The Revenge of Geography; Can Morocco ignore the geography surrounding it in its foreign policy?

The Revenge of Geography; Can Morocco ignore the geography surrounding it in its foreign policy?

August 15, 2018


Since the mid-nineties of the last century, Morocco has sought to achieve a distinct regional position in North Africa in particular and the African continent in general at the expense of its neighbor Algeria. This has been clear by the regional and global alliances which Morocco is constructing away from Algeria and often in her disadvantage. It is enough to mention here, Morocco's growing economic relations with the GCC countries and Morocco's urgent desire to join this geographically distant council instead of activating the mechanisms of integration in its regional neighborhood, the frozen Maghreb Union, as well as its participation with some Gulf states in its war on the "terrorism" in Yemen (Decisive Storm Operation), in addition to some of its diplomatic positions from the Middle East crises, moreover, Morocco enjoys normal diplomatic relations with "Israel" which Algeria refuses to recognize it at all. All of these foreign behaviors are an attempt to gain an advantage over its neighbor Algeria (which refuses to involve in the Middle East affairs), and a distinct regional status in the African continent in general and in North Africa region in particular.

In this article, we argue that it is impossible for Morocco to attain any regional or global status or influence in its regional sphere if it continues to ignore the geography surrounding it, and even its hostility and challenge for this geography in many cases. The geography here is -of course- Algeria, because of its geopolitical advantage over Morocco. Therefore, Morocco has no choice but to strengthen its relations with Algeria and to zero its outstanding problems with it, especially the issue of Western Sahara. Otherwise, it will find itself isolated politically and besieged geopolitically, deprived of any ambition.

The Revenge of Geography?

In 2013, American professor Robert Kaplan wrote his famous book, "The Revenge of Geography, What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate". In this book, Kaplan attempts to show the continued importance of the geographical factor in shaping and guiding the behaviors of States and thus in determining the course of existing international interactions despite the dramatic changes in the international system since the end of the Cold War, even so many researchers talked about "the death of geography" and the end of the geopolitics era. So, we can here understand exactly what Kaplan is referring to in his interesting phrase, "The Revenge of Geography". He argued that the factor of geography has once again proved its importance in determining the fate of nations and that the nations which ignored this factor during designing its foreign policies or constructing its regional and global relations network have paid a big price, and this is the meaning of the revenge of geography. To illustrate this idea, Kaplan has given many examples in this book, most notably the so-called "American War on Terrorism" since the September 11 events when the United States occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, the neo-conservatives thought that the huge military power and supernatural military technology possessed by the United States would enable it to overthrow the Taliban regime easily, then Saddam's regime in Iraq, followed by the "rogue regimes" in Iran and Syria and all rogue states successively, without loss of one American soldier, thanks to fighter aircraft equipped with the latest technologies and the Intercontinental ballistic missiles or the so-called the theory of "zero soldier" of the American military officer Andrew Krepinivich, applied by the US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Iraq in particular. However, the result was very shocking, the first superpower in the world lost the two Afghanistan and Iraq wars because of the Tora Bora Mountains, and the difficult terrain of Iraq and its hot climate which defeated the American soldier who was equipped by the latest military technologies. The US material and human losses were very high, (More than Three Trillion dollars, according to Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes in their famous book: the war of the three trillion).[1] Another example of how geography contributes to guiding the country's foreign policy and defining its security requirements is that of the United States itself. In his view, this country is "blessed by the grace of geography", The United States was far from the battlefields of Europe (From the Westphalian state into the First and Second World Wars), surrounded by weak neighbors, on the north Canada, on the south Mexico, on the East fish, on the West fish also (in reference to the Atlantic and the Pacific, which play the role of a strong fortified fortress), which enabled the United States to build a strong state immune from the threats of enemies, and looks to the overseas vital spheres in its foreign policy. There are other countries that have been helped by geography to be superpowers such as China and Great Britain. Others have been cursed by geography which has caused its marginalization, such as Brazil, the geographically isolated state in the farthest corners of the world, many African countries with its "unfriendly forests to civilization" and Nazi Germany which was surrounded by "a sea of enemies". So, what about Morocco?

