Greece and Turkey’s Mediterranean Gas Clown Show

Today’s video is a particularly crotchety one. I sometimes worry a bit that I’m insufficiently respectful to the heads of state of these countries in videos like this one. But in reality it’s these politicians that are being disrespectful of their duties to their countries. The East Mediterranean issue is fundamentally not a very serious one, yet Turkey, France and Greece are committing military forces as if real issues are at stake. This kind of thing could back fire terribly. I don’t think it will. But the reckless actions that these men are taking are certainly not going to get me to treat them respectfully. I hope you enjoy my explanation of one of the more requested topics in recent months.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

Hey there. One of my greatest fears as a US student of geopolitics is that my country just doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe the dumpster fire that the past four presidents have made of our foreign policy is actually for the best. Maybe the world is better off without a Washington, DC sane enough to exert power effectively, and my efforts to improve things are counter-productive. Well, whenever I feel that way all I have to do is check in on the clown show in the Eastern Mediterranean to remind myself how badly some parts of the world still seem to need us.

At least two of the dozen or so entities involved here make serious claims to world, or at least regional leadership. Well if the EU and Turkey want to make the case that they are mature enough powers to do without US hand-holding, they are failing pretty miserably in the Eastern Mediterranean.

At the heart of the current controversy you can find Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As with many other issues facing his country
Erdogan is taking a very legitimate Turkish complaint and pursuing it in such an aggressive way that he makes his country look like the bad guys.

What’s going on here is a conflict created by technological and legal innovation. Over the course of the 20th century, accelerating in the 1940s, the world’s search for oil and gas has moved further and further out into the ocean. Most countries traditionally claimed to control the sea 3 to 12 miles out from their shores. With the new technology, the old legal framework no longer functioned. Conflicts over oil and gas, and to a lesser degree fishing rights, threatened to escalate all over the world. The United Nations decided to address this issue, and in a near decade long negotiation produced the UN Convention on the Law Of The Sea. This convention came into effect in 1994 when the 60th country signed on. It provides for 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones. This carefully negotiated solution is kind of a triumph of diplomacy actually, and over 160 countries have now signed on. Turkey has not. Because the new way of looking at things royally screws Turkey over.

Greece was carved out of the Turkish Ottoman Empire by European great powers piece by piece over the course of over a century. The entire Ottoman navy was sunk on at least two occasions, and parts were outright stolen by the British right before world war one. So while the Turks repelled every attempt to take their traditional heart land in Anatolia, they lost almost every single island to Greece, including some that are just a mile or two off shore. This was infuriating back when each of these thousands of islands claimed 3-6 miles of sea. Now that they claim 200 milee it’s completely unacceptable. This is not an Erdogan thing, this is a Turkey thing, and it’s not something they are going to back down on.

What is an Erdogan thing is the extraordinary state of isolation that Turkey has managed to get itself into. Over the past decade Erdogan has added new enemies in Egypt and Israel to his country’s historic opponents in Greece and Cyprus. Turkey has a very legitimate complaint here. After 15 years of Erdogan’s blustery insults, nobody cares. Erdogan’s adoption of China’s South China Sea tactics isn’t helping either.

Turkey’s absurd isolation was formalized in 2019 with the set up of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to jointly discuss further development. This group cuts out Turkey, yet includes Italy and Jordan, countries with no plausible rights to the gas, and France is petitioning to join as well. Turkey’s response to this has ratcheted up the ridiculousness. In November Turkey and Libya signed a deal claiming to split parts of the Mediterranean up between them exclusively, which doesn’t make much legal sense under the international law of any era. In retaliation, in January The EastMed gas forum started to move forward with plans to construct a pipeline that cuts out Turkey entirely and sends the gas to Europe. This is probably the most absurd aspect of a profoundly silly situation. Back in 2013’s gas market when folks started talking about this pipeline, it was kind of plausible. But the Europe of today is awash in cheap gas from Russia, the Middle East, and even the United States. EastMed gas is useful to local countries that want it for strategic reasons. And guess which normally high growth country of 80 million, is desperately in need of nearby gas resources? Turkey. By cutting Turkey out, the East Med forum isn’t just causing a political mess, it’s closing off its most viable market. This whole issue is the very definition of a clown show.

Honestly we shouldn’t expect any better from Greece and Israel. These are small hyper nationalist countries with long standing grudges against Turkey. We should however, expect better of France, Turkey and the European Union. These are all large, ostensibly serious political units with pretensions to global leadership. The fact that they are engaging in military jockeying over gas resources that might not even be worth developing is just embarrassing.

I think the chances of the East Mediterranean clown show degenerating into open conflict are low. This seems to be more about domestic politics than anything else. The Promise of screwing Turkey out of Mediterranean gas riches has been a nice distraction for Greek politicians dealing with a decade long depression. As Turkey’s currency gets closer and closer to being worthless, Erdogan is grateful to have a cause that even his greatest political opponents in Turkey are happy to rally behind. French President Macron isn’t above reaching for some of that old imperial glory to cover up for his striking early Coronavirus failures. Every player here is thinking of domestic political rewards.

And at the end of the day, all of these actors know things aren’t going to get too serious. Mama Merkel in Germany will keep things in line, and if she fails, the US Navy is still there to make sure things don’t get too crazy. This is reassuring in a limited way, but it’s also seriously disappointing to those of us who hope for a time when team America doesn’t have to do so much world policing.

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