THE MAGAZINE

Europe Pushes for a Softer U.S. Line

By John Barham

The United States and its European allies are divided by a “fundamental difference in approach” when it comes to dealing with terrorism, former EU counterterrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries told attendees at this year’s ASIS European Security Conference in Barcelona.

“Whereas the U.S. continues to construct its counterterrorist strategy on the basis of a war paradigm, European governments view a crime paradigm as more effective and more in line with the rights and values which are at the heart of Western democracies,” said de Vries. 

The Bush administration’s denial of due process to some terrorist suspects, its use of extraordinary renditions, and “studied ambiguity” over the use of physical coercion in interrogations have cost it support around the world, added de Vries, who is now senior fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

As a result of those policies, he said, the image and effectiveness of America’s allies are also compromised in the Muslim world. “For the U.S. to return to a mainstream interpretation of human rights and humanitarian law in the fight against terrorism is, therefore, a key security interest of Europeans,” de Vries told attendees.

European security experts expect the next U.S. administration will revert to a more traditional, less militarized approach to combating terrorism and seek stronger links with the European Union. “Establishing such a new transatlantic paradigm deserves to rank at the top of EU talks with the new American administration in early 2009,” de Vries asserted.

Most speakers at the conference shared this outlook. Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Global Terrorism at Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute, also stressed the need for European security services to be kept under strict political control as governments extend their powers to fight terrorism.

“European police are carrying out preventive operations and this takes us to the question of liberties and rights [of citizens]. These operations need to be controlled by democracy and parliaments,” Reinares told Security Management.

Governments can avoid a public backlash against police extending their powers to avert future terrorist attacks by communicating clearly. “The population must understand that the alternative to prevention is investigation” after an event, said Reinares.

In Washington a few weeks later, Matthias Sonn, deputy counterterrorism coordinator for the German Foreign Office, echoed these views at a seminar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He said, “We should look at counterterrorism as a long-term threat, and the task is to contain it as much as possible.” In contrast, the U.S. government has portrayed terrorism as a finite problem that can be defeated with a strategy of “kill or capture” of terrorist suspects, he said.

European-style counterterrorism has “traditionally not had a seat at the national security table,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, speaking at the CSIS event. He served as a security adviser to President George W. Bush.

Cilluffo believes that the incoming administration will probably take a more multilateral approach to terrorism.

However, there is more that unites than divides the Europeans and the Americans in the struggle against terrorism. De Vries pointed out that the United States and the European Union have deepened cooperation in various areas, such as tightening controls on container traffic, sharing airline passenger data, and forging closer partnerships between border control, police, and intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sonn said that a U.S.-Germany information and data-sharing agreement sailed through Germany’s parliament with little opposition. The European Union and the United States are both using financial sanctions as an effective tool against terrorist groups.

Bush administration officials already emphasize the struggle against international terrorism as a “long war” that involves public affairs, police work, and international intelligence sharing as well as military force.

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