The Return of the Atlantic

The Atlantic area will remain economically powerful and serve as an organizing force in global geopolitics.

A person holds a globe (Flickr/Charamelody)
A person holds a globe
A person holds a globe (Flickr/Charamelody)

For nearly five hundred years, the Atlantic Ocean was the unrivaled center of the international system, connecting Europe to its expansive economic and colonial networks in Africa, Asia and the Americas. As recently as the late 1980s, the value of transatlantic trade exceeded that of commerce across the Pacific while the Atlantic alliance against the Soviet Union was the world’s most important geopolitical partnership. Until the mid-1990s, all ten of the world’s largest economies except Japan were Atlantic nations. And just a little over a century before that — before the emergence of the Japanese, Central European and Californian economies in the 1870s — the coastlands of the Atlantic had dominated the global economy and political system like never before.

Today, by contrast, the European Union and United States each import more goods from China than they do from one another and the Atlantic military alliance has become less important since the Cold War ended 25 years ago.

The Pacific Ocean is now the home of the world’s three largest economies, the highway for East Asian imports of commodities and exports of manufactured goods and the base for nearly 75 percent of American soldiers stationed outside Afghanistan and the continental United States. It has in many ways become the new center of the world.

Many economists and political scientists believe that continued economic growth in populous Asian countries like China, India and Indonesia means that the centrality of the Pacific has only just begun. Many politicians agree. In 2011, Hillary Clinton, then America’s secretary of state, argued her country was entering a “Pacific century.” Yet it may turn out that the Atlantic will actually return to the center of international commerce and serve as the organizing force of global geopolitics.

Transatlantic connections

Atlantic regions share a number of important affiliations with one another. The first is cultural. Unlike in Asia, the overwhelming majority of the populations of both North and South America are of either African or European heritage. Most have ancestors that arrived within just the past century or two. This could have increasingly powerful economic and political consequences in the future, particularly as the economies of West Africa develop and as the black and mixed populations of the Americas become wealthier.

The second transatlantic connection is a social one, the result of technology increasingly allowing first-, second- and even third-generation immigrants in the developed world to maintain relationships with family and friends back in their countries of origin. Crucially, immigrants in North America and Europe come overwhelmingly from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean. More than half of the foreign-born population of the United States arrived from Latin America alone while there are about four times as many first-generation immigrants in the European Union from Africa and the Americas as there are from East Asia.

Indeed, between two to three million Latino-Americans live in Spain today and more than fifty million reside in the United States. Meanwhile, Africa’s emigration rate to both Europe and North America has risen at a faster pace than that of any other region since 1980. This emigration is likely to continue, given that the average birthrate in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly twice as high, and the per capita income nearly twice as low, as in any other part of the world.

Finally, there is language. Over 80 percent of the world’s nearly 1.5 billion native speakers of Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish live in the Atlantic or Mediterranean basins. Each of these languages is fairly prominent within at least three separate continents. English, moreover, is more widespread in continental Europe than in any other continent apart from Australia and North America. Austria, Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and Switzerland are particularly proficient: between 60 and 90 percent of their inhabitants are able to speak English. In France, Italy and Poland, the share of English speakers is estimated at 30 to 40 percent — which is still far ahead of countries like China, Japan, Indonesia and even India.

In Africa, European languages are also spoken more widely than in most other parts of the world. This is partially the result of the continent’s colonial history but also because Sub-Saharan countries tend to be linguistically diverse, so the use of a European lingua franca remains common practice.

Indeed, despite having by far the world’s lowest density of accessible schools, televisions, computers and satellite dishes, English is already spoken by a greater number Africans than Indians, both as a native language and as a secondary one. Because Sub-Saharan Africa’s populations are so young, their ability to learn foreign languages remains far greater than those of any other part of the world. Over 85 percent of Africa’s English-speaking population lives close to the Atlantic or Mediterranean coast, as do nearly all of the tens of millions of Africans who are able to speak Arabic, French or Portuguese.

Shifting trade patterns

In 2013, China’s coastal cities had an average nominal per capita income of roughly $20,000, nearly as high as those of South Korea and Taiwan. The median age in China is 37, about the same as in the United States. In South Korea and Taiwan, the median age is forty. These are no longer really “emerging markets,” in other words. Rather than experience another lengthy period of rapid economic growth that would continue to drive up transpacific trade, they will instead be undergoing various structural evolutions, as all maturing economies tend to do over time.

In the coastal areas of China, this evolution is likely to be from an economy oriented around state-driven investment and exports of lower-end manufactured goods to an economy that exports value-added goods and services and is more reliant on the private consumption of its own citizens. Such shifts are natural for a middle-income country like China but they may also reduce the quantity of China’s transpacific trade in industrial commodities and manufactured goods.

Meanwhile, economic growth in the interior provinces of China, and in the even poorer Indian subcontinent, is not certain to bring about the continued rise of transpacific commerce either. The emerging Chinese interior is likely to trade mainly with coastal China and other countries in Asia rather than with economies overseas. International exports currently account for just 4 percent of economic output in China’s largest interior provinces of Henan and Sichuan, for example, in contrast to 47 percent in Guangdong and Jiangsu, two of coastal China’s largest provinces. Given the crowdedness of China’s coastal cities and ports, the interior provinces may even try to avoid the Pacific altogether in favor of a more direct “Silk Road” connection with Europe or by using the Irrawaddy River to access the Indian Ocean directly.

The economic emergence of the Indian subcontinent could also benefit Atlantic trade more than the Pacific, since India and its neighbors are likely to take over some of the lower-end manufacturing China now does for the West.

As India’s imports of natural resources from the Persian Gulf and East Africa grow, China may be forced to look more toward Central Asia, rather than toward its current Pacific trade routes, to meet its own import requirements. India and Pakistan already receive around 75 percent of their oil and gas imports from the Persian Gulf and China’s interior provinces get a similar share of their gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well as a third of their oil imports from Russia and Kazakhstan. As China and India continue to grow, these imports are likely to increase. Given that Europe currently gets some 60 percent of its oil and gas from Central Asia, Russia and the Persian Gulf, this could force European economies to import more energy from the Americas and Africa instead.

Altogether, the economies and trade volumes of Asia will continue to grow. But future growth is more likely to be concentrated in the Indian Ocean basin and the interior provinces of China rather than along the Pacific coast. Economic relationships between Africa, the Americas and Europe, meanwhile, are likely to expand — to a lesser extent even with India. The Atlantic may be poised for a comeback.

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