Southern Atlanticism Revisited: What Scope for North-South Consensus?

January 26, 2023
19 min read
Photo credit: Gaël Gaborel /

This piece originally appeared as the lead chapter in Atlantic Currents, published by the Policy Center for the New South.

The idea of a wider approach to transatlantic relations, emphasizing the place of the southern Atlantic and the importance of North-South ties is not new. It is rooted in the long history of Atlantic affairs. In recent years the “Atlantic Basin” approach has enjoyed a renaissance, but the context for the intellectual debate and the policy implications have evolved substantially. Under current conditions, the logic of rethinking Atlantic geopolitics is no less compelling in a far more challenging strategic environment. This analysis explores this evolving Atlantic scene and the potential for, and obstacles to, a wider Atlantic approach.

Origins of an Idea

Over a decade ago, I wrote a short paper exploring the idea of “wider” Atlanticism1 .  From the vantage point of an institution aimed at strengthening transatlantic relations, I argued that the conventional understanding of relations across the Atlantic was too limited. There was no objective reason to consider the Atlantic as a space defined simply by connections in a North-North context, a continuum stretching from Washington to Berlin via Brussels and Paris. As important as these links might be, traditional approaches to transatlantic relations failed to define the place of the rest of the Atlantic. Atlantic Africa and Latin America, and the Caribbean, could and should be part of an expanded transatlantic conversation, alongside North America and Europe. Mental maps of the Atlantic could be reshaped to reflect a more inclusive set of Atlantic relationships. 

Seen from the North, there were very good strategic reasons to pursue this wider approach. First, two decades after the end of the Cold War, transatlantic relations, decoupled from animating security concerns, seemed to have lost energy. Transatlantic drift was a common worry. To be sure, there were serious concerns about terrorism, migration, and border security. But few if any of these challenges were truly existential. And on both sides of the Atlantic, each had a strong North-South aspect. Second, the growing prominence of China and developments in Asia in the global strategic calculus posed the important question of China’s role in the global South, including the southern Atlantic. The Atlantic and Indo-Pacific spaces were becoming more obviously intertwined, especially in the South. Third, and perhaps most significant, many of the drivers of change in the emerging strategic environment were emanating from the South. From the role of mega-cities to the place of charismatic religious movements in the public space, the global scene was being shaped by developments in the South. In security terms, the southern Atlantic was not defined in relation to state-to-state conflicts. But less-traditional challenges abounded, from political violence to widespread human insecurity, much of it connected to crime and trafficking. The effects of these threats were and are felt first and foremost in the South. But these phenomena also affect politics and security in the North. 

Finally, this was a time when new opportunities opened in the southern Atlantic, with promising implications, North and South. Key economies in Africa and Latin America were on the move at a time when financial instability was emanating from the North. South Africa and Nigeria appeared poised for substantial economic growth. Brazil and Mexico entered a period of rapid and apparently positive political change. New offshore energy resources were being developed in West Africa and Latin America, with the pre-salt reserves in Brazil holding special promise. Elsewhere, shale gas and oil seemed set to contribute to global shifts in the energy market. If the traditional transatlantic relationship seemed not to be “firing on all cylinders”, a wider conception of relations around the Atlantic offered an opportunity for reinvigoration, even as China, too, was playing a growing role in the southern Atlantic. The net effect was a surge in intellectual and policy initiatives aimed at furthering the notion of the wider Atlantic2 .

A New Strategic Context

The concept of southern Atlanticism and a wider, North-South approach to transatlantic relations remains highly relevant to policy on all sides of the Atlantic. But the strategic context for this framework has changed profoundly. The regional and international scene is more troubled from almost any perspective, political, economic, or security. Several developments are of special relevance to the notion of a wider Atlantic. 

