US policy after the Arab Spring: what role in the Southern Mediterranean area?

A significant episode in international affairs since 9/11, which changed permanently the Middle East is the Arab Spring. Beginning in 2010 in Tunisia, the uprisings have rapidly spread also to others arab countries. Even if protests have developed in many different ways there is a common background of reasons which tied them together. Drawing on the work of Noland and Pack (2007), a mix of socio-economic and political grievances was the blend of a revolution which affected the Middle East and North Africa. The consequences of these events involved not only the area itself but even the relationships between outside countries and Arab countries, which have been affecteddramatically and that will probably continue to develop in the future in new unforseeable ways.

At the same time,making things even worse, Lesser argues (2015), the environment in the Mediterranean has been shaped by forces emanating from outside the region: from the Levant and the Eurasian and African hinterlands, from the Black Sea, and from the Northern and Southern Atlantic Basin. The net result of these shifts has been the progressive globalization of Mediterranean security. For over 200 years United States has been an economic, diplomatic, and security actor in the Mediterranean and the region was one of the most enduring areas of U.S. international engagement. The U.S. engagement in the area began with anti-piracy operations in North Africa in the early years of the 19th century and for over a century U.S. promoted the trade with the Ottoman Empire.

The Mediterranean has historically offered many opportunities to Washington to be involved in the area. In this sense, the Mediterranean background holds an extraordinary concentration of issues related to Washington: from terrorism in North Africa to Aegean stability, from energy security to the Middle East peace process. Focusing on the conduct of its diplomacy in the Middle East, after the 9/11, the United States centered its effort on counter-terrorism and defeating al-Qaeda. To accomplish this, the United States engaged in relationships of mutual support with several authoritarian dictators; the U.S. would receive information and suzerainty from Arab governments to conduct targeted missions against terrorists, offering in return  repressive regimes both military support and legitimacy. In the view of Cooper (2012), American aid and promotion for democracy did exist throughout the Arab world but such efforts were far subordinate to primary security interests in the region.

Like the rest of world, the Obama Administration was caught off guard by the Arab Spring. Immediately after the break up of uprisings, speaking at the State Department, President Obama claimed the wave of political change sweeping over the region and pledged that it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy. In combination with his 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he seemingly laid the groundwork for a new relationship between the United States and the Arab world, Obama raised expectations for a progressive approach toward democracy in the region. As Hashemi (2012) argues, in this sense President Obama was hailing the Egyptian revolution and praising the democratic aspirations of the Tahrir Square protesters as a manifestation of longstanding American principles and values.

Praise for the Arab Spring by the Obama Administration has been a consistent theme of his presidency since that moment. In the view of Hashemi (2012), this public statement by Obama in support of democracy in the Middle East, however, seems to ignore the longstanding U.S. policy where political stability was preferred over parliamentary democracy. Stability was a code word for support for authoritarian regimes that protected U.S. interests from hostile forces emerging from within and outside the region.

Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt are three illustrative examples of countries in which the U.S. approach has missed opportunities to contribute to the progress of democratic reform in the Middle East. In analysing the conduct of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, many critics would argue the following: the response to Tunisia and Egypt uprisings arrived too late, spurning freedom to support dictators in Yemen and Bahrain, conducting an intervention that was not in US strategic interests in Libya, and not taking a definitive stance with respect to Syria. However for all of those critics, the opposite could be argued. According to Cooper, the United States were pragmatic in their careful response to Tunisia and Egypt, placed vital strategic interests first in Yemen and Bahrain, prevented genocide and removed a ruthless dictator in Libya, but retained its freedom whether or not to intervene with respect to Syria.

The history teaches us that lack of regional leaders bears new conflicts and tensions. In this sense it should be interest of the USA to be present in the region in order to keep their status as a global power and to plan a strategy to prevent new extremist groups to gain power.  Even with the emergence of a new American approach in the region, the prospects for a deliberate Mediterranean policy emanating from Washington are remote. According to Lesser, the tradition of viewing Europe and the Middle East as distinct geopolitical spaces is too well entrenched, and there is little in the way of a Mediterranean consciousness to animate a trans-regional approach of this kind. In all likelihood, the US will continue to stand apart from the more explicit Mediterranean policies and partnerships pursued across the Atlantic.

Cooperation in the Mediterranean is likely to be a key test for the quality of US-EU partnership over the next few years. Nonetheless, conditions are favourable for greater attention to Mediterranean places and issues as part of American strategy in Europe and the Middle East, and as part of the transatlantic relationship. Indeed, the convergence of American and European interests looking South, and the fact that both the US and Europe can act with roughly equal effect around the region, could make cooperation on security and development in the Mediterranean a key near-term test of improved transatlantic relations. The changed relationships with France and Spain, a shared interest in South-South integration, the recasting of missile defence architecture southward and a strategic scene that is already highly multi-polar: all this suggests that the Mediterranean could be a leading theatre for new forms of US-EU cooperation in the coming years.

Giorgia P. Giorgi

Master’s degree in International Relations (Roma Tre University)


Cooper M. (2012) US Diplomatic Response to the Arab Spring, PA 383G: Policy Making in a Global Age, Spring 2012.

Hashemi N. (2012) The Arab Spring, U.S. Foreign Policy, And The Question Of Democracy In The Middle East, Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, 41(6), 31-46.

Lesser I. O. (2009) The United States And The Mediterranean: A New Strategic Context, University of Malta: Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. Retrieved from

Lesser I. O. (2015) The United States and the Future of Mediterranean Security: Reflections from GMF’s Mediterranean strategy Group, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Policy Brief April 2015.

Noland M. & Pack H. (2007) Arab economies in a changing world, Washington DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics.

White House (2011, May 2) Remarks by the president on the Middle East and North Africa, Press Release. Available at

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