The Impact of Power Vacuums on Transatlantic Priorities
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
Throughout my travels as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, I was continually struck by the amount of time spent discussing the ramifications of U.S foreign policy decisions on matters that were relevant to the lives of our allies at the local level. Ordinary people, law enforcement agents, local politicians, members of faith-based communities, and others spoke emotionally and specifically about how their everyday lives and systems have changed as a result of U.S. foreign policy decisions. Could it be the case that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was linked to changes in German policing at the local and federal levels in 2016? Or, that the withdrawal from Iraq was a contributor to warrantless searches and seizures of residents of Marseille (authorized solely by the Police Commissioner)? Despite my admitted naiveté in the area of foreign policy, a powerful set of themes emerged as possible explanations for just such a connection. U.S. foreign policy actions that lead to destabilization create power vacuums. Those power vacuums are not just created in the areas where we take action, or even the region, they are created throughout the larger geo-political ecosystem. Power vacuums get filled — and in many instances by individuals and organizations that threaten western democratic values. The newly filled vacuums cause disruption that logically affects the lives of everyday citizens.
In the case of the Iraq war, a power vacuum was created by the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the United States has struggled to address the vacuum and to deal with those seeking to fill it ever since. Ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq are fueled by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), arguably a bi-product of the war in Iraq, and a power vacuum dweller. Increased terrorist acts and massive migration from the destabilized Iraq and Syria have led to destabilization of the larger region, and to new political challenges throughout the European Union.
In the case of German policing reforms, the influx of migrants to Germany has led to claims of increased crime at the local and federal levels, and to calls for an increased number of police as well as possible policing reform. The highly-professional and specialized Bundespolizei (federal police) may see their academy numbers grow from 3,500 to 8,000 in the near term — presenting significant challenges to their college-like training regimen, limited resources in the way of trainers, and high quality standards. Similarly, the Bundespolizei, the Landespolizei (state police), and the municipal police are facing increased pressure to arm themselves in new ways in response to a perceived or real threat of increased crime and disrespect for law enforcement. This would present a significant change for the otherwise law-enforcement respecting country, where police hardly ever use their guns.
In the case of the suspension of civil liberties in France, the terrorist attacks of November 2015 in Paris and July 2016 in Nice were both attributed to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The group claimed that the attacks were in retaliation for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. The attacks were allegedly planned in Syria, and all of the attackers had fought in Syria. Experts also believe that some of the attackers may have entered Europe with other refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. In response, French President François Hollande declared a three-month state of emergency that was renewed once, and then renewed for another six months. The state of emergency permits police to conduct searches without prior approval from a judge, and to place suspects under house arrest. Some individuals I spoke with in Marseille believe this may well become the new security norm for French citizens. Regardless, in the near term this approach means a legitimate fear of warrantless searches and arrest, or actual search and arrest, for many residents of France. This fear resonated with many of the individuals I met from the impoverished and mostly Muslim Quartiers Nord de Marseille.
Rarely as Americans do we consider the larger context, the impact on our Western democratic allies’ everyday lives, or the fragility of democracy and the systems that permit it to exist. As our country ushers in a new presidential administration, it is the perfect time for citizens, advocates, and experts to press for a foreign policy approach that respects the transatlantic relationship and the everyday people touched by it. An increased awareness of, and attention to, power vacuums created by our actions may go a long way to improving our foreign policy and the everyday lives of our allies.
Jason Bristol, partner at Cohen Rosenthal & Kramer LLP in Cleveland, OH, is a Fall 2016 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.