Last week’s assault on Brussels by Islamic State operatives laid bear the reality that Europe is a continent under siege. Just four months after the Paris attacks shocked the world with their sophisticated and coordinated execution by ISIS operatives, Europe is now reeling from a devastating attack that is only darkening the political climate that is besieged by the refugee crisis, anti-democratic movements in vulnerable Eastern European member states, and lack of political will to strengthen a weakened EU. It is the worst political crisis since the Breakup of Yugoslavia, when genocide took place in Bosnia and Croatia under the watch of a UN mandated peace mission, when Europe stood by to let the new republics sort out the crisis themselves. The response has been scattered and less than wholly committal, and the Islamic State continues to operate and expand in a security environment of great powers competing for influence in Syria, and one that favors expansion of the terror network.
The attack has also brought a wave of criticism from conservatives in the United States, especially GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and contender Ted Cruz. The critiques leveled against current US foreign policy has not been limited at just US action on ISIS, but also the role of US foreign policy on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump has leveled a policy of “America First,” where the US withdraws from NATO and force the Europeans, especially Germany, to protect their own borders and assume their own security. This proposal of placing America first, reflective of a broader attitude of the populist right, exemplified by the #StopIslam wave that took to the Internet in Brussel’s aftermath, is an ignorant and selfish response that brings neither America nor Europe security. The challenge facing Europe and the United States is the test of credibility for NATO, and whether or not the Atlantic Community still has the will to fight to the greatest battle of the War on Terror, now in its fifteenth year. We have to articulate a new strategy that addresses the scale of the threat facing our allies, including the terrorist and propaganda war being waged by ISIS, and reinvents Atlantic security for the coming decades.
NATO is under a severe test of attrition and fatigue from external and internal forces on both sides of the Atlantic. As of 2014, NATO was prepared for a conventional conflict with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a continuation of the alliance’s Cold War role as a deterrent to outside aggression. The threats have shifted however towards non-conventional or asymmetric warfare, such as guerrilla warfare, terrorism, cyber warfare, economic war, and political subversion through propaganda and state-sponsored messaging. Groups like Al Qaeda and, more prominently, ISIS, is eroding the political and diplomatic influence of European bloc, empowering far right critics to achieve greater electoral inroads in national capitals. Ironically, Europeans are not strangers to fighting this kind of war. Individual NATO states have engaged in non-conventional wars since World War II, especially during the break up of the colonial empires, and the Breakup of Yugoslavia. France fought against the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in Algeria between 1954 and 1962, while NATO, spearheaded by the US, bombed Serbian cities in retaliation for the Bosnian genocide between 1994 and 1996. These situations have become the norm, rather than the exception, to a new security environment that the alliance has been slow to respond, especially in lieu of the rise of ISIS and it direct threat to the security of Europe and the Atlantic Community.
The siege of Europe, or EuroSiege, has the continent under attack by many unconventional attacks by ISIS, largely through environmental conditions created by the Syrian Civil War, and exploited by the terrorist state. The Charlie Hebdo attack on January 9, 2015, the first coordinated terror attack against Europe, followed by Paris on November 13, 2015, were part the largest terror campaign waged against a NATO member on European soil. This campaign has demonstrated 1) that European members were highly vulnerable to a sophisticated assault by ISIS (which claimed responsibility for Paris and Brussels), and 2) the groups messaging had radicalized an entire segment of young Muslims and untold numbers of supporters who are not able to carry out these attacks. Furthermore, the response by the French and Belgian government has been to close borders and declare martial law, even as analysts question if Belgium is becoming a failed state in the middle of Europe But the greatest implication of this terror campaign points to a terrible weakness facing the Atlantic Bloc: In spite of the terror campaign against NATO Member States, no member is willing to trigger the Article V-defined collective military response to ISIS.
Even with the individual experiences of certain member states, the challenge of collective action is a major political challenge to NATO (and the EU by extension). The US and European alliances that ultimately make up the Atlantic Community have created a stable region in a world where traditional great powers have competed for global influence. When confronted by a conventional adversary like the Soviet Union, justifying US support for NATO was unquestionable. When Al Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a loyal Europe endorsed a US call for collective military intervention in Afghanistan in the newly declared “War on Terror.” Now, the combination of war-weariness and an allusive cause of “eradicating terrorism” has paralyzed US leadership, leaving the Europeans to act as the US did on 9/11 and invoke an Article V intervention.
Many Americans criticize Europeans for falling back on American military strength rather than strengthening their own military and domestic police forces to fight terrorism and enemies abroad. The challenge of collective action, called the “free-rider” problem, is ensuring all members of the alliance contribute equally to the collective defense of the continent. When the former Yugoslavia broke up in 1994, and a series of civil wars threatened to create three failed states in the middle of Europe, US policymakers intervened at the head of NATO. Most of the European states do not have the power and clout to call such an action. Those that can, like Britain, France, and Germany, are hindered by the unstable security and political environment to engage in military adventurism, especially after Libya. This legacy of the peace dividends following the Cold War has left European political leaders with few options of relative dependence on American leadership abroad. The coordination of security forces and intelligence sharing was only part of a broader failure of European security: the lack of a common defense policy that NATO long made unnecessary. Such necessity may no longer be in question.
In the event our government is still committed to the grand strategy that has held the Atlantic Community together for 70 years after the election, the next President needs to reinvigorate the alliance to address the deteriorating security situation in the Mediterranean. Even as the US air and special forces campaign against ISIS topples one leader after another, the network and proto-state boundaries of ISIS have expanded into Libya, Sinai, and were creeping into Tunisia. While Europe was focused on the refugee crisis and making deals with Turkey to hold them in exchange for renewed negotiations on EU membership, ISIS propaganda and agents continue to recruit and build cells abroad and hide in European suburbs. NATO must adopt a stronger counterterrorism strategy, and direct resources to regional stabilization efforts in the Mediterranean, especially in Libya. Finally, the EU should adopt a proposal to create a continental border police as part of a renegotiation of Schengen, both for internal and external defense.
The new EuroDefense will also depend on whether or not Europe can take action for the alliance, not just the United States. NATO is necessary, not only for the purpose of providing Europe with a security cordon, but also keeps the various members united in a common security policy and to not pursue independent defense policies (a legacy of the 1900s and 1930s). If the American electorate and policymakers were to follow the “America First” principle on Europe and leave NATO, Europe will fall to the spectre of terror, and the creeping shadows of authoritarianism and fragmenting regionalism. A new security strategy needs to incorporate a public diplomacy component emphasizing cooperation, friendship, and unity among the various European countries and regional bodies.The strategy has two aims: reestablish US credibility as a defender and upholder of its own system, and discrediting the rise of the extreme right that is taking hold of governments across Eastern Europe. Already ailing in the credibility war in Middle East, we must draw its red line on protecting and empowering its allies in Europe. In the wake of Brussels, the US should encourage Europe to implement the aforementioned policies, under the umbrella of EuroDefense as a domestic defense force supplementing NATO. Washington can play a pivotal role in boosting domestic confidence across the Atlantic, and easing the populist tide at home challenging our foreign policy towards Europe.