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In an age of profound political and climate change, might transoceanic power soon shift to the Global ...
2018-08-17 00:00:00

The Transatlantic Is Losing Steam
The Shifting Geopolitics of Atlantic Waters

Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, seen from the International Space Station. Source: NASA
The Transatlantic Is Losing Steam
The Transatlantic Is Losing Steam

Over the course of centuries, the Atlantic Ocean was the main platform for the slave trade. Today, it dictates economic relationships between Europe and the US. Is this oceanic order coming to an end?

Read in 21 minutes

Let’s begin with stating the facts: the Atlantic Ocean will disappear. Europe and North America will merge into a single supercontinent. Yes, it won’t happen for another 200 million years, but the idea stirs the imagination just the same. Especially if we consider the sheer amount of effort and violence engrained in the history of European-American-African transatlantic relationships, remarkably tightly-knit despite the actual geographical distance. The Atlantic was, historically, the most crowded of all oceans, covered with the thickest net of marine connections between important destinations in the North – such as Liverpool, Sevilla, Charleston or Boston – but also connecting those less obvious southern ports, such as Salvador and Recife in today’s Brazil, Cartagena in Colombia, and Kingston in Jamaica.

The idea that one day, this aquatic barrier will vanish, raises a question: is it possible for these two worlds, the Old and the New, to coexist? So far, the transatlantic relationships between those four continents – Europe, Africa, and the two Americas – have been dominated by narratives of rivalry, forced migration, violence, cruelty, and differences that proved to have more impact than any similarities. It’s worth starting to exercise our similarities though, because the continents are already getting closer.

According to National Geographic reports, scientists have found the first signs of subduction (which is the process of consumption of one continent by another) 200 kilometres off the shores of Spain and Portugal. Subduction occurs when one tectonic plate starts sinking under the other. It is possible then that the Earth is slowly returning to its original shape; to back when all land was merged into one continent. And metaphorical interpretations aside – what a spectacular finale to centuries of progressive globalization, all continents turning into one global land village! – this would require the Atlantic Ocean to shrink and, quite literally, suck the New World in to connect it with the Old Continent. The new border between these two lands would be marked by a brand new mountain range, likely as high as the Himalayas. The southern part of the Atlantic Ocean would become its new sea.

Let’s allow this vision of an enormous geographical refurbishment prompt us even further. Let’s imagine a completely new order of international relationships. An order in which the Atlantic Ocean – for the past 200 years, the most important water body in the world – vanishes from the geopolitical map and loses its previous role. For the last seven decades, it was exclusively controlled by the global superpower with its capital in Washington, D.C. Now, once the land masses have connected, it might soon become marginalized by the Indian Ocean and the new superpower setup, say, with China at its centre. Let’s imagine that while disappearing, the Atlantic Ocean takes with it all its brutal history of war, wiping out other cultures, slavery and human trafficking. Could the lands that used to mark its four corners now become closer, unite in their values and goals, creating something of an oceanic alliance, similar to the futuristic concept conjured by the American political scientist Robert D. Kaplan? Could those waters, which for hundreds of years were an arena of abuse and discrimination, now become the local sea of one supercontinent of cooperation?

From the perspective of millions of years – more than our imagination can process – these questions are irrelevant. However, there are closer prognoses, also based on scientific research, forcing us to seriously consider a scenario in which close cooperation will be our best shot for survival. We have reached a turning point of our own story.

For centuries, humans have wandered between continents, experiencing instant progress and adaptation, as well as the growing conviction of their own importance. The first journeys made from Africa to Europe and to both Americas were impressive feats (and we still don’t know how our ancestors managed to achieve it – even the hypothesis of humans crossing the frozen Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska was questioned recently). These journeys were the first act of defying land borders; they planted the first seeds of our desire to conquer the world. They were the evolutionary prelude to further political and economic invasions.

