Paris is currently in the midst of a major climate change conference, but just two weeks ago it was the target of vicious terrorist attacks by ISIL. After those attacks, RFE/RL asked Kurt Volker, an expert in foreign and security issues and a former career foreign service employee, to get his views of ISIS and Europe.
A lightly edited transcript of the interview appears below:
RFE: Let us start with the situation after the Paris attacks. Many analysts say that the goal of that tragedy was to deliver a message, that nobody and nowhere can be completely protected and thateverybody can be a target. Do You share that opinion?
Ambassador Kurt Volker is Executive Director of The McCain Institute for International Leadership, part of Arizona State University based in Washington, DC. Ambassador Volker served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO in 2008-2009, and was a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, with almost 30 years of experience working on European political and security issues under five U.S. Administrations. Since leaving government, he has been involved with a variety of think-tank and business consulting activities. He remains active as a Senior Fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and as a Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council.
VOLKER: Absolutely. The strategy of ISIS is to create terror, to attack civilians, to demonstrate to themselves and to other radical Islamists that they are strong. They to attract supporters that way, and at the same time spread fear and doubt and repercussions in the West. They are fundamentally against the West and our civilisation, and their attacks are aimed at continuing that fight, and building their strength in the process..
RFE: There is no doubt that ISIS has become the scariest threat to western civilisation,to innocent people. My impression is that, at the beginning of the ISIS story, the world looked at it, and did nothing ntil this militant group grew so large. What do you think?
VOLKER: It think it came fromincorrect reactions by the West to the war in Iraq. People were unhappy about the war in Iraq; there was a lot of disagreement and resentment in Europe over the war. As a result of that we all [became disengaged] and created space that allowed ISIS to flourish. That was compounded by the civil war in Syria where, again, we did nothing. And that allowed Assad to attack and kill hundreds of thousands of people and to create conditions in whicha radical group like this ISIS would come to prominence and take advantage of the violence to build its own state, its own Islamic state.
RFE: Are they nowso huge that we can now talk about an actual state?
VOLKER: Absolutely. They have all the characteristics of a state now. They have territory, they have security forces, they have their own currency, they collect taxes… One of the reportswas that the French and the US have targeted a hundred ISIS oil tankers. That means that ISIS has a hundred oil tankers, probably more. That is quite something for what we would have said a few years ago was a small terrorist group. They have really grown into something with greater capacity.
RFE: This is the first time ISIS attacks have moved to Europe.For the first time in a while, [US President Barack] Obama and [Russian President Vladimir ]Putin talked to each other. Can we expect that they will work together against ISIS?
VOLKER: I am not so sure. I think that Russia is very much pursuing its own objectives here. It is trying to support Assad in Syria, to maintain Russia's place in the East, to build its relationship with Iran… The fact that it is stimulating the Sunni-Shia war does not bother Russia so much; I think it would rather fight terrorists in Syria than have them go back to Afghanistan and Chechnia. Those are not Western interests or US interests at all, and I think that the longer Assad stays in power, the longer his regime stays in power, the more dangerous it is for all of us because it is going to extend the civil war.
RFE: Russia seems to be on the offensive, waging a media war against the West. Why has the USA remained aloof, and appears almost uninterested in European events ? This seems to be the case even among media that broacast exclusively to foreign countries, such as Radio Free Europe. We do not yet have an effective answer to Russian propaganda.
VOLKER: I honestly do not understand. My whole career has been about how the US and Europe share common values and should work together because we share common interests in how the world develops. That has, as you pointed out, really been challenged over the last three years.... There is a lot of self-doubt within Europe; we are not rising to tackle current challenges.NATO as you may know has a [primary] core function [common defense]..., but its second core function is crisis management and NATO is not dealing with any of the crises surrounding Europe at the moment, whether it is Ukraine or whether it is Syria, or whether it is Libya. So, I think we have lost a lot of focus and a lot of will, and we need to recover it quickly.
RFE: Did NATO win the Cold War only to lose the post-Cold War?
VOLKER: That is a huge question right now.... We are failing to maintain and defend the post-Cold War order that we created. And we are seeing erosion of that order in many, many ways. We are seeing erosion from Russia using force to change borders in Georgia or Ukraine. We are seeing annexation of territory by Russia, and a dramatic slowdown in the process of European integration in bringing countries into the EU or into NATO --. The enlargement process is kind of stalled out. We have crises going on around Europe, in Libya and in Syria in particular. We have this refugee crisis and we have currency crises. We have the rise of a far right political movements. All these things are undermining the fabric of the rule of law, of freedom, of democracy and of human rights that were the underpinnings of what we had hoped for all ofEurope… We may have won the Cold War in the sense that the Soviet Union collapsed and that the Soviet Union is no longer occupying countries, but we have a lot of other problems come forward. ... We are now really being challenged, and a lot of the reactions are causing the turn to the far right parties, far left parties, ethnic movements and so on.
RFE: Now we have a situation, especially in the European Union after this refugee crisis, where politicians are against one another with NATO acting as a diplomat. It seems that everyone changed their roles.
VOLKER: I would agree with that. I hear a lot about the need to de-escalate, about diplomacy and political solutions, and people are forgetting that those things can only take place once there is some kind of balance in force. And right now we have a lot of people willing to use force to achieve their objectives, just not the West and NATO. So, we are in fact losing ground and it makes seriously negotiated settlement impossible.