"The Russians seem to me more bent on taking ports in the Mediterranean than in destroying Bonaparte in Egypt." So wrote Horatio Nelson in 1799. Whether "Bonaparte" is regarded as a synonym for President Nasser or for the Sixth Fleet, these words could hardly be improved upon as a reflection of the present state of Western consternation about Soviet objectives in the Mediterranean. Do the beginnings of a Soviet naval presence there mark the end of an era during which the Mediterranean has been dominated by a succession of single powers?
The Mediterranean, the meeting place of three continents and the melting pot of even more civilizations, has, unlike continental Europe, never enjoyed a lasting power balance, The Pax Romana was followed by centuries of Islamic rule, which in turn was gradually replaced by an uneasy relationship between the Porte and the emerging British Empire, occasionally challenged by France. The opening of the Suez Canal changed the Mediterranean from an inland sea to the main link between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, and thus made it an important commercial and military artery. After World War II the importance of the Mediterranean as a strategic nexus between East and West was further enhanced. As a key area in the Western system of deterrence which encircled the communist world from the North Cape to Okinawa, it remained under the influence of the Atlantic powers; for the first time it was an external power, the United States, which provided the principal instrument of dominance, the Sixth Fleet.
It now seems that this fourth phase of one-power predominance in the Mediterranean may also be the last. Since the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967 the Soviet Union has established a political and military presence on a larger scale than before, and shows no intention of withdrawing. It has thus succeeded in escaping from the role of a distant observer who could defend or promote its interests in the area by verbal declarations only. Much of the West's
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