Only in 2019 we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first transatlantic flight (the vehicle flew from St John’s, Newfoundland to Ireland). Ten decades later, geographic barriers no longer matter. We cross them routinely, quickly and unfazed. We have shrunk the enormous ocean to a several-hours-long flight in a commercial jet. Its waters no longer intimidate us, they no longer impress. We pollute them with cruises, taken for sport and leisure rather than mercantile necessity. We blankly acknowledge the diminishing fish population in the Atlantic Ocean and the ever-growing floating islands of plastic debris. However, now everything could take a turn in a very different direction. Nature is clearly done putting up with our Anthropocene excesses. It’s finally taking over the reins, hitting us with many different disasters. In just the past few years, we’ve been through an earthquake in Haiti, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, disruptive winter snow storms that have paralysed the East Coast, and wildfires burning across the dried-out state of California.

Changes in (political) climate

Climate disasters are painfully experienced in the most developed areas, including Europe and the US (let’s note the irony) – homes of numerous generously-funded centres for scientific research, committed to the precise measurement of gradual progress of this ecological self-annihilation. The Atlantic Ocean and its rising water levels are measured with particular vigilance. As almost every schoolchild knows, these levels are rising and threatening the very existence of numerous places and cities, without which we can hardly imagine the next October, not to mention the next millennia. Some of those places have left their mark on the collective imagination, such as Miami or Los Angeles. Others, to mention just New York or Washington D.C., are essential for keeping the existing international order in place.

Even though scientists have known about these dangers for the past 100 years or so, it was extremely hard for them to get the facts heard by the official bodies. Only two years ago, the US was governed by a president who became the first superpower leader not only to acknowledge the importance and size of climate change, but who also was ready to introduce appropriate legislation to prevent it. However, the political climate has changed radically. Right now, the Oval Office is occupied by a man who, shortly after becoming president, signed the decision allowing construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, connecting Alberta, Canada with Texas. He has also opened up the gateway for oil drilling in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions.

Only two years ago, the world believed it was led by a conscious, progressive and predictable administration of the United States of America. Back then, the Atlantic Ocean remained a calm and stabilizing influence on the political ecosystem. Thanks to the overwhelming presence of American vessels and being guarded by an enormous military base in Norfolk, the whole region was controlled and safe from any military upheavals. This season has brought some significant changes. The eyes of the leaders and citizens in many countries are turning towards Beijing and the calmer waters of the Indian Ocean. Key changes are on the horizon. Not only are our geophysical maps are changing (when oceans drown one place, artificial islands and peninsulas are created elsewhere), but on top of that, we are forced to quickly learn the new political interpretation.

The sheer scale of these changes – both political and climatic – is visible to anyone who cares to look, and it can be seen with the naked eye. Scientists are admitting that the speed and violence with which the environment is changing seems shocking to them. Typhoons, temperature ranges and sea currents leap off scales carefully established over many years. On the other hand, the iconic phrase ‘made in China’ is no longer ironically associated with cheap trash. Chinese companies are building harbours and roads everywhere from Sri Lanka to Brazil, and its brands are starting to dominate in world trade. The most successful Polish footballer, Robert Lewandowski, could recently be seen advertising a Chinese smartphone in a worldwide campaign reaching from London to Mumbai via Seoul. The decomposition of our globe as we have known it since the Cold War is going hand-in-hand with the gradual destruction of nature. It’s hard not to notice the symbolic connection between the end of an order controlled by obsessive consumption, and the attacks of infuriated nature.

Research carried out by scientists working together over the Atlantic – from Pennsylvania to Finland – shows us that in 12 years, at least 20 million American citizens will experience the consequences of rising water levels firsthand. How? They will be forced to move away, they will lose their job or connections with their loved ones, they will become poorer, they will suffer from intense atmospheric events and the collapse of infrastructure, not to mention rapidly diminishing social trust… They will, quite literally, lose the ground under their feet. Losing our life as we know it will be one of the most painful consequences of climate change. Our life will become centred around survival strategies and the constant search for safety. The ‘drowning of America’ – a country so focused on building the world’s prosperity – is now a growing shadow on the horizon. It means more than just the fall of universal McDonaldization. It also marks the end of the belief that us humans can do anything we like, for nothing will ever threaten our lifestyle, however ludicrous we might choose it to be.

