Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts gives her students what looks like, at first glance, an excruciating, perhaps even cruel assignment. She has her students sit with a single painting, sans gadgets and gabbing, for three full hours. Why this? Says Roberts:
It is commonly assumed that vision is immediate. It seems direct, uncomplicated, and instantaneous—which is why it has arguably become the master sense for the delivery of information in the contemporary technological world. But what students learn in a visceral way in this assignment is that in any work of art there are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive.
There’s a lesson in this for our current war against ISIS. It’s obvious that we finally and properly will have to get after the barbarians wreaking havoc across Syria and Iraq. The horror of the ongoing civil war, the refugee flows pouring into Europe, the monstrous attacks in Paris, the dangerous brinksmanship between a Russian despot and an uncomfortably authoritarian NATO member, all concentrate the mind. President Obama may desperately cling to his so-called strategy of “leading from behind”—by now a cynical euphemism for not wanting to bear any burden—but this cannot go on. Sooner or later, America will be in this fight.
But what of the bigger picture? Leaving aside for a moment the hardly trifling matter that we still lack any coherent vision and strategy for the region as a whole. Never mind that Libya, Yemen, and Iraq are failed states; that Saudi Arabia is not pre-ordained to remain stable, and indeed, that its stalemated war in Yemen may yet prove its ultimate undoing; and that Iran, with or without nuclear weapons, will carry on with its hegemonic ambitions, unnerving its neighbors and triggering bloody sectarian conflicts wherever it meddles. No, America and its closest allies have another urgent matter to consider. What happens if we defeat ISIS and stabilize Syria, and by the time we’re done Europe and NATO have fallen apart? In a sentence: how do we deal with the rest, if there’s nothing left of the West?
The EU is coming unglued. The recent Greek bailout divided Europe and was wildly unpopular in Germany. Angela Merkel got her way and the EU will shovel new buckets of (mostly) German money south. But the Chancellor was opposed by her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, one of the country’s most respected politicians, who may still get the last word in the matter. Everyone knows that this was not the last Greek bailout. As a fed up friend of mine in Berlin puts it, “This is pure Alice in Wonderland fantasy, where we keep giving the Greeks money, they promise to reform their economy, while we know they will not reform.” Many Germans now fear that Portugal might become the next Greece. After a few weeks of political instability, Europe’s most fragile economy after Greece is now being led by a leftist alliance bitterly opposed to austerity measures demanded by both Brussels and Berlin.
Then there’s the migration crisis, a serious challenge before, and now post-Paris attacks, arguably a graver matter still. By January, Germany alone will have taken in, by some estimates, as many as 1.5 million Muslim refugees. How will they be absorbed? A very large number are young men, many believed to be uneducated; some 20 percent are thought to be illiterate. If officials were to be honest—but no one dares tell the German public the truth—it’s hard to know much about who these refugees actually are. Never mind the deep and meticulous vetting necessary to ascertain who’s a security risk. The Germans are having trouble at the moment finding enough interpreters simply to keep up with basic processing of the new arrivals. Though flows have started to abate a bit as Europe’s winter weather sets in, at the height of the influx in October, they poured in at a rate of 8,000 to 10,000 a day.
Germany will hold three important state elections in March. The results will tell us a lot about the mood in the country and fortunes for Angela Merkel’s political future. At the moment, though, goodwill and generosity are already giving way to anxiety and anger. Gabor Steingart, publisher of the leading German business and finance daily Handelsblatt, contended recently that a tone-deaf Mrs. Merkel was fast on her way from being leader of Germany to “the Chancellor of the refugees.” Merkel’s part-time ally, part-time nemesis Schäuble, who once served as his country’s interior minister, has floated the idea of deploying the federal army inside the country, so unwieldy does the refugee problem threaten to become. “Schäuble’s target,” opines the Handelsblatt’s Steingart, is not so much security and the “terrorists, but voters vulnerable to being seduced by the far right.”
And you can count on this: right-wing populism will grow across Europe. (Look no further than Hungary to see how this gets its start. And keep an eye on France’s regional elections, where the Front National is projected to win big next week.) Schengen, the EU’s free-movement-zone, which is now looking more precarious with each passing day, will prove very hard to put back together if it definitively shatters. Public spending for a number of EU states will balloon, in large part due to the costs of handling the refugee flows, but also due to heightened costs of maintaining security. The French have already made noises about breaching the spending limits imposed by the European Stability Pact in the wake of the Paris massacre. If France gets its way, other countries are likely to follow suit, (in turn driving the Germans crazy). Beholding this unholy mess, the UK’s voters will be more likely than ever to vote to exit the EU when their referendum is finally called in late 2016 or early 2017. And if Britain leaves, look for others, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, to start eyeing the exits.
