French President, Emmanuel Macron, recently departed from his campaign proposals on the Syrian War by saying that “My lines are clear: Firstly, a complete fight against all the terrorist groups. They are our enemies.” Promising more cooperation with Russia in eradicating terrorism, Macron added that he sees no legitimate successor to President Bashar al-Assad and that President Assad is not the enemy of France. These comments came as a shock to many pundits as it was clear that Macron was the establishment centrist candidate in the 2017 French presidential election, even securing an endorsement from former U.S. President, Barack Obama. While this may be seen as a one-off statement and perhaps only rhetoric to please a growing opposition to deeper intervention in Syria, a trend is beginning to emerge in European politics that is challenging interventionist orthodoxies mainly emanating from the United States.
In recent years, Western Europe has become the go-to international supporter of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East and further escalations against Russia. However, the very real consequences of following the adventures of the U.S., namely terrorist attacks, has shook Europe to its core. After all, Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, is now revealed to have had connections to jihadist forces involved in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi alongside NATO.
In the U.K., the huge turnaround for Labour in the 2017 snap election has critics of the Conservative’s failed Syria policy jumping for joy. The Guardian reported that Theresa May was planning an escalation of the war in Syria if she won the 2017 snap election. It is important to note that it is not only Labour who oppose an escalation in Syria, but also the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, and Greens, with Labour remaining the obvious leader of this opposition. Labour leaders such as Emily Thornberry warned that such a move would “risk open conflict between our armed forces and those of Russia and Iran” and could lead the United Kingdom to follow the same mistake as Iraq War. Thornberry warned Theresa May not to “follow Donald Trump’s lead with blind loyalty, no matter where it takes us, and no matter what our other allies think”. Thornberry added:
“Instead of this headlong rush to war, the British government should be working flat out through the United Nations to support the current talks on de-escalation of the conflict, with a view to creating a permanent ceasefire, a political solution and a lasting peace. That is what the Syrian people need, not Theresa May’s secret plans to escalate the war.”
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has been described as “the UK’s Bernie Sanders.” However, Corbyn is much more than simply another Social Democrat. Corbyn blamed the policies of the British Government for the Manchester Bombing, railed against the Trump administration for advancing in Syria, and has a proven record of opposing NATO’s expansion. In an article written for the Morning Star, Corbyn famously penned that:
“The obsession with cold war politics that exercises the Nato and EU leaderships is fueling the crisis and underlines the case for a whole new approach to foreign policy. We have allowed NATO to act outside its own area since the Afghan war started. The Lisbon Treaty binds the EU and Nato together in a mutual alliance of interference and domination reaching ever eastwards.”
While the Middle East and NATO expansion are indeed two different subjects, there is a common thread which pervades both issues, namely that the United States and its unipolar vision are the key components in perpetuating both. Europe stands at the crossroads of escalation and, on both accounts, has much more to lose in terms of security and economic prosperity if things get sour.
Germany is the true center of a growing standoff between the U.S. and Russia. As the European Union’s premiere economy, the strategic importance of Germany is obvious. But there is a historical basis for Germany’s placement in this affair. There was once a serious question around the world about how the world system would be in the post-Soviet era. The Russians under Gorbachev, and consequently much of Europe and Asia, imagined a unified Eurasia with a collective security policy. On the other hand, the Americans under George H.W. Bush envisioned a unipolar world with the U.S. at the helm; an expansion of NATO was at the heart of this vision. Eventually Gorbachev gave the U.S. a major victory by allowing Germany to unify and also, most importantly, join NATO on the condition that NATO would not expand eastward to threaten the Russian Federation. This condition was immediately broken as NATO expanded to eastern Germany and beyond.
German officials, and the German people, are well aware of their position in the NATO-Russia conflict. Angela Merkel, in a change of direction following the election of Donald Trump, stated that “times in which we could rely fully on others” are “somewhat over.” While recent tensions have spawned accusations of Russia launching an information war against Germany, it still remains that Germany has more dialogue with Russia than any other Western European nation. Many German officials have long recognized the dangers of escalating tensions with Russia. In a 2016 NATO summit, German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, dropped incendiary comments to Germany’s Bild.
“What we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation further with loud saber-rattling and warmongering. Anyone who believes that a symbolic tank parade on the Alliance’s Eastern frontier will create security is mistaken.”
In summer 2016, German officials discussed a step-by-step easing of sanctions targeting Russia. One year later on June 16, 2017, Germany threatened retaliation against the U.S. for a new round of sanctions against Russia that will inadvertently damage the European economy. A spokesman for the German chancellor said she was concerned by the new sanctions. “It is, putting it mildly, a peculiar move by the US Senate,” he said. The new sanctions target anyone that helps Russia establish new energy pipelines which will no doubt include the Nord Stream 2 project, a pipeline to transport Russian gas under the Baltic Sea. While the U.S. hopes to establish energy operations in Western Europe to reduce dependence on Russia, European leaders are weary of such a strategy; the economic war against Russia appears to be low on the agenda.
Perhaps with such pressures Germany will join a growing European coalition against interventionism in Syria while simultaneously leading forces with other European elements to halt the aggression of NATO. While on the American side many fear such complications, no doubt the halting of NATO, and at best the dismantling of NATO, will lead Europe down a better path. Following repeated aggression by NATO in Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe, most notably through the activation of an “anti-missile defense system” in Romania, any easing of tensions with Russia should be welcomed. Europe can no longer endanger itself to follow the path of NATO.