How the Paris Attacks did NOT change international relations

The gruesome attacks in Paris were framed by some as a significant change in politics, linking it to a Third World War, a “clash of civilisations“, and a possible invocation of the NATO’s 5th article. Despite all these voices stressing the huge impact, I do not see much changing for now.

In the Paris attacks, a group of young men probably associated with Isis, killed 129 people and injured 430. The scope of the attack was as shocking as its time. Paris had just recovered from the shock in January, when assailants belonging to Al Qaida in Yemen killed 12 people at French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”. This attack’s planning, however, was much more elaborate; roughly half a dozen attacks, conducted by trained teams, coordinated to achieve maximum confusion and panic in France.

If the stadium security had not let the football match continue, a mass panic by 79,000 people after bombs went off at the entrance might have cause much, much more damage. Notice how the shootings in central Paris happened 21:20, 21:32, 21:36 and 21:40, possibly in order to draw out security forces and spread them across town before striking at the Bataclan at 21:45. The timing of the stadium attack, 21:20, 21:30 and 21:53 leaves room for horrible alternative scenarios – imagine if the first attacker had successfully sneaked in, detonating the bomb inside the stadium. The ensuing mass panic, apart from killing people trough trampling and suffocation, would drive viewers out, where the other two attackers were waiting…

Despite the good work of stadium security, the attack was the most gruesome in Paris, in its scope comparable to the Madrid train bombings in 2004, and probably a result of more elaborate planning than in the case of the 2005 London bombings. Drawing parallels to 9/11 is tempting, calling for decisive action on the French side to counter domestic insecurity and to show a hard line against terrorism. Others will go the opposite way, comparing it to the 2011 Norway attacks and calling for a similar rhetoric of peace and understanding.

Both are unlikely to happen.

9/11 was the first, and only, time NATO’s fifth article was invoked, starting the war in Afghanistan, and providing a good political climate for the invasion of Iraq. There is a reason this was the first time the article was invoked – with George W. Bush, a new brand of American interventionists had just gained power in the U.S., and only 9 months into the presidency, his neo-cons had to face the biggest domestic attack on Americans. Their answer being interventionist should come as no surprise; but the ensuing warfare was made possible only by the combination of how shocking 9/11 was and how interventionist American politicians had become in the most recent elections.

The comparison to France is not helpful – France has one of its rare Socialist governments, and Hollande was elected on a platform that intended troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as a generally less aggressive foreign policy. And since then, France has been frequently involved in interventions, from ground troops in Mali to airstrikes in Syria. Increasing airstrikes is not exactly a major shift in French policy; and massive deployment of ground troops seems to be out of the question. However, as long as France shies away from doing so, it has limited capabilites of increasing its engagement in Syria and Iraq; deploying advisors, arming rebels, conducting airstrikes and coordinating peacetalks are all amongst already existing activities.

France is also no Norway. Stoltenbergs impressive leadership style in the aftermaths of the 2011 attacks were made possible by a couple of factors. First off, he was a much more popular politician than Hollande, whose polls are dipping below the 20% line. A strong politician is more likely to shape policies rather than answer calls for certain types of action. Hollande, under pressure from all sides, is facing the second major attack within a year, raising questions about his governments capability of protecting citizens. He is more likely to, at least partially, give in to a rhetoric of toughness in order to score with voters. Even more relevant: Breivik was a domestic terrorist, a lone wolf with no lobby. Uniting against him was an easy task. Hollande is faced with a domestic threat, and a discourse that tries to blame parts of his country; while in Norway, mobilization could only occur against Breivik, people like Le Pen try to attack immigrants and leftwingers alike. By shifting blame outward, Hollande is able to portray this as a foreign policy issue rather than acknowledge the right wing’s motifs.

Essentially, changes in policy will be minor. Isis has managed to be a top priority for the French government; this will not change the general approach, but how much resources will be dedicated to them. The attacks also offer a stronger argument to gain Russian support for actions against Isis; skilled negotiators may be able to coordinate airstrikes (although this seems unlikely right now, with Russian support for Assad and U.S. support for rebels). Should NATO decide to deploy ground troops in Syria, now might be the time; but give the domestic opinion towards ground troops in most Western countries, and their current leadership, this seems like the least likely scenario.


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