Blinken’s Africa trip loops in new Atlantic Ocean partners

2024-01-26

United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken time off from his hectic shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East to visit four African countries – Cabo Verde, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Angola.

America has many relations with all these countries, including on security matters in light of the violent extremist threat, an epidemic of military coups, and Russia displacing Western influence through its Wagner mercenary company.

Still, it was hard to discern a common denominator linking the four states – until Blinken mentioned that all four countries he visited were among the 36 members of the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation. This new partnership was launched on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September last year.

This largely US initiative is intended to fill a ‘major gap in governance for the Atlantic Basin,’ the Brookings Institution said in a recent webinar. ‘While instability and uncertainty drive attention to the Western Pacific and the Middle East’s critical chokepoints, the Atlantic is the world’s most heavily travelled ocean and a critical conduit for prosperity.

The Atlantic is the world’s most heavily travelled ocean, and a critical conduit for prosperity

‘It has become one of the world’s principal energy reservoirs, and pan-Atlantic commercial flows rival – and in such areas as services, investment, and digital commerce exceed – those of the Pacific.’

The webinar added that the Atlantic links key players of the global north and south, so the partnership would enable cross-cutting approaches to shared interests including trade, maritime awareness, climate change and countering illegal fishing.

At the Brookings event, Senior Fellow Daniel Hamilton punned that while Yemeni Houthis were fighting the US and United Kingdom in the Red Sea, and Russia and Ukraine were clashing in the Black Sea, the Atlantic remained ‘the most pacific of oceans.’ (He might have added that the Indo-Pacific was increasingly becoming a zone of contestation between China and the West.)

Yet he suggested that while the Pacific had several cooperative organisations including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Atlantic as a whole had none.

The new partnership’s major test will be how much benefit developing country members reap from it

So a pan-Atlantic association was important to address common issues like the major impact of this ocean on global climate, security, fishing and threats posed by the huge volume of undersea cables vital for maintaining digital connectivity. Atlantic states needed to cooperate in protecting these underwater internet conduits, which Hamilton said were more numerous here than under any other ocean.

He noted that besides carrying a larger volume of legitimate shipping than other oceans, the Atlantic also carried a sizeable amount of illicit traffic. This included arms and drugs between the Americas and across the ocean to Africa and then north to Europe.

And as Jessye Lapenn, the partnership’s US coordinator, pointed out, one of its priorities was to coordinate marine spatial planning, which mainly had to reconcile economic development with the 30:30 goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

Realising this pan-Atlantic partnership has largely been Lapenn’s achievement. A recent US ambassador to the African Union, and before that acting ambassador in Pretoria, she has been extremely active over the past year, lining up the ‘36 and counting’ partners on board so far.

The Atlantic links key global north and south players, which could reduce the sharp lines of polarisation

Conceptually too, the partnership is important. To date, the notion of an Atlantic coalition has largely evoked the US-Europe friendship, most concretely embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As Hamilton said, adding the southern Atlantic gives an entirely new dimension, including development cooperation opportunities. Much of this might be south-south rather than north-south, noting that Brazil, as one of the partners, had much to offer as a leader in renewable energy technology.

Ali Kamal-Deen, Ghana’s Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa Executive Director, noted at the Brookings event that a major test of the new partnership’s effectiveness would be how much benefit the developing country members, especially in Africa, reaped from it.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is an obvious analogy. Lapenn told the webinar that no secretariat was envisaged for the Atlantic partnership (unlike IORA, which has one in Mauritius). But it was early days, and that could change.

Like IORA, the Atlantic partnership’s objectives are primarily technical and uncontroversial. But in a rapidly polarising world, it is probably unrealistic to expect no suspicion of a political agenda. At first glance, the map is suggestive. Most littoral states on both sides of the ocean are present, from Canada to Argentina on the west – but not Mexico, Honduras and Cuba, among others.

On the other side, the membership stretches largely uninterrupted south from Iceland and Norway. Some countries are conspicuously absent though, like France, Sweden, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And membership stops abruptly at Angola. Is this significant? When asked about the gaps, Lapenn told the webinar that ‘the door is still open’ and new members would soon be added, though she said some states might have reasons not to join. Perhaps a country like South Africa sees this as a US club, and would prefer the company of, say, its BRICS partners.

Yet one of those BRICS partners, Brazil, has joined the Atlantic partnership. That is surely a good thing. The more cross-partnerships there are, the better – as they tend to reduce the sharp lines of polarisation. And it’s clear that the many diverse states that share the Atlantic can only benefit from cooperating in managing its shared opportunities and challenges.  

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Pool / AFP

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