Regional dilemma

First of all, it is necessary to mention the nature of the regional environment in which Morocco is currently located. It is North Africa region with its high-security troubles, and a clear rivalry between its most important actors, Algeria and Morocco. Morocco has a troubled relationship with its neighbor, Algeria, for two reasons; The first one is because of Morocco's attack on the Tindouf region of western Algeria in 1963, with the aim of annexing it, that is, after the independence of Algeria directly (When Algeria was healing its wounds from colonialism) leading to a war between the two countries which called "The Sands War". This dangerous precedent has drawn in the minds of Algerian decision-makers a sense of constant threat from a country with expansionist ambitions at the expense of its neighbors. Since then, Algeria has taken a cautious stance towards Morocco and the most important, has taken a proactive geopolitical procedure through making Morocco preoccupated with another issue on its borders: Western Sahara issue, by supporting the right of the Saharawi people to independence and this is what we consider as the second important reason, the problem of Western Sahara, which Morocco claims as a "Maghreb Sahara" and an integral part of its territory, and carried out all forms of military coercion and diplomatic maneuvers in order to subjugate the rebellious Saharawi people against what they call a "Moroccan occupation". Algeria is the big supporter of the Saharawi people in this case for many reasons. The problem of Western Sahara has affected all the Maghreb countries whose people aspire one day to establish a Maghreb Union, like the European Union. In 1994, there were bombings in a hotel in the Moroccan city of Marrakech. Morocco accused the Algerian intelligence of being behind it and imposed a visa on the Algerians to enter its territory. Algeria responded to this decision by closing the land border between the two countries,[2] these borders remain closed until now, and the fierce rivalry among them for regional hegemony appears in their external behaviors toward the regional and global environment.

The Battle Against Fate

Once we look at North Africa map, we see the "ominous fate" that hinders Morocco from being a strong, self-sufficiency regional power, that is geography, so this fate will always be bound by the inevitable challenge of this obstructive geography. In the east, there is Algeria with its vast-hot desert and its huge military power which opposes any ambition for Morocco to projecting its power toward the east. In the west, Morocco is surrounded by a huge water mass called the Atlantic Ocean, this large bodies of water limit the power projection abilities toward the west as well, or what Professor John Mearsheimer called "The stopping power of water". As for the north, there are Spain and the European Union countries which prevent it from projecting power toward the North and to form the Northen side according to its ambitions. It will remain from the north, influenced by a negative balance of power not in its favor. Thus, the South remains the only outlet for Morocco towards the African countries and the world. Here, Morocco encounters another geopolitical dilemma: the issue of Western Sahara, Morocco's only geopolitical outlet, that's why this issue is considered as a national security issue for Moroccans.

Map showing the geographical dilemma of Morocco

Morocco has repeatedly tried to free itself from this geopolitical collar by trying to build a network of Arab, African and international friendships far from the North African region. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is perhaps the most important of these "friends" for Morocco in the Arab world. France and the United States are the most important Western powers on which Morocco is depended to support its position on the issue of Western Sahara. In November last year, King Mohammed VI of Morocco visited some Gulf countries, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in the wake of the Gulf crisis between the two countries, as well as Saudi Arabia and some other countries, when these countries surrounded Qatar to push it to change its policies towards some of the region's files. Regardless of the visite' aims, what concerns us here is Morocco's attempt to search for allies outside its region completely and establish strong economic and political ties with them[3] away from Algeria, which security perceptions of Moroccan decision-makers still see it as a source of a threat. Professor Stephen Walt explained this pattern of behavior and alliances when he wrote his famous book; "The Origins of Alliances" in 1987 and created his new theory of "the balance of threat"[4] which, (contrary to the balance of power theory), argue that:

  • States are balanced against the most threatening power, not the most powerful one.
  • As much as the country is geographically closer, the others will tend to balance against it, so, the neighboring countries are less likely to be allies, and always favorite to be an ally of another country outside its region.
  • The greater the offensive capabilities of a neighboring country, the greater the tendency of others to ally against it, so countries with military capabilities are pushing other countries to form a defense coalition against them.