In political terms, there has been a pronounced spread of populist, nationalist, and sovereignty-conscious movements. These have enjoyed political success—or near success—all around the Atlantic. The administrations of Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro were leading examples. Trump may or may not have passed from the American political scene, but Trumpism persists as a potent political movement. The October 2022 election victory of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil may show the limits of populist conservatism although, like Trump in 2020, Bolsonaro still managed to secure almost half the popular vote. The strong showing by Marine Le Pen in France, and the electoral success of a far-right coalition in Italy provide further evidence of the strength of such movements. On the left, too, a more nationalistic mood has taken hold, exemplified by the Lopez-Obrador government in Mexico. Brazil, too, under a second Lula administration could yet prove relatively inward-looking and sovereignty conscious. The pressure for less corrupt and more open governance has had mixed results at best in Nigeria and South Africa. The quest for political reform and more open societies seems to have stalled. Few conference organizers today would venture to put a session on “Atlantic Springs” on the agenda. The wider Atlantic is clearly experiencing social and political flux. The potential for North-South convergence around a more open and reformist tendency is far less clear.

The advent of the Biden administration has brought a strong Atlantic perspective back to American foreign policy. Even many of the senior officials charged with the management of policy in the Indo-Pacific have backgrounds in transatlantic relations. But worries persist in Europe and elsewhere about the durability of this respite from a more nationalistic and unilateral perspective. A wider concept of transatlantic relations presupposes an acceptance of the importance of these relations even in their traditional form. For political movements with a strong focus on security of identity and a narrow conception of national interest, southern Atlanticism is simply an exotic distraction. When the democratic order and peaceful transitions can no longer be taken for granted in the North, the North-South discourse around these questions will become even more complicated. 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an element in the equation. Some successful and many less successful approaches to the extraordinary challenge since the onset of the crisis in 2020 can be found in the North and the South. Without question, the crisis continues to underline the vast public health gap between North and South around the Atlantic basin. Globally, the COVID-19 experience has focused attention on the quality of governance. It has also led to a significant expansion of the role of the state and public finance. In meaningful and likely quite durable ways, the state is back as a leading actor in political economy, North and South. The global energy and food security crises have reinforced this. Food security is especially significant for traditionally large importers of Ukrainian and Russian foodstuffs and fertilizers. Along with the Middle East and North Africa, Atlantic Africa is exposed to the consequences for political stability of food insecurity.

The economic context has also changed profoundly. Thus far, many emerging markets in the Atlantic South have managed to weather the consequences of rising inflation, surging commodity prices, and a strong dollar. But there is widespread concern that a bigger crisis looms, including the risk of deep recession in North America and Europe, and the likely effects on growth elsewhere. Even prior to the stresses imposed by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the mood of optimism about growth in Africa and Latin America, prevalent a decade ago, had largely evaporated. Brazil has been a particular disappointment, but it is not the only one. To this gloomy outlook, one could add the prospect of much slower growth in China, and the likely negative effect on southern Atlantic exporters—and borrowers.

A More Conditional Atlantic?

These conditions, together with pressures for economic de-coupling from China, however unrealistic, and the related phenomenon of “friend-shoring”, point to the prospect of a more segmented and conditional ordering of the global economy. A world of globalization-by-invitation will threaten an already troubled environment for growth across the global South. Foreign and security policy alignment is set to become increasingly central to the political economy of North-South relations in the Atlantic. Unravelling established global value chains will impose costs. But the pressure for this will be substantial in a world of sharper geopolitical competition.

In the near term, the war in Ukraine and deepening confrontation between Russia and the West will focus policy attention on developments in the north and east of the Atlantic space. Even without considering more extreme scenarios of deliberate escalation, even nuclear use, there is a very real risk of incidents around the Baltic, the Black Sea, or even the Mediterranean or Africa, leading to a direct conflict between Russia and NATO. More worrying, this accumulating risk has been accompanied by the waning of long-standing arrangements aimed at preventing military incidents and controlling escalation. Indeed, the war in Ukraine has upended traditional ideas about deterrence per se. Strategists have spent decades debating deterrence of careful, rational actors as well as “crazy states”. Little if any consideration has been given to deterring apparently rational but ruthless actors. The consequences of a wider, direct conflict with Russia would clearly not be limited to the east and the north of the Atlantic space. 

