The Atlantic region has not been a seriously contested space since 1944. That now has changed. With the rise of great-power competition, Washington must develop and then promote a coherent and coordinated strategy to keep America secure from its principal adversaries.
No, this isn’t all about China, although, it has a lot to do with China. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the coast of Latin America and the islands of the Caribbean to the beaches of Africa and the Greater Middle East, and even among the partners of the transatlantic community Beijing has sought to extend its power and influence. We should not stand by idly watch that happen.
The Atlantic region is a huge and geopolitically complex area. From Greenland and Iceland in the north to Antarctica in the south, it covers approximately forty-six million square miles. It touches eighty littoral nation-states and dependent or autonomous territories—all pursuing a diverse set of interests and all confronting diverse geopolitical challenges.
Handling risk in an area this vast and complicated requires a strategy. Unfortunately, there is no other part of the planet where the U.S. government is less well-organized to shape American engagement to benefit these nations or deliver a coordinated response.
U.S. policymaking in the Atlantic region often falls victim to administrative and bureaucratic divisions within the U.S. government. For example, the Atlantic Ocean is divided amongst four different bureaus in the State Department. There are similar divisions in the National Security Council. The Department of Defense has four different combatant commands covering the Atlantic region. Arguably there is no single point of integration below the level of the Oval Office.
Washington has already recognized the need for coordinated action in the Pacific with action from the “pivot to Asia” under Obama to the strategy for “a free and open Pacific” under Trump.
While the geopolitical conditions of the Atlantic region may differ from those of the Indo-Pacific region, a strategy is needed to mitigate the pernicious activities of the Chinese Communist Party.
The aim of a U.S. Atlantic strategy should be to make the Atlantic region resilient against malicious Chinese and Russian influence by expanding regional cooperation and helping U.S. partners become more capable of exercising their sovereignty, more secure and promote their prosperity. The United States cannot turn a blind eye to competition in its own hemisphere.
The ultimate goal of an Atlantic Strategy is to create the conditions for a stable, prosperous, and secure Atlantic area that is aligned, or at least sympathetic to, America’s vision for the region. The short-term goal of this strategy is to preserve the geopolitical status quo the United States enjoys. The medium- to long-term goal is to roll back the nefarious activities of China, Russia, and other adversarial non-state actors seeking more influence in the broader Atlantic region.
The United States must take a leadership role and rally like-minded partners and allies around this cause. It must also continue to raise awareness of China’s and Russia’s malign activities in the region. At home, it needs to break down the bureaucratic barriers within the federal government that prevent a coordinated approach to the region. America also needs to offer a better and brighter alternative to China and Russia for economic engagement across the region.
China does not presently have the capacity to project sustained military power in the Atlantic community or to disrupt through military force the traditional American alliances. But the United States cannot assume that these conditions will always prevail. Moreover, Washington cannot forge the Atlantic region into a hardened sphere of influence, such as occurred during the Cold War or the great-power competitions of the nineteenth century. Instead, the United States has to prevail in open spheres of competition by materially contributing to make the Atlantic region resilient against pernicious Chinese influence. This requires sophisticated and coordinated statecraft by U.S. policymakers.
The United States has different interests at stake in different areas of the region. In the High North, the main challenges for the United States are deterring Russian aggression, reducing Chinese influence, and protecting the homeland. In the Southern Hemisphere, the major concern is rising Chinese influence as well as the influence of non-state actors involved in organized crime, human trafficking, and drug trafficking.
Broadly speaking, an effective strategy for the Atlantic region should be based on five themes:
The United States should promote policies that support regional stability. A secure Atlantic region offers many economic, trade, and energy opportunities. A stable Atlantic will also encourage much-needed foreign investment in the region.
Regional security challenges include everything from Russian encroachment in the Arctic to malign Chinese influence in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, narco-traffickers, and organized crime syndicates plague certain areas of the Atlantic region. The second-order and third-order efforts of these security challenges can have a negative impact on the United States and its partners. Security can and must be enhanced with closer defense and intelligence cooperation.
Even with all the security challenges, the Atlantic region enjoys relative peace compared to many other places around the world. It is in the interests of the United States to ensure that this remains the case.
It is also in America’s interest that Atlantic countries remain independent and self-governing, with little or no malign influence from outside powers. This is particularly true of China’s hybrid tactics in the region.
The region’s economic success is America’s success, which is why the United States must pursue policies that promote economic freedom and free trade throughout the Atlantic region
While the geopolitical conditions of the Atlantic region differ from those of the Indo-Pacific region, the need for a strategy to mitigate the pernicious activities of the Chinese Communist Party is no less. The aim of the U.S. strategy is to make the Atlantic region resilient against malicious Chinese influence by expanding regional cooperation and keeping U.S. partners secure, sovereign, and prosperous.
The United States has the means to implement an effective Atlantic Strategy. What is required is the leadership to organize the ways a strategy can best serve the ends. Rather than having federal agencies address new problems in old ways, they must be redirected to serve as effective instruments in protecting the free world from China.
In the end, the free nations of the earth believe in human rights, freely elected governments, and free enterprise. The Chinese Communist Party does not believe in any of those things. If the United States and its free world partners do not band together to protect those equities, then they will always be at risk. If America can’t facilitate the freedom, peace and prosperity of the Atlantic community, then America’s future will be in peril.
James Jay Carafano directs The Heritage Foundation’s research in matters of national security and foreign affairs. A former senior advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Kiron Skinner is a visiting fellow at Heritage. David Shedd, a former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is also a visiting fellow at the think tank.