Paris is the European 9/11

First written 11/16/2015.

A. The flop.
The attacks in Paris form Europe’s 9/11, not because they change many things. The Madrid bombing in 2004 killed more people; there were the 7/7 London bombing, the Theo van Gogh murder, the 2003 Turkey bombing, and other sudden terrorist attacks that occurred before and faded away. The attacks in Paris form Europe’s 9/11 because the response is all too predictable.

Here’s a different way of setting up the argument. Why was 9/11 not referred to by anyone as “The American Lockerbie bombing” (except maybe by conspiracy theorists)? The whole point was that 9/11 was an unprecedented strike into a superpower’s consciousness, an attack that upended U.S. foreign policy and international relations as we know it.

Bombings in London and Madrid were ostensibly retaliatory, but was not instrumental in altering international relations, by then entangled at the level of national leaders instead of the public.

Paris is different. It is the crescendo of a stumbling European foreign policy over the past decade, like 9/11 was to a U.S. looking for direction after the Cold War — the blockade of Iraq, failed interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kosovo. The argument is not that the above interventions were individually good or bad, but that they were not yet coherent.

The same took place with Europe, which not only considers whether an European grand strategy exists but whether an European grand strategy is even possible, uniting its member nations. Should the arrow be pointed to the Arab Peninsula, or North Africa, or former colonies, or Russia? But, with a bit of prodding from the U.S., Europe — namely, France and the U.K. — have doubled down on the Middle East again.

What is a 9/11, or a Paris shooting, against this backdrop? It is grand strategy collapsing underneath domestic insecurity. When a country’s citizens are gunned down on the street by strangers, how little interests previously declared as integral to national security seem: “energy independence,” “free trade,” “geopolitical alliances.” No rebuilt grand strategy can avoid the question “how can your citizens not be gunned down on the street by strangers.”

B. The players.

The U.S. had dealt with a debate over grand strategy right out of the Cold War. Ideology was rampant: the realists, the neoliberals, the liberal democrats (not to be confused with the neoliberals). The precise details of their thinking does not matter as much as what overtook them: the “Clash of Civilizations people.” Call them neoconservatives if you want, but I think my label is more inclusive, more populist.

After the Huntington essay in the nineties, the Clash of Civilizations people view future conflict as cultural rather as ideological. As the bipolar world order collapsed, countries will ally themselves to culturally homogeneous nations and breed conflict with other civilization alliances for global power.

What is meant with the War on Terror thing, the idea of spreading democracy to the Middle East? It was the Clash of Civilizations people ascendant, seizing the fact that popular support sided heavily with any grand strategy that could promise no strangers gunning down citizens in the streets.

It would hurt the Clash of Civilizations people and its opponents to see the results, which were inconclusive for the new grand strategy. Obama winded down Iraq and Afghanistan — but not fully, either.

The second test could have happened in the Pacific, except the Chinese still would rather wait than strike. It could have happened with ISIS’s first appearance, which could be evidence for one side of the Western-Islamic conflict hypothesis holding true.

Now, the other side of the hypothesis is to be tested. Europe remembers the bombings of the past, hears about refugees in perpetuity, feels threatened by immigration in general. Will Europeans seize the moment in Paris and be full-throated partners with the U.S., ready to fight a civilizational struggle again?

There is admittedly a conspiratorial bent to this prediction, equating it with a false flag operation of some sort. That is not my point. My point is that, to the people who see everything hued by ideology, what happened in Paris is not just a time for mourning.

This is the first way in which the response to Paris is predictable. Both sides have vested interests, though those who just fell out of power will want the victory more. Just ask Marco Rubio.

C: The turn.

The second way involves human rights. The evidence for this is much more direct: will France round up its refugees; expand its domestic security apparatus; stick electronic tags on all “terrorism suspects,” like Sarkozy suggests? It will also be the subject of debate, like they had been in the U.S. in the post 9/11 era.

The debate will take the form of articles like this one by William Saletan. Yes, it’s a Slate article, but the gist of it could be readopted: the decade-long stretch free from mass terror attacks in the Western world, and the liberty of national governments to muddle out a new direction, was only a “period.” These articles take aim at people with preciously little memory of fear (not just youth in this case).

It will also be a segmented debate. People have been reposting news about the ISIS attack in Lebanon, or the Kenya shooting by Al-Shabab earlier this year. But what is the point of these articles apart from persuading other Americans or Europeans?

We are not yet at a point where everyone strokes her chin about the questions behind Kenya’s own campaign against Islamists in Somalia, or the mangling between ISIS and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

That is a clear sign of rights discourse on the wane: let’s not wonder about expanding the frontier, but fortifying our beachheads. Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, has already declared a state of war. Hollande wants a state of emergency lasting into the year. there is no time to waste.

It is dismal to predict everything that happened in the U.S. will happen again in Europe. But in some ways I am optimistic: what will happen in Europe will not be much worse from what happened in the U.S. Some aspects certainly will: Europe will never agree to resettle 120,000 refugees again, or everyone will know that mass surveillance is around the corner.

Two mechanisms will offer stability. First, power is diffused enough among its sovereign nations that a coordinated security platform will still be hard to establish (I would guess over which countries foot the bill).

Second, integration is still valuable enough that a country will not unilaterally risk leaving the EU and build a hardline policy relative to the EU’s poorly managed one.

It also bears saying that counter-intelligence staff between countries have been in communication throughout the past decade, setting terrorism warnings and military drills in relative secrecy from public inquiry. The worst excesses will not be repeated, which makes investigating the ones they realized work best even more difficult.

D. The river.

However, maybe we could take another step back viewing the situation. The response to Paris is predictable for all its introspection toward the Western world. We are not at the point where we ask how Chinese or Indians react to ISIS (not well, given China and India were both subject to terrorist attacks in the past decade) or ask how it matters.

European grand strategy now has to focus on the Middle East, if only due to public pressure alone. Five years onward, though, who knows if we would know any of it mattered.

In the multipolar world, the question is never just about if the Western nation should bomb or shoot. It is also about the Faustian bargain by Iraqis who accept living under ISIS, about that by Turks who support a movement that intimidates Kurds, or if the Western nation’s non-intervention leaves room for another country to intervene with greater brutality.

Otherwise, we have this absurd scenario: a decade and a half after Europeans mocked Americans for triggering war abroad due to their domestic insecurity, the Americans can say the exact same thing to the Europeans.

No one would be the wiser. Theoretical arguments do not translate well across languages. Neither does fear.

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