Even short of apocalyptic scenarios, the east-south strategic nexus is likely to become more obvious over time. Russia is present in the Sahel and West Africa, Venezuela and Cuba. In several places around the southern Atlantic, the Russian military, and its mercenaries and proxies, are in contact with European and American forces. These could become flashpoints for direct Russian-Western conflict. Even if the war in Ukraine stabilizes and Russia and the West avoid more serious confrontation, their security competition is likely to prove durable, and may take other forms. The southern Atlantic could once again emerge as a theatre for proxy wars and political competition on the pattern of the Cold War. This time around, it could prove much more chaotic, with multiple protagonists like Iran and Turkey, alongside the United States, the EU, Russia, and China.

The Ukraine war is already central to North-South relations in the Atlantic. Washington and Brussels are keenly focused on building global consensus around a tough response to Russian aggression. Votes on relevant UN resolutions are one very visible measure3 .  Other measures are more practical and involve the application of economic sanctions, with the standing risk of secondary sanctions aimed at entities seen as facilitating Russian evasion of national and multilateral sanctions. For southern Atlantic countries with historical connections to Moscow, the war in Ukraine is forcing some uncomfortable choices. This is most obvious for states like Cuba and Venezuela that have had Russia as a direct patron. For others, Russia and Ukraine have been important trading partners. Some, North and South, have a certain nostalgic attachment to Russia on the left, and an eccentric attachment to Putin’s authoritarianism on the right. After a lapse of over thirty years, countries of the southern Atlantic must now contend with a strategic challenge that affects their political, economic, and security interests. 

With every prospect of a durable confrontation between Russia and the West, the wider Atlantic is exposed to the consequences of a new cold war, or more accurately, multiple cold wars with a standing risk of large-scale conflict. In some respects, this will be a more difficult backdrop for North-South relations than during the Cold War, with fewer rules and fewer constraints. It will be less permissive of casual attempts to play north Atlantic partners off against Russia and China. 

Beyond great power military and economic competition, there will be other sources of conditionality affecting the southern Atlantic and its engagement with the north. To the extent that international relations are increasingly framed as a competition between democracy and authoritarianism, this could introduce new measures of who and what constitutes a “likeminded” partner—a fashionable formulation in Washington and Brussels. It is perhaps just as likely that the intensity of the new strategic competition will compel a more pragmatic path for relations between North and South in the Atlantic. The tension between these two approaches will almost certainly be a key feature of Atlantic cooperation in the coming years4 .  It is a tension that is unlikely to be fully resolved, and political developments in the North may be an equally important variable. 

Conditionality will be a two-way street. Can a more assertive and geopolitical Europe fulfil this role in an Atlantic context without raising difficult questions about the past? If the reaction to the European Commission’s High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell’s October 2022 speech, which likened Europe to a “garden” facing the encroachment of an insecure and conflict-ridden “jungle”, is any indication, a more assertive Europe will not have an easy path in the Atlantic South5 That said, it is noteworthy that much of the critical comment in the wake of Borrell’s speech actually came from voices in the North. The controversial analogy has been a feature of the international policy debate for some years6 .  In light of the Ukraine war, southern observers may fairly ask whether they are not more exposed to risks emanating from the North than vice versa. The dangerous northern forest may be a more accurate image for the rise of an unruly and unstable order. The new and highly unsettled strategic environment will raise new questions about Atlantic history, including the dark periods of slavery and colonialism, when the southern Atlantic was a center of economic and geopolitical competition. When North and South assess the shifting balance of insecurity, much cultural and historical baggage will be revealed. 

Thinking Across Latitudes

The current strategic environment around the Atlantic basin is unstable and risk-prone, with a high-intensity conflict in the northern hemisphere7 .  Political and economic uncertainties abound and are affecting societies on all sides of the Atlantic basin. Beyond these elements, climate change and its myriad consequences pose a larger challenge, both immediate and very long-term. To what extent does this troubled Atlantic scene allow for partnership around the Atlantic space, north and south? What are the promising areas for consensus and cooperation? What are the likely limits?
Climate diplomacy and the energy transition are obvious—indeed unavoidable—areas for wider Atlantic attention. Debate rages on about whether the Ukraine war and its effect on energy markets have accelerated or retarded the shift away from hydrocarbons. Without question, energy-security concerns have led to a pronounced interest in new energy sources, both traditional and renewable. Much of this new potential is likely to be found in the South, including offshore oil and gas, hydrogen, and solar power. As important, many of the critical raw materials required for the energy transition will be sourced from Africa and Latin America. To be sure, these materials can also be found in significant amounts in the North. But the legal and political obstacles to their exploitation are substantial and unlikely to be overcome anytime soon.

