Multiple-choice apocalypse

  • 2001-09-27
  • Eric Jansson
At the time I am writing this, the bombs are not falling yet, and neither are special operations troops swarming Afghan encampments, so forgive me: if the war is already on by now, this column may seem slightly old. But the thoughts are still current.

At the time the Baltic governments were formulating their grand policies toward Russia and NATO, in the 1990s, there was neither war nor rumor of war, so forgive them, too: if their expectations suddenly become of date, they are just struggling to comprehend new geopolitical dynamics.

Baltic leaders have put on brave faces, predicting that the new "war on terrorism" will help NATO choose to expand again, in 2002. It might. Eliminating the gray zone in Eastern Europe may be advantageous to Washington and its European allies in their newly terrorized world.

Then again, I cannot remember a single big international outrage in recent years that Baltic leaders did not take as a sign the alliance would expand further east. Such predictions are part of the region's public relations routine.

We might just as well speculate that Western political and military planners, wary of bothering Moscow at a time when Russian intelligence is critically useful north of Pakistan, will opt not to stir up resentment west of the Urals. The White House will want to avoid diplomatically unnecessary actions that look overtly expansionist, during a long war (or "campaign" or "crusade" or whatever it becomes) that is bound to renew and intensify Washington's controversial role as "world policeman."

The fact is, with the Bush administration declaring war, vastly redirecting its priorities and promising a conflict lasting "years," nobody knows what the world will look like a decade on.

It is quite possible that the Baltics' current lust to join NATO will have little meaning by 2010. Here are four grand scenarios that could alter the Baltics' geopolitical options and desires, drastically. None can be ruled out.

First, the "clash of civilizations." A clash, hot or cool, between largely agnosticized Judeo-Christian Europe and the politicized Islamic world, draws Russia closer to the Western community of nations as it rejects the excesses of its Soviet past, a Russia European in origin but from Stalin onward Asiatic in scope.

As Russia westernizes, its influence moves west, geographically, and that influence seems less threatening to the Baltics than it did before. Meanwhile, limited access to Gulf oil increases Western reliance on Russian oil, and Muscovite influence in Western capitals grows as the strategic value of Russia's southern border skyrockets. NATO's eastern border stays put, or it moves, but in either case it is a much less important border than before.

Next, the "Article Five curse." Having entered this conflict with the first-ever invocation of its Article Five principle of solidarity, NATO looks strong. But once engaged in conflict, its member countries become valued targets for terrorist attacks, and its weakest countries are most susceptible to enemy penetration. The Baltics, mindful of their slightly leaky borders, discover unforeseen motives to stay outside the alliance as "cooperative non-members."

Thirdly, the "distraction complex." The stress of short-term dynamics within a global alliance, waging war against an elusive common enemy, drastically alters long-term security relationships within the coalition. Action in hot-spots far from NATO's home theater of operations pries Washington's attention away from European friends it takes for granted and directs it toward suddenly-essential, previously-neglected allies in need of encouragement.

By war's end, NATO loses value. The East-West view of Europe goes out of vogue, replaced by a focus on more timely geopolitical phenomena.

Fourth, "failure." United States soldiers take a battering during a successful campaign against the Taliban, while U.S. and European troops suffer small humiliations elsewhere.

Long after CNN plays a grainy video of Osama bin Laden's corpse, and toward the end of George W. Bush's second term, terrorist threats continue to dog the "civilized world." Western governments conclude that the best way to end the violence is to end their policy of "war," which has been drifting, and declare victory.

Meanwhile, protectorates in the former Yugoslavia have lost their façade of stability. Interventionism and globalization become cursewords as weary governments turn inward. The European Union and a new North American Union take care of their business regionally.

Three of these scenarios are total fiction, wildly off base. Can you tell me which three?

I can guess, but not perfectly. Very likely, all four options in this multiple-choice apocalypse are wrong. Way wrong. But the fact that we do not know illustrates how seriously the attacks against New York and Washington may have altered the future of international security.

The Baltics are wise to keep their course toward NATO and the EU, of course. The very point of the coming war, or whatever it is, is to preserve security in the U.S. and Europe. If it works, NATO may have some sort of role in 2010 and beyond. The alliance may grow even stronger.

But one cannot underestimate the potential shake-up when the world's most powerful country declares a long-term war, with consequences for every country around the globe.

For the last half decade, European geopolitics was dominated by a clear trend toward federalism and legislative uniformity, desired and mimicked by many of the post-socialist countries. NATO, looking for opportunities to move eastward, happily took advantage of this trend, since EU-led reforms coincidentally fit countries to the political mold favored by the military alliance. It has been a consuming ride, but a brief one.

We should not kid ourselves that the last five years - even the last 10 - will define European geopolitics from now until the end of time.