What’s needed now is agile, imaginative thinking, deft acrobatics, and a good dose of luck—in the guise of no new terror attacks—if Europe is to find its way to a soft landing the next couple years. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a multi-speed European project, with concentric circles of countries choosing their levels of integration a la carte. But we should never discount the possibility of even a total breakup of the EU.
Make no mistake, the NATO alliance is equally rickety and vulnerable. Take the southern flank. Of Greece, Turkey, Albania, Croatia, Bulgaria, and soon enough Montenegro, how many will be democracies in 5 years? Which will be pro-American, and which will have drifted into Russia’s orbit? Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian bomber, though fully justified and deserving of full NATO backing—especially given serial Russian territorial provocations elsewhere around the globe—has already prompted President Obama to try to frame the incident as an something to be worked out bilaterally between Ankara and Moscow. France, for its part, has opted to prosecute its new war on terror outside of NATO, without our strategically oblivious White House noticing enough to care. And in the north, where the Baltic states and Poland (as well as non-NATO members Sweden and Finland) find themselves once again threatened by Russia, U.S. reticence is driving many in the region to despondency.
Meanwhile, remember all the hopes we once pinned on “New Europe” as a key to a revitalized Atlantic Alliance? Hungary has been confused over which side to take in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. The Czech Republic’s President made the U.S. Ambassador persona non grata in Prague Palace after the American envoy made noises over Prague’s obsequiousness toward the Kremlin. The Slovaks have opposed sanctions against Russia. As for Russia itself: count on Vladimir Putin to bully, bribe, and blackmail the alliance into a thousand little pieces. He’s been at it for several years now with no real, appreciable price to pay. He may not be able to defeat the alliance on the battlefield, but he is more than capable of destroying it politically.
Unlike with the EU, where the crisis is polyvalent, there is an answer to NATO’s troubles. It’s called American leadership. Bismarck once said that every alliance has its horse and its rider. It’s the United States that must lead, especially at a time when Europe shows signs of faltering. But getting back to a strong, healthy, well functioning alliance will be no easy feat. While we must keep doing everything we can to get the attention of our sleep walking administration—the next 13 months are fraught with danger—we need to look ahead and consider just how we’ll begin to repair all the damage.
Here are some recommendations:
First, resist the temptation to hyper-correct. A new President will be tempted to demonstrate that he/she is not Barack Obama. As much as there will be to do and a sense that time is of the essence, it will be important to establish priorities and sequence our moves.
Nothing will be more important than containing Vladimir Putin’s Russia. We don’t need him to defeat ISIS—the U.S., our European allies, and our Arab and Gulf partners have more than enough military power to get the job done. Putin’s strategic aims should be crystal clear by now, and they are implacably hostile to our own. On the continent, he wants to divide Europe, weaken the EU and render NATO irrelevant. In the Middle East, he wants a client state in Syria and, sharing the same goal with Iran, wants to push America out of the Middle East. Putting a lid on Putin doesn’t solve any of our myriad problems, per se. But managing these difficult issues becomes infinitely easier with his malign hands no longer meddling.
Second, grasp that most of Europe is not waiting to be rescued by America. A good number hold us responsible for the current Middle East mess: George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq, and the Obama Administration for pulling us out prematurely. America needs to lead again, to be sure, but not—Europeans will want to hear—because we think we have all the answers. Rather, we need to bring to the table a sense that the West is now in danger of irreversible decline, and that we’re all in this together. With clarity of purpose and all the finesse and savvy we can muster, it will fall to us to steer the transatlantic alliance back to cohesion and positions of resolve.
As for Europe’s own growing internal turmoil, let’s listen first, and be sure we do no harm. We could take a page from Margaret Thatcher who told Ronald Reagan when he was first elected, “Your problems are ours.”
Finally, in the Middle East, understand that ISIS and Syria are “the thundering present,” as President Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson described such moments. It’s an immediate threat that can rip the West apart, and thus must be confronted together. But then, too, if we lose sight of the bigger picture, and of our larger aims and most important alliance, this may be something we end up doing in large measure by ourselves.