This pattern of northern reliance on southern producers will pose growing ethical and developmental challenges. It is not necessarily a basis for wider Atlantic consensus, but it is an increasingly unavoidable area for policy discussion. Beyond this, societies on all side of the Ocean will grapple with the extraordinary challenge of global climate change and its diverse effects. Many of these effects will be felt first and foremost in the Atlantic South. Small coastal and island states will be particularly exposed. Their less-diversified economies and greater fragility increase their vulnerability to extreme weather and longer-term environmental degradation. The richer societies of North America and Europe, too, will be exposed to the migration pressures and insecurity flowing from climate-driven changes in the South. The advent of the Lula administration in Brazil, a climate-conscious Biden administration, and a commitment to green transition in Brussels, may offer a window for progress on climate diplomacy. Whether it is sufficient and durable is an open question.

Oceans policy and the sustainable development of the blue economy can be another driver of wider Atlantic cooperation. In contrast to the long sweep of Atlantic history, it is striking that the modern practice of transatlantic relations has paid relatively little attention to policy for the Atlantic Ocean itself. At the technical level, there has been no shortage of initiatives and legal regimes on fisheries, the development of offshore resources, and other issues. These have rarely reached the level of high politics and diplomacy. This could be set to change, driven by mounting environmental concerns and the opportunities offered by the sustainable development of maritime assets, from biotechnology to tourism8 .  

There will also be a local and regional security dimension to this interest. At the most basic level, the concerns will include maritime crime and corruption related to fisheries and offshore energy, and border control. Piracy will be part of this equation. The challenge of piracy off the Horn of Africa and in the Indo-Pacific has receded. But piracy and maritime crime in West Africa and Central America have become serious concerns. And as in the Horn, there is a close connection to problems of governance and development ashore, as well as the financing of terrorist movements. Networks for cooperation among Atlantic coast guards and others tasked with managing these risks are not sufficiently developed9 .  Capacity building in this sphere is among the most promising areas for wider Atlantic cooperation.

At the other end of the security spectrum, Atlantic partners will need to consider the potential for heightened maritime competition involving Russia, China, and the West. This could take the form of conventional naval competition, with the associated risks noted earlier in this analysis. More likely, it could involve disruptive cyber or physical attacks on maritime infrastructure. The density of submarine communication cables and energy-related facilities offers many points of potential vulnerability. This is a global issue, of course. But a significant portion of the most critical submarine infrastructure is concentrated in the Atlantic, and much future development is planned for the southern Atlantic. The protection of this infrastructure, including the provision of sufficient redundancy, should be a priority for public and private stakeholders. Assuring sufficient resilience in systems traditionally designed for efficiency and commercial viability will not be easy. 

Many issues on the new Atlantic agenda, not least the challenge of large-scale, durable geopolitical competition and global economic shifts, will occupy the attention of policymakers at the highest political level. Other concerns will engage, above all, the private sector and civil society. This will be of particular importance in the effort to build and assert Atlantic identity as an essential element in a wider Atlantic conversation. The conversation will naturally involve participants outside traditional diplomatic circles. It is also likely to have a geographic footprint beyond political capitals. Numerous cities already have a wider Atlantic vocation in terms of infrastructure, commerce, politics, and culture. The unofficial capitals on this new Atlantic map would include, inter alia, Miami, Casablanca, Dakar, Recife, and the Azores. In some cases—Miami is the outstanding example for the United States—local perspectives offer a distinctive approach to international policy, and exert an influence to be reckoned with in national policymaking. The attention paid by Washington to Latin America and the Caribbean may vary over time. From the perspective of Miami, sometimes described as the capital of Latin America, it is a constant element.

