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History does not really repeat itself in fixed and predictable ways, yet there are commonalities between certain events. 9/11 is a case where the USA overreacted to a certain threat, going to great lengths without having accounted for the consequences. There are few instances where entire state structures are being retooled and redefined to pursue a singular purpose and fewer even when a nation ventures into a war of attrition with eagerness.
The “war on terror” was in large part conceived as conventional warfare, as one state actor invading territories of other countries, in spite of the fact that the threat of terrorism was an asymmetric one. The tactic of placing troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan under the assumption that these would thwart the activity of terrorist organisations has been proven ineffective. Americans will not be truly getting out of there any time soon, while jihadists remain as present and active as they have ever been.
Wars that are pursued under the influence of powerful emotions and which are not part of a much broader vision of state building, inclusive governance, economic development, and environmental sustainability, end up undermining the modicum of stability that existed in a region, leaving vacuums of power while providing grist to the mill of those who oppose the “Western” lifestyle or way of doing politics.
The recent case of Libya, which is not part of the “war on terror” but of another dubious ideal of exporting democracy with the use of bombs without having any plan for the post-war period, shows that merely overthrowing a local tyrant is not a solution to the problem, but the start of new ones.
French exceptionalism is an overreaction
France’s reflexive response to the Paris attacks is understandable and appropriate, yet it also suffers from the same misguided belief that brought the USA into this endless war against an undefined enemy: it treats terrorism as a fixed entity that can indeed be obliterated by means of sheer force.
Unlike conventional warfare, terrorists can operate within Western societies, be their citizens, and appear as ordinary as everybody else. Such is the gist of the Paris attacks. Terrorists do not predicate their activity on territoriality, though establishing a genuine state may be part of their overarching ambition. By defining this as a “war” we imply that the enemy is clearly delineated and, most importantly, that it is an alien force that may occupy our own country unless we make a preemptive attack.
France is in a state of emergency, while its President has been using bellicose rhetoric on every occasion. Their army’s ultimate objective would be to march into the Islamic State’s stronghold and cleanse it of all jihadist elements. Rather than being a new direction, this represents an extension of a fait accompli. France was already bombing the territories of ISIS. What is different now is that the EU should also be partially reoriented to satisfy the French position on the matter.
While willing to help, the rest of us European citizens have not been presented with a coherent and cohesive strategy of all the steps involved, from contributing to a credible solution to the Syrian civil war, to marshalling support from the international community, to laying the foundations for the post-ISIS era. For the time being the general spirit is that of emotionally-driven warmongering, to which no rational agent can provide their support.
In the meantime we have not had the chance to consider our options and assess all the interoperating factors of the case: to evaluate terrorism—including its homegrown dimension—as a persistent problem, not an ISIS-specific one, that could be more effectively dealt with by internal measures, by social labour within marginalised communities and ghetto areas, substantial economic development for poor regions, more inclusive and pluralist politics, as well as more effective policing and intelligence gathering, including at the European level. Let the military personnel assume a main role only once all other options have been fully explored and exhausted.
In his speech following the Paris attacks, President Hollande suggested that the security pact takes precedence over the stability pact (referring to the EU’s rules on economic governance). While generally true and indeed envisaged in the EU’s legal framework, here too we should not neglect the fact that the “French pact” was already taking precedence over the European rules, as France was anyway not going to meet its macroeconomic and fiscal targets.
These rules are not sacrosanct nor are they ideal, but they should at least apply universally to all Member States, if they are to mean anything. That the unemployment rate of some countries is at exorbitant levels for several years and that these countries are condemned to persistent underdevelopment has been no reason to question those rules. Security is legitimate grounds for a state of exception, and so are public order, public health, social and intergenerational justice. The differentiating factor seems to be that the countries who have to cope with those social-economic issues do not have the necessary influence and power to derogate from the European legal order.
European security and the problem with NATO
Apart from all the political reservations over France’s stratagems, there are practical reasons why the EU as such should not be dragged into a misguided war against an elusive enemy: the European Union lacks the necessary capacity to wage war and, most importantly, to deal with the internal ramifications of warfare. It does not have an army, a common intelligence service, a unified/federated police, a fully fledged European foreign policy, and a properly-resourced external border control capacity.
