Anxiety over terrorism and migration is shaping the electoral dynamics in both Europe and the United States. Both of these complex challenges belie simplistic characterization (or demonization); unfortunately, the politics of fear remains compelling and bravado reassures. In the coming year, Western governments will continue to struggle with preserving open societies capable of integrating migrants while dealing with the reality of fiscal and political constraints.
The transatlantic community, however, must not lose sight of how these challenges stem from conditions elsewhere in the world. Nine of out every ten of the approximately 60 million refugees today are in developing countries—not Western Europe or North America. Not since World War II has there been a security and humanitarian crisis on such a scale. Forced migration is a phenomenon that cannot easily be stopped, but can almost certainly be more effectively managed.
The migration crisis has been too often conflated with the threat from terrorism, which is mainly about “homegrown,” radicalized youth and deliberate infiltration by organized jihadist groups like ISIS. European governments are thus scrambling to better secure their borders, share intelligence, and help stabilize the conflict in Syria. France, Britain, and Germany are increasing their defense and intelligence budgets and there will soon be more intelligence analysts and surveillance tools to help close security gaps. The shadow cast on intelligence activities by Snowden’s revelations of NSA surveillance practices may have finally passed.
Yet for all of Europe’s show of force, it is doubtful that it can simply spend its way out of the long-term challenge emanating from its periphery. The European Union promised Turkey €3 billion in aid last year to help stem the flow of refugees and the German government has recently proposed financing over a half a million short-term jobs for refugees stuck in camps in Syria. These are temporary measures that address the symptom, not a robust strategy to resolve the cause of the current crisis. Western policy must be able to slow the flow of refugees from conflict-ridden North Africa and the Middle East, assist countries in the region to handle their own humanitarian crisis, and counter the ISIS narrative that Western countries are only willing to send war planes to Muslim lands.
Energetic diplomacy will be critical to reducing the regional tensions that have contributed to the rise of ISIS and fueled the migration crisis. Investment in conflict-resolution programs could reduce the scale and scope of the more than 30 ongoing civil wars from which jihadist groups profit. Building up the defense and governance capabilities of states such as Iraq and Yemen could help them fight ISIS affiliates, either alone or with U.S. assistance. And even though Europe and the United States will be unable to resolve the deeper socio-economic problems plaguing the Middle East, they can take a more active role in reducing or at least containing the violence in the region.
A renewed focus on conflict resolution and capacity-building is a long-term prospect, but the “bread and butter” of diplomacy and aid is certainly more cost effective than simply delivering military hardware. It would also directly address the grievances that have spurned intra-state conflict and the rise of jihadist groups throughout the “arc of crisis” stretching from Morocco to Burma. The United States and Europe at the moment have neither the patience nor resources to fully resolve these problems, but will continue to fall victim to the consequences if they fail to try.
Parke Nicholson is the Senior Research Associate at AICGS.