Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University
North Africa does not figure prominently in America’s current strategic calculus. This may reflect a realist calculation that North Africa is a European concern and is not relevant to America’s recent preoccupation with great power competition, particularly with China and Russia. However, this view also risks missing an important opportunity at a time when every opportunity counts. Morocco was the first country to recognize the independent United States—in 1786, and is a trusted, yet under-cultivated American partner today.
Morocco has a rich history and deep cultural ties to the Muslim world, the Arab and Berber worlds, and to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. While much of the Arab world combusted in flames during the Arab Spring of 2011-2012, the monarchy of King Mohammed VI navigated the turmoil through deft negotiation and compromise with protesters. Yet though Morocco is not today threatened militarily it is still ranked only 78 of 178 countries in terms of stability; and there is room for progress in anti-corruption, business-friendliness, and political freedom. These are areas in which an enhanced partnership can contribute.
North Africa has turned into a zone of conflict and turbulence, destabilized by insurgency, terrorism, and transnational organized crime. Insurgent forces challenge the governments of Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso, as well as the countries of the Chad River Basin. Jihadi terrorism is a constant threat with al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and Boko Haram cells competing in brutality and for influence throughout the region. North Africa has also become home to a transnational illicit superhighway through which drugs, humans, arms, and other contraband are smuggled to Europe, as well as to and from the Middle East and Asia.
A Major Non-NATO Ally, Morocco is a coalition partner in the Global Coalition Against the Islamic State and is the 13th largest contributor of peace-keeping forces to United Nations missions, with over 2000 peacekeepers currently deployed. Morocco’s security forces can make important contributions in the fight against terrorism and transnational organized crime. U.S.-Moroccan military relations are cordial and collaborative, but more might be done. Through enhanced partnership Morocco can reach its potential as an exporter of security in the troubled North Africa region, and a pro-western supporter in the competition over the future global order.
Ways to cultivate the U.S.-Morocco relationship are not hard to find. Increased academic and cultural exchanges would be helpful, as would greater dialog on trade, economics, corruption, political liberty, and religion. I use the word dialog intentionally, as the conversation must be respectful and reciprocal, rather than evangelical or polemical. It would be relatively easy to build on military-to-military relations by increasing the participation of Moroccan officers in the joint professional military education programs for which the United States is world-renown. Building on that, the respective institutions of higher military educational might be encouraged to find ways to collaborate, through education and joint research.
The United States, Russia, and China are global powers, and the competition amongst them is inevitably global. One of America’s strategic advantages in this competition is its inimitable global network of alliances and partnerships. The Middle East and Africa are contested regions; more so now than at any time in recent history. Such an historic, stable, and strategically important as Morocco should not be overlooked.
* He is also the Editor of PRISM, the journal of Complex operations