Two weeks ago, France was under attack by a highly coordinated terrorist cell, recruited by ISIS in its global war against the West. With the death of 160 French men and women, President Francois Hollande announced to the world that France “was at war with ISIS.” Looking back to the Charlie Hebdo Attacks, Hollande’s statement demonstrates the French government has been under sustained attack by a terrorist organization for the first time since the Algerian War (1954-1962). The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has joined the multinational group of fighting ships in the Eastern Mediterranean and bombing the group in Syria, a country fractured by war between rival organizations, including the strongman Bashar al-Assad and his Russian-backed military. Hollande has called for action by his allies, even as part of the Paris Climate Summit, and reached out to Russia for a coordinated effort to replace the currently dysfunctional and dangerous status quo. He is clearly poised to take leadership in NATO and lead the charge against ISIS.
However, the Atlantic Community is united less by action, and more by inaction in the face of the largest foreign policy crisis to face the continent since 1994. The war has given birth to ISIS, a rebel organization capable of launching a worldwide terror campaign and aspires to create a new Islamic State, imitating the caliphates and empires of old. Through the war, it created a refugee crisis that divides the European Union and empowers its opponents, EuroSkeptics from both the extreme right and left, to fight against increased European integration. Both NATO and the European Union, institutions meant to forge unity among states such as France and Germany, are challenged in their legitimacy whose leaders are at odds over the best way to address these twin crises. Not only Hollande, but Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama are victims of self-inflicting policies that have spawned a fractured and halfway approach to addressing the Syrian Civil War, and the brushfires of conflict spawned across the Mediterranean.
The Indispensable European and the Reluctant Guarantor
The Economist referred to Angela Merkel as the “Indispensable European” a reflection of her strong leadership in the European Union since becoming the German Chancellor in 2005. She has arguably been its greatest advocate, refusing to be pressured by EuroSkeptics and her own domestic opponents, and emerging as the closest anyone has ever gotten to becoming “President of Europe.” When faced with the refugee crisis, she took the humanitarian values of the Union and opened Germany’s doors to them. Throughout the European Debt Crisis and Greek default, she risked domestic opposition to save the Euro and whip European leaders to address tough fiscal challenges. Internationally, she was described by Vladimir Putin as “the only leader worth talking to” when Merkel rallied the European Union to deliver sanctions on Russia after the Crimean annexation and Ukrainian Crisis. In spite of the divisions caused by her actions, she is well on her way to re-election in Germany, and retains the respect the of the Union’s membership.
President Barack Obama in contrast has prosecuted a war effort in both Syria and Iraq to 1) contain the growing influence of ISIS, and 2) prop up Iraq. He has, in the words Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, retreated across the Atlantic to carry out a policy of “Offshore Balancing.” This exercise of American restraint, while influenced by budget restraints at home, is driven by a lack of clear opportunities for American policymakers to positively affect the conflict. While much blame can be given to Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq and the intransigence of Assad to negotiate, the larger geopolitical rivalries of Saudi Arabia and Iran have reduced the ability for major powers to mediate the conflict. Furthermore, the recent shoot down of Russian planes by Turkey has increased tensions between the two countries, threatening to escalate regional tensions between them.
France Charges, Others Watch
The three leaders are largely at odds, focusing on areas that are deeply interconnected and related to the success of the other, with no real effort to coordinate between them. While both Hollande and Obama have proclaimed their intention to close cooperation on military action in Syria, Obama will likely avoid escalating tensions with Russia while Putin continues to attack rebels at large and engage in war of words with Turkey. Merkel, largely fancying Germany the leader of European domestic policy, with refuse to commit Germany in any Mediterranean conflict, and will engage in the refugee crisis without a common asylum policy. The Iron Chancellor will be forced to play defense until the Middle East sorts itself out, while fostering the growth of the EuroSkeptics on the homefront. She will need Hollande to risk domestic opposition to save the Union from the Orbans and La Pens that seek to reduce the legitimacy of union in favor their individual sovereignty.
But both require the active participation of the United States, who has traditionally encouraged unity and stepped in where European failed on security, such as Bosnia in 1995. Largely, US interest in Europe has been reserved, even after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris on January 2015. The Pacific Pivot has left America largely disengaged from Europe regarding security while putting China at top of priorities. If Obama stays course, than the United States will play a more restrained role than it did in Libya, refusing to commit more than raw air power and special advisors, while leaving the door open to reduce involvement in Syria altogether. If Obama’s seemingly aloof attention to the Middle East is part of the general strategy of offshore balancing, then it is at odds with Hollande’s show of leadership on Syria and Merkel’s desire to avoid the issue of Syrian security directly.
An Atlantic Concert?
Arguably, Syria and the refugee crisis has presented serious challenges to leadership in the Atlantic, but few solutions have been devised to address them. What is required is renewed action from these three leaders, who arguably specialize in one of these areas. The handling of the refugee crisis is as much a conflict management policy, one that Germany can address with French assistance, but lacks the necessary long term solution i.e. restoring stability to Syria or establishing a common asylum policy. France has an excellent record of foreign intervention, more recently in Mali, and does not have the same public stigma on the issue that the United States has. And the United States has been a successful mediator of European conflicts when it has engaged them constructively and continuously. So how can these issues be addressed in a constructive form that addresses the domestic pressure from refugees while also containing ISIS’ increasingly global reach?
France needs to follow the US example of claiming NATO intervention under Article V, which mandates an attack on any member by enemy state or group is an attack on all, and call upon Russia to cooperate, as he has been doing unilaterally since Paris. Second, Obama needs to redress his involvement in Europe, by pushing Hollande and other leaders to create common asylum policies in exchange for US support in Syria. If Merkal cannot rally the European community alone, then Obama, using the policies of “off-shore balancing” may be what’s needed to rally Europe to Hollande’s side. All of this can be done while pursing a seven power conference (USA, France, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Iran, and Germany) plus the EU and representatives from various rebel groups outside of ISIS. All of this requires a united front, something that these three leaders can achieve if they are willing to stand behind the other. Neither is equipped to lead unilaterally, and none of them should. Europe and the United States have always been strongest when they acted in concert, and they have a chance to do so again.