While the European Treaties do provide for various legal instruments for national governments to cooperate on these issues, what the EU architecture currently offers is ill suited for meeting the present and expected challenges. Perhaps there will soon be ad hoc mechanisms for improving the EU’s capacity to act, yet the historical precedent with the euro crisis is that all hasty “solutions” leave much to be desired in terms of their functional optimality and political legitimacy. To put it succinctly, the EU will require at least a few years before it can even begin to envisage participating in a war. Even then, it would be badly prepared to rise to the occasion (again see the euro crisis and how it is still not sufficiently addressed).
Furthermore, the EU has to deal with the legacy of NATO and has to amend its primary law in the process if it is to develop its own military capacity. It cannot simply eschew the North Atlantic Alliance. As is clear from the European Treaties, European nations that are NATO members are still dependent on the alliance for their defence needs. For the foreseeable future, when referring to Europeans engaging in war, we mean “NATO or NATO members engaging in war”. The EU as such is excluded, while we should bear in mind that not all EU Member States are part of that alliance.
NATO is a military organisation. It also is a relic of the past. Maybe it made sense to forge such a bond during the time of the Cold War, when the European integration process was still in its first stage while the international order was largely bipolar. In the present context, with the EU providing for an adequate framework for inter-European cooperation, with the international order moving toward a multi-polar system also due to the decline in the relative power of the USA, the North Atlantic Alliance is in many ways an obstacle to multifaceted foreign policy for the 21st century.
In a certain sense, it can also be a liability, as it is not underpinned by a political union. Turkey is a member of the alliance. It also is a state with an erratic leadership that is drifting away from democracy and secularism. Put simply, this is not the most reliable partner, nor is it a country that would necessarily be aligned with the values and objectives of EU Member States.
The downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey has pointed to a potential weakness in the alliance, namely the total absence of an explicit democratic clause that would guarantee a minimum set of standards that need to be fulfilled before the possible activation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. In the imaginary though still possible scenario where Russia would use force against Turkey, other NATO states would have to come to their allies’ support, to ultimately fight a stupid war that is not their own or of their making.
A war of attrition is a false objective
Either directly under the influence of France or indirectly by virtue of NATO, the European Union cannot be dragged into a reactive war against the vague enemy of “terrorism”. This is not just about ISIS. Al Qaeda is still around, while brutal terrorist organisations exist in other parts of the world, such as Boko Haram in Africa.
Where does the “war on terror” start and where does it end? Why are we even using conventional means for dealing with an asymmetric threat? Professor Rosa Brooks is particularly prudent on this point:
Occasional terrorist attacks in the West are virtually inevitable, and odds are, we’ll see more attacks in the coming decades, not fewer. If we want to reduce the long-term risk of terrorism — and reduce its ability to twist Western societies into unrecognisable caricatures of themselves — we need to stop viewing terrorism as shocking and aberrational, and instead recognise it as an ongoing problem to be managed, rather than “defeated.”
[note: podcast listeners who are interested in American foreign policy may want to subscribe to FP’s The Editor’s Roundtable, where Professor Brooks is a regular speaker]
Wars against enemies that are not clearly delineated can be unending. The enemy will recede, go underground only to resurface at the next possible opportunity. This enemy is not locality-confined. As the Paris attacks show, terrorists can be homegrown, eager to annihilate their own state and fellow citizens if given the chance.
Wars of attrition can only end with situational Pyrrhic victories (winning at an unbearable cost). That is more so when such military actions are ill prepared, conducted under the pretence of noble intentions and lofty ideals, all while not being incorporated in an overarching vision of state building, economic development, and inclusive governance for and with the locals. It seems that some in the West are gearing up for yet another military intervention in Iraq and/or the broader region without having exhausted all the civilian means available.
In Europe the terrorist threat should remind us of the urgent need to proceed with the integration process. The Schengen Agreement is largely inadequate, law enforcement at the supranational level leaves much to be desired, a humane and rational response to the challenges posed by large numbers of asylum seekers is yet to be found, economic governance is still not federalised, a fiscal and political union is not about to come any time soon, while European defence remains dependent on the outdated North Atlantic Alliance.
There still are many things that need to be done before the EU is able to stand on the global stage on its own feet and, a fortiriori, wage war against an elusive foe. Strong emotions or laudable values that are not backed by a coherent longer-term strategy should be set aside, giving way to practicality and reason.