The shrinkage of American influence over other continents (and this tendency is not only Trump’s fault – many analysts predicted it by the end of the 20th century already) is often described in a threatening way. The press is trying to frighten us with the spectre of the ‘Chinese Dragon’ taking over. Another option is the rivalry of several dubious actors (including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) trying to replace the dominance of a single superpower with a jigsaw of shifting influences. It’s quite realistic to expect the growing absence of the US, this international ‘commander-in-chief’, always ready to raid Serbia or Syria in the name of higher moral grounds. Unfortunately, this symbolic leadership was corroded by the same forces that made it possible in the first place. The final score remains dubious. The US has done too little to genuinely protect human rights and popularize democracy in the world. To mention only South America, war-destroyed Iraq or numerous African nations, it has made tributaries to Western aid systems, supervised by the World Bank and the United Nations.

Black mirror

Let’s not despair. The likely ending of the Atlantic era brings the chance for redemption, just like any other crisis. Unlike the Indian Ocean – an early example of the global cultural-economic exchange for many active centres of civilization – the Atlantic is burdened with the most barbaric and violent past of all large water bodies. It was the main platform for the slave trade, whose victims are counted in tens of millions. The Atlantic Ocean also made it possible to establish the key institutions of colonial capitalism: plantations and factory trading posts. Slave ships became international trade areas where both people and exotic goods were sold. Buyers and merchants would meet on the decks to haggle over slaves and goods. The Atlantic waters brought new inhabitants to both Americas. Those people, chained and suffocating under the ship decks, were meant to replace the indigenous populations murdered by white Europeans. African people, forced to work for their oppressors in camps and on plantations, still suffer discrimination today. It was the Atlantic Ocean that carried ships with the first global goods – such as sugar, molasses, tobacco and cotton – laying the foundations of a new, changed relationship between humans and the world. It was the first step towards mass farming, creating enormous areas of monoculture farming, disrupting large ecosystems, and making large economies (such as Brazil) fully dependent on just a few products. The Atlantic Ocean (whose borders also include the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Sea) is the cradle of Western civilization, but also its darkest mirror. Its waters gave birth to the first philosophical ideas and the very concept of citizenship, but they also reflect our greed and viciousness towards others. The ships sailing from Belgium and Britain to the African heart of darkness carried both the creators and victims of the first concentration camps in human history.

It’s not my intention to create a grim mythology of the Atlantic Ocean, but it is impossible to overlook the brutal history on which its global importance was established. In that sense, the Atlantic is a sea of tears. Asian oceans (both the Indian and partially also the Pacific) were spaces for connections, complex nets of trading and cultural relationships aimed at more balanced coexistence. This model – of many-sided exchanges and dynamic influences, where various centres of power simultaneously grew strong and diminished – seems much more suited to our current and near-future reality than a static order with one unequalled leader. The United Nations system (created by the US as an international response to problems too large to be handled by a single country) has morphed into a sluggish machine, overflowing with bureaucracy; unable to complete its tasks adequately to their intensity and complexity. The humanitarian aid industry – the flagship product of Western ethical responsibility – has been widely criticized since the last turn of the century (in such books as The Crisis Caravan by Linda Polman or The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free by Alex Perry, to name just a few). Tragic conflicts in Syria or Yemen, as well as the earthquake in Nepal, have proved how inefficient the United Nations are in the face of complex situations that require smaller-scale, immediate actions, omitting the stumbling blocks of government negotiations.

Perhaps instead of lamenting over this political reshuffle and using it for fear-mongering, we should see it as a consequence of a previous order, centred around catering to Western needs and wrapped neatly in a pretense of moral righteousness. This entailed the investments and loans made and taken in exchange for setting up a democratic facade (like in African countries), or conversely, the right to invade other nations in the name of freedom, as was done in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The Atlantic Ocean is also an ode to freedom bought with violence and to the forceful transfer of European concepts to the ‘Wild West’; to alleged no-man’s lands. This ode contains some verses that are simply untrue, such as the one about the ‘discovery’ of the New World, ignoring the presence of wondrous cultures and power structures that existed there for thousands of years prior. The Atlantic was a moving stage for Europeans to export their expansive dreams of grandeur, but also a backdrop for the birth and immediate growth of North American domination. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the US and many South American nations were the testing ground for new revolutionary ideas, and for redefining the concepts of independence and civil rights. Those changes echoed in Europe, still stuck in its regal costumes, forcing it to move forward, as if in parallel to its transatlantic counterparts.