A Realistic Net Assessment

If today’s more troubled strategic environment offers substantial areas for North-South engagement and, ideally, partnership, it also suggests some major constraints. First, the current moment in international affairs is delicately poised between inward-looking nationalism and more open, multilateral approaches to global challenges. Without a considerable degree of reinvention, including the reform of leading international institutions—a subject well beyond the scope of this analysis—the prospects for a multilateral renaissance are uncertain at best. The outcome of this fundamental competition of approaches to international policy will have profound implications for the viability of wider Atlanticism. Nationalism and sovereignty-driven policies will make a wider Atlantic approach difficult, perhaps impossible. In theory, at least, more open economies and internationalist perspectives will offer more congenial conditions for new Atlantic partnerships.

Second, much will depend on the future evolution of national policy concerns, North and South. A profound economic crisis in the developed economies, or a dramatic escalation of the current war in Ukraine, would pose enormous distractions. Little diplomatic energy will remain for creative new approaches looking south. By contrast, a return to political and economic dynamism around the southern Atlantic will offer diplomatic and economic opportunities in North-South (and South-South) terms. As an example, the recent election result in Brazil could pave the way for a revived EU-Mercosur trade agreement. Wider Atlantic societies are joint stakeholders in a range of critical global challenges, but the scope for consensus and cooperation around these will depend critically on internal conditions. The significance of this point is underscored by the fact that so many issues in a North-South context cut across traditional domestic and international policy lines. They are inherently “inter-mestic” in nature10

Finally, consensus and conditionality will have limits. The Ukraine war has shown the difficulty of achieving alignment in terms of strategy toward Russia. Ethical and legal perspectives toward Russian aggression are widely shared across latitudes in the Atlantic. But quite apart from differences based on political and commercial equities, there is an evident reluctance among some key states in the Atlantic South to adopt a more confrontational stance toward Moscow, however brutal its behavior. This desire for diplomatic distance from a dangerous conflict in the North will not be easy to reconcile with a continuing American and European commitment to Russia’s isolation. Some of the same considerations will apply in relations with China. More broadly, many in the global South, including the southern Atlantic, resist the idea of an emerging structural competition between democracy and autocracy. This raises a final, important question: must wider Atlantic partners agree on these larger ideological issues? This analysis suggests that a broader consensus of this kind, however desirable, is unlikely. The new and more risk-prone strategic environment offers considerable scope for cooperation over critical questions of economics, security, and the global environment, even short of full political alignment. More creative thinking across latitudes can still pay dividends for Atlantic stakeholders.

  • 1Ian O. Lesser, Southern Atlanticism: Geopolitics and Strategy for the Other Half of the Atlantic Rim (Washington: The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2010).
  • 2Official initiatives included the conference and “Skhirat Plea” led by Morocco in 2009, the European Commission (BEPA) project consortium on the Atlantic Geopolitical Space of 2011, and projects launched by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in partnership with the OCP Policy Center (subsequently the Policy Center for the New South), notably the Atlantic Dialogues, now in its 11th edition.  A recent US-led initiative was the joint statement on Atlantic cooperation, with a growing list of signatories from around the Atlantic basin, issued on September 20, 2022. See Joint Statement on Atlantic Cooperation - United States Department of State.
  • 3Notably, the March 2, 2022, resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and successive resolutions in September and October 2022 criticizing the illegitimate referenda in occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. 
  • 4The long-delayed ratification of an EU-Mercosur trade deal is another example, with concerns over democracy and environmental policy in Brazil as the latest obstacle. The outcome of the 2022 Brazilian election will have a critical influence on the outlook for progress on this front. See Andy Bounds and Michael Stott, “Mercosur Pact: EU Fears Losing Influence in Latin America as Trade Deal Falters, Financial Times, September 24, 2022.
  • 5
  • 6See Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World (New York: Knopf, 2018). 
  • 7For a thoughtful discussion of these issues, see Youssef Tobi, “The New Security Dynamics in the Atlantic Basin: A Way Forward for a Pan-Atlantic Approach.” Policy Center for the New South, October 6, 2022. 
  • 8See the Joint Statement on Atlantic Cooperation, cited earlier.
  • 9A 2019 meeting of GMF’s Atlantic Strategy Group, organized in cooperation with the Policy Center for the New South and the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD), held in Miami, brought together coastguard officials, among others, from around the Atlantic basin. Many, including participants from West Africa and the Caribbean had never met.
  • 10This term was applied very effectively by Abraham Lowenthal in his work on hemispheric and Pacific rim issues at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.