasia, and the Indo-Pacific. Energy, digital, and transportation ties should be the focus of that bridge-building.
This initiative can start with existing initiatives that are already focused on preserving free and open spaces.
From the East
The Quad. In the Indo-Pacific, the Quad—India, Japan, Australia, and the United States—provides an overarching mechanism for promoting a free and open Pacific. This partnership has already borne fruit, including better coordination for engaging Pacific Island nations and constructively engaging in development in the Indian Ocean region.
The Quad Plus. This second set of relationships allows other partners to flow in and partner where it makes sense on common projects and initiatives, including Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and others. One example is the joint cooperation of Indo-Pacific nations in responding to the COVID pandemic.
The Middle Corridor. This initiative is establishing a corridor linking Central Asian nations (like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) and Caucuses nations (such as Azerbaijan and Georgia) to the West. This project can produce resilient, additive supply chains, energy and material resources, and digital connectivity, initiatives developed by the nations themselves outside the oppressive influence of China, Iran, and Russia.
The Abraham Accords. Normalizing relations between Israel and Arab nations creates opportunities for security, diplomatic, and economic cooperation that will serve as a firebreak against Iran and create a secure, prosperous region that contributes to stability in North and East Africa and safeguards the crucial links between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.
From the West
The Three Seas Initiative. Europe lacks effective North-South integration that incorporates Central Europe. The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) is a project of commercial investments in infrastructure, digital connectivity, and energy that will establish the missing North-South corridor.
Ukraine Reconstruction. The 3SI has now added Ukraine as a partner nation. The United States has a strategic interest in seeing Ukraine become a successful economic barrier to Russian aggression and fully integrated with the West. 3SI could be an instrument to speed up this effort.
Mediterranean and Black Seas. Efforts to ensure a free and open Eastern Mediterranean span from Southern Europe to North Africa. In particular, Southern Europe is a hub for bringing energy from the Caucuses, North Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. Further, the north-south backbone of the new European economy stands on the foundation of access to the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. This access links all of Europe to the Middle East and North Africa, and the linkage then continues across the Atlantic to the United States and Canada. Thus, the United States has an interest in a free and open Black Sea, with nations having the capacity to protect their commercial air and maritime traffic. Italy, Israel, Greece, and Romania all also have important roles to play in ensuring a free and open Black Sea linked to the East Mediterranean.
Linking East and West
U.S. policies ought to adopt as an aim, not just supporting these initiatives, but promoting actions and architecture linking them. Enhancing connectivity between free and open spaces adds more value to each region. It also creates more resilient, secure, and diverse supply chains and more opportunities for commerce.
In addition, linked spaces dramatically add to global stability. They decrease opportunities for destabilizing powers to dominate and disrupt the global commons, create strategic choke points, or control critical sources of energy, materials, supply chains, and manufacturing capacity. Free and open connectivity is an alternative to regional competition with security coming from the stand-off of hardened alliances. Rather, free and open common bonds delivering shared prosperity provide breathing space for nations to determine their own future outside the weight of great power competition.
How to Bridge Open Spaces
It is time to think creatively about how to add momentum to the ongoing initiatives mentioned above. But it’s also time to think of launching new initiatives that can deliver new synergies. Here are some ideas.
Encourage new partnerships. To meet the China challenge over the long term, we will need not just regional allies, but nations beyond the region to work with us on a global scale. To this end, we must establish enduring partnerships that transcend security cooperation and span the economic, political, and cultural spheres. South Korea is one example of where America must broaden engagement. India is another. The United States must also encourage bilateral relations among critical interregional nations such as India and Italy.
The United States should also encourage broadening regional partnerships such as strengthening digital and physical connectivity along the north-south axis on Europe’s eastern flank. This can be done by strongly backing 3SI, improving connectivity among the nations along the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. Further, an energetic 3SI will facilitate American and European outreach across the Caucuses and Caspian Sea to the republics of Central Asia. Italy and Greece ought to consider joining or partnering with the 3SI, cementing the linkage between north-south integration and Southern Europe.
Link Strategic Regions. Bridging free and open spaces ought to include reaffirming collective actions with close allies. For example, the United States should foster linking the Indo-Pacific through ASEAN and the Eastern Mediterranean. While ASEAN relies on the United States for its security (with the United States serving as the indispensable guarantor of freedom of navigation), China predominates the region’s economic and trade interests. In short, an American security blanket subsidizes Chinese commercial relations with ASEAN. This is a prescription for friction and conflict, not cooperation. What is needed is substantially more market integration of ASEAN, the Quad economies, the Middle East, and Europe. Free and open bonding could help speed up that process. One example is the newly announced digital cable from India to Italy, which could benefit all ASEAN economies.
Another important conceptual link is bonding the Indo-Pacific with the Atlantic Region through the region the Eastern Mediterranean. Both the Indo-Pacific and the Atlantic region share a common concern: China’s destabilizing efforts to expand its hegemony at the expense of others. Empowering like-minded actions on issues such as illegal fishing sends a strong, united message against China’s exploitive behavior.
It is also time for new framework that links the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia through a new regional grouping of I2U2—India, Israel, UAE, and the United States. This grouping could elevate the Abraham Accords to a strategic bridge between the free and open Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean. Italy has already moved in this direction, fostering closer economic and commercial ties between the eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Seas and signing an India-Italy strategic partnership.
New Opportunities for Africa. Extending the linkage of free and open spaces into North and East Africa could help expand prosperity and counter violent extremism and the malicious influences of China and Russia. Optimizing east-west links between the Arabian and Mediterranean seas will, for example, create new opportunities for East African economies. The United States could accelerate cooperation by promoting regional African summits, alternately hosted by the Quad and European nations.
Expand the G7. The G7 needs to be updated to include the leading free and open democracies and economies of both the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. The next two G7 host nations—Japan and Italy—should work to transition from G7 to G10, adding India, Australia, and South Korea.
All the nations committed to free and open spaces share the desire to attain energy security, counter violent extremism and illegal mass migration, deter wars of aggression, foster growing, vibrant economies, and mitigate the debilitating instability of great power rivalries. This is also good for America. We need strong U.S. leadership promoting loose, flexible, and evolving groupings of like-minded nations committed to free and open spaces powered by self- and collective interests.
James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president, responsible for the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign relations.
Kaush Arha is the president of the Free & Open Indo-Pacific Forum and a senior fellow at both the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue and the Atlantic Council.