Another important factor playing in to the transoceanic imbalance is the debt-based relationship between Europe and the US. It is more than just the trade exchange between, say, the European Union and the US (the latter being the largest buyer of European exports). There is also another debt, much more difficult to pay back: it was the entry of American troops that changed the course of World War II. And soon after, the US introduced the Marshall Plan, bringing much-needed aid to the war-wrecked Old Continent, but also cementing American influence in Europe for decades to come.

For those reasons, the Atlantic Ocean seems today an ‘old-type ocean’. It best illustrates the unjust, skewed power structure. South America and Africa, propping it up from the bottom, represent the abused Global South. Europe, Canada and the US, situated near the top, represent the overwhelmingly privileged Global North. 12 years from now, over two-thirds of all global wealth will be owned by one percent of the population. Most of those people will be living over the northern shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Titanic of the 21st century

It seems that the ‘crisis of European values’ is, in fact, the invisible factor behind the weakening of the whole Atlantic region, and not a crisis caused by the economic progress made by China or India. The West is out of breath; it has lost faith in its own cause. This, of course, happened because new players have entered the game: demographically young Asia, and the economically expansive Middle and Far East. Another factor was thousands of so-called ‘Third World’ refugees arriving at European borders. Even though the ‘Third World’ is no longer so openly despised, its suddenly increased presence has stirred old fears and disagreements, reaffirming nationalist tendencies and faith in strong physical borders. The weakness of the transatlantic community could be measured with an almost palpable deficit of the future – instead of looking ahead, we’re reliving a return to 19th- or 20th-century politics. Donald Trump wants protectionism, and the United Kingdom is preparing – ineptly, but without looking back – to once again isolate its isles from continental Europe. The Atlantic region seems to be the 21st century’s Titanic: a costly colossus, sinking slowly but surely, its decks heavy with social and economic injustices.

Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean is occupied by many smaller players. They are all led by China, but still not as certainly and unequivocally as the US in our part of the world. What would happen if we started perceiving this region not as an exotic, negative formula of the past, but as an inspiring example of good practices?

Thinking of the Atlantic, we see little more than its northernmost part, covered by the Euro-American relationship. The term ‘South Atlantic’ is virtually absent from the geopolitical prognoses and analyses of global market exchanges. Yet those shores are occupied by countries and nations with high economic and demographic potential. Take Brazil, with its strongly developing industrial region Minas Gerais. Or Angola, whose capital Luanda is currently the most expensive African capital to live in. Nigeria is brimming with immigrants, its fast-growing capital megacity Lagos quickly becoming the heart of an urbanized area that is eventually going to cover the whole Gulf of Guinea. The Republic of South Africa, with Cape Town and trade deals spreading over the whole Southern Hemisphere, from Australia to Chile. These harbours, connecting cargo and merchant ships, are full of potential. They are home to the untested scenario of creating a new, balanced exchange, not only between the East and the West, but also between the South and the North. The North Atlantic is stuck in an outdated model of sourcing goods from the South. The North, trying to sustain the status quo, is not testing the possibilities for development in that region, nor is it making much effort to secure a shared future.

This could be due to its horrendous past. Even now, when googling businesses in the South Atlantic, we mostly find information on the slave trade – the mercantile triangle started in Europe and led to Africa, where material goods were exchanged for slaves. Those people were then shipped to the Caribbean, Brazil and the US, where they would manufacture goods to be sent back to Europe. Perhaps due to this hellish closed circulation, the waters of the South Atlantic are still strangely absent, almost forbidden in talks on the new world order.

To revive the northern side of the Atlantic, we would need to remodel our imagination. Remorse and public spectacles of guilt won’t change a thing, neither will political correctness. It’s not enough for European tourists to parade their bad conscience on Costa Rica’s beaches, occasionally shopping in fair trade stores and paying for old sins with investments built as an extension of postcolonial entanglement. We need the change of wind; a conscious and tender look on the forgotten shores. The Chinese – with no scruples, no comparable historical burdens, and no moral offset – have already brought their investments to the southern shores of the Atlantic Ocean. They can be found in Brazil, Peru, and in almost all of Africa. For them, every land is a new land, which means that soon, every bit of land will have something to thank them for.