Morocco's security perceptions see Algeria as a source of threat, that is why Morocco is tending towards a balance against it. Since this source of threat (Algeria) is geographically close, this is what drives Morocco to search for allies outside this geographical region. Algeria is also the most heavily armed African country, with 52% of the arms imported by the continent, according to the Stockholm Institute report SIPRI, while it ranks seventh in the world in terms of imports. The report also finds that the defense budget in Algeria has maintained its level in recent years and estimated at 10.1 billion dollars in 2017, ranking the 20th in the world and the third in the Arab world,[5] while Morocco's defense budget is estimad at $ 3.4 billion and ranks 55th globally.[6] All of that, as we said, pushed Morocco to seek friends outside its region to be free of its geographical fate.

The Revenge of Geography... The First Signs

While the whole world was preoccupied with the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, FIFA held a vote among its members in order to select the appropriate candidate who will hosts the 2026 World Cup. Morocco was one of the competing countries in the face of the North American joint file. The North American file has won with 139 votes and Morocco had only 65 votes. What shocked Morocco in this event is the vote of most of its "supposed Gulf friends" against it, headed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as if these Gulf states are telling Morocco that it will not be their top priority if its interests are in the face of the US interests in any case or if the United States decides someday anything contrary to the will of Morocco, even if it is a symbolic matter like such football event. This action has provoked a wave of indignation within Moroccans and seriously questioned the limits of friendship and the alleged alliance between their country and the Gulf states, and the willingness of these countries to go far in support of Morocco regionally and internationally in its core issues, especially the issue of Western Sahara. What is interesting about this issue is the vote of the "adversary" neighbor (Algeria) in the favor of Morocco file, in what appeared to be the first signs of "the revenge of geography" of an inappropriate foreign policy was adopted by Morocco in the last decades towards its regional sphere.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The lesson that Morocco's decision-makers must learn is that the power of the "allied" Gulf states is a relatively unstable power, while geography remains a constant factor over time. Algeria will remain the first neighbor to Morocco over time, while these Gulf states may disappear from the map completely with the first serious war between Iran and these states, or if the United States decided one day to change its priorities or allies in the "Middle East". The strengthening of relations with the biggest neighbor (Algeria) and adopting a zero-problem approach with it is the highest priority that decision makers in Morocco should take. Algeria remains the strongest player in the North African region especially, and the most influential actor in the African Union's decisions in general, so it is strategically wrong to see it as a threat or to antagonize it. Algeria remains the primary contributor to the security stability of North Africa, so, Morocco's stability depends on Algeria's stability and any security chaos in Algeria will have a huge negative impact on Morocco's national security. The decision-makers in Morocco must look at Algeria in a different way and be serious to change their security perceptions about the "illusion of the Algerian threat" to the Moroccan national security by opening the doors of dialogue with Algeria and the search for common ground at least in the areas of "the low politics" such as economy, investments, tourism and services. In short, Morocco should look at Algeria as the "big brother" who is keen on the security and interests of all brothers in the North African region. Doing so would be the first step towards the long-awaited dream of the Maghreb Union.

[1] See: Iraq, The Three Trillion Dollar War, Interviews with Joseph Stiglitz, Yale Journal, Spring-Summer 2008, http://yalejournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/083201stiglitz.pdf
[2] This procedure was in favor of Algeria, especially as it suffers from the problems of illegal smuggling of fuel from Algeria to Morocco, and the smuggling of cannabis and drugs from Morocco to Algeria.
[3] The Gulf countries' investment in Morocco is very high compared to other countries in North Africa.; See: Lélia Rousselet, Evolutions in the relations between Morocco and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Science Po- Paris 2014, https://www.sciencespo.fr/kuwait-program/wp content/uploads/2018/05/KSP_Paper_Award_Fall_2014_ROUSSELET_Lelia.pdf
[4] See: Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances, Cornell University Press, 1987, USA
[5] See: Nan Tian and others, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2017, SIPRI, Fact Sheet May 2018, p: 04, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-05/sipri_fs_1805_milex_2017.pdf
[6] See: 2018 Morocco Military Strength, GFP Strength in Numbers, 2018, https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=morocco