Wake up!

For us, Westerners, the most important current objective is to protect our own corner. Mentally squeezed into the northwestern nook of the world, we keep repeating the mantra about out economic supremacy (which is still evident). Perhaps the most important power holding us back from redefining our role in the new world order is envy? The West is unable to give up its role of a powerful owner who makes all the rules. It’s so busy looking after its dusty laces it didn’t even notice new players joining the game. The luxurious districts of London, the former capital of the greatest empire on the face of Earth, are now bought out by investors from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and China. In the evenings, they wander around Knightsbridge, wafts of agar tree perfume drifting in the air from Harrods all the way to Hyde Park.

All falling empires deal with their diminishing power in similar ways: by compensating the loss of their actual power with mythologies of grandeur. The case of the Atlantic Ocean is the same, yet different. We have already become openly hysterical, giving a platform to populists promising to bring their nations back to greatness. And yet, we still have some more tricks up our sleeves. The world order established after World War II is not crumbling. Rather, it keeps coming back, like a bad dream. In Syria, the war is fought between the symbolic West and East, mapped out in a different way, but using similar arguments. One side is firing dictatorship bullets, the other uses weapons branded with human rights. Nothing new. This colonial order is much older than the Cold War one. It took shape on the Atlantic waters that were supposed to carry Christopher Columbus to India. It didn’t sink with the Titanic; it’s still effectively mapping out the vectors of power.

The Atlantic community has never stopped perceiving other regions as their business territories. It only starts treating them as its equal when forced to do so by actual shifts in geopolitical power structures. This is not to say that the Chinese are offering us a more balanced, better treatment. Right now, it’s uncertain whether Beijing will manage to establish a new hegemonic order similar to the American one, although it’s possible to observe the first signs of such domination in China’s relationships with India, the Philippines or various Western African countries. It also seems obvious that President Xi Jinping is learning to present himself as a global leader at international forums such as Davos. However, this awakening of new ambitions is not only happening in China.

We are being shaken out of our Euro-Atlantic dream by many competitors – some of them far from obvious: Vietnam, Turkey, South Korea – but none of them wants to take full power, or take on the role of leader. They prefer a safe nibble here and there. This leads to decomposition, and our vision of the world becomes just more complicated.

And so we’re back to the atmospheric phenomena. Our planet’s ecosystem was disturbed by human activity. An uneven concentration of goods and progressing urbanization are fueled by mass migrations and by wasteful lifestyles reduced to the excessive consumption of energy and resources. This model has been propagated by the North Atlantic region out to the whole world, and is currently observed everywhere from Shanghai to Lima. The process scientists call intensification and synchronicity of climate changes is also taking place in politics. It’s impossible to predict where the next typhoon will come from and how strong it may be. It’s getting increasingly difficult to think ahead.

The symmetry of these painful phenomena is very interesting. Even though the negative consequences of climate change will deal the strongest blow to the Global South – that is, to the same people who already are suffering from poverty and starvation – once the Earth falls off its axis, nobody is safe, not even the richest. Hollywood superstars watch their villas burn in uncontrolable wildfires. In wealthy Canada, governed by an Instagram-trending prime minister, nature is dying, poisoned by oil extractions in bituminous sands. In supposedly mature democracies – of the British, French and American variety – polls are dominated by shouting populists whose language and behaviour are similar to those of their counterparts from India or the Philippines. The lasting export of Western direct democracy seems to have failed even in Central Europe, including Poland. While Netflix is airing sparkling TV series such as The Crown, royal Great Britain is struggling with growing food bank queues. The ‘American dream’ is filled with people dying from obesity caused by junk food. And it is no coincidence that one of the most popular books in the U.S. right now is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Nature, geopolitics and the economy of the Atlantic Ocean have, surprisingly, a lot in common. They can be read as one consistent hypertext, giving us a thrice-confirmed prognosis: let’s move on to a different future. The gilded past is never coming back.


Translated by Aga Zano

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.