By Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.*
Guy Verhofstadt, an insightful European liberal Parlamentarian and lawmaker, former Belgian premier and chief Brexit negotiator, has already sounded the alarm: World War III may already be in the making and the election of a Donald Trump portents it. He is convinced that a “ring of autocrats” is presently trying to wreck the EU and cites the presidents of Russia and Turkey and their counterpart Donald Trump who will soon be joining them.
He has also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “openly financing” populist and Eurosceptic parties while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan targets Turkish opposition members in Europe. He has also pointed out that Trump’s chief strategists Steve Bannon has hinted at plans to open new bureaus for his right-wing Breitbart News website in France and Germany in order to influence elections there. This may not yet constitute an international conspiracy to destroy EU values but the signs are surely there constituted by the three stooges, Putin, Erdogan, and Trump, who rather than constituting a ring of allies and friends of Europe cooperating with the EU (after all, two are in NATO, and one has applied for entry into the EU) are perhaps better characterized as a menacing ring of autocrats planning its demise.
Donald Trump, who soon will be the de facto “autocrat” (whether or not he thinks of himself as one such) of all the democratic forces of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) will soon have to face the dilemma of whether defending a Baltic NATO member against Vladimir Putin is worth sparking World War III, because that’s the choice that may eventually need to be confronted.
The war may be ignited in Latvia, or perhaps neighboring Estonia or Lithuania, the so called Baltic nations which, after Crimea, may well be next on the Russian bear’s hit list. They are former satellites of the Soviet Union, and are now NATO members. Under article five of the NATO alliance treaty all member nations are compelled to come to the rescue of a member threatened with invasion, no matter how small or insignificant that nation may or may not be on the world’s political stage. Such a stipulation, if adhered to, may well ignite World War III.
The omens are all there: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has claimed recently that he is proceeding with the mending of broken ties with Trump-led America, while he continues his firm support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And why shouldn’t he? After all, during the presidential campaign Trump expressed reservations about coming to rescue of any NATO allies citing financial problems. He also encouraged Russian hackers to delve in Clinton’s e-mails and reveal their content while keeping quite all along about the efforts of Putin to interfere and influence the US presidential election; something the strong-man of Russia has acknowledged and seems even to be proud of.
The question arises: will Putin invade any of the 3 tiny countries with conventional troops? Probably not, he doesn’t have to be that blatant. All he needs to do is incite civil unrest among ethnic Russians which are a sizeable part of the population (25% in Latvia alone). He may simply instigate a militarized crisis using deniable proxies. One way to do it is to have Russian-speaking Latvians or Estonians riot in the streets, protesting persecution, violation of their rights and demanding international protection.
Then a well-armed and well-trained ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics’ will suddenly appear. Moreover, a few high-profile assassinations and bombings will ensue bringing the Baltics to the edge of a civil war or at least a low-grade insurgency. Then, voilà, Mr. Fix-all will enter the stage, first blocking an international peacekeeping force at the UN with his veto power, then intervening to settle the conflict in the interests of peace, of course! Have we not seen this movie before in Crimea? We know how it ends. Putin calls it “hybrid warfare.” It is an underhand technique which avoids conventional attacks and it involves militia not officially attached to a country’s force, ultimately justifying military intervention.
But, to return to the circle of autocrats, there is also China for the EU to worry about, for Turkey is actively looking into joining a Chinese-and Russian-led political, economic and military alliance known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as an alternative to joining the European Union, which has not been receptive to Turkey’s repeated bids for membership initiated way back in 1963.
France, Germany, and Belgium have long opposed Turkey’s accession into the EU. Erdogan’s reluctance to sign on to certain membership requirements, and his increasingly authoritarian leadership over Turkey, has also sparked concern among European leaders that he is not committed to a Western conception of human rights and civil liberties. The European Commission has warned Turkey that it is “backsliding in human rights and democracy” but Erdogan appears to merely scoff at the accusation with statements such as this: “From time to time, we see insults directed at myself, claims that there was no freedom of expression in Turkey, meanwhile, terrorists prance around in French, German and Belgian streets. This is what they understand of freedom.”
It is clear that Erdogan feels much more comfortable and at home among the authoritarian regimes of the SCO organization rather than facing the scrutiny and criticism of the EU. He knows full well that even just threatening to join the Shanghai bloc would rattle the West and “considerably broaden Turkey’s room to maneuver” as Erdogan himself has declared.
If Turkey were to actually join the SCO, it would be viewed as a rejection of the Western alliance, and make it incredibly difficult to include Turkey in any type of high-level strategic dialogue, given concerns about Russian expansionism. But it remains unclear, even to Erdogan, whether a closer alliance with Russia and China would benefit Turkey politically or economically. Erdogan has made those overtures toward Russia and China before but they failed to materialize. It may simply be a ploy to gain concessions and access to the EU which so far has been denied him. He wants the EU to be more forthcoming, especially since he has consented to help stem the flow of refugees trying to enter Europe. In some way Erdogan has already been successful. Over the summer, the EU agreed to pay Turkey €3 billion — and German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to speed up Turkey’s EU bid — if it pledged to harbor the vast amount of refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe.
Turkey’s possible entry into the SCO would also complicate its relationship with NATO. In theory, SCO membership would not require Turkey’s exit from NATO, but in practice, however, it would severely strain Turkey’s ties with other NATO members. Erdogan is reassuring in this respect. He told CBS that “Turkey is moving in the same direction with NATO that we have always done.” But at the same time Putin is making sure that the strains in the transatlantic alliance continue, for he knows that as a rogue and dysfunctional NATO ally, Turkey is a great advantage to Moscow’s devious policy of divide and conquer.
What his relationship to Trump and an America that is no longer seen as a stabilizer in NATO but a destabilizer, turns out to be, remains to be seen. The omens, however, are not good and the danger of a Third World War persist in a global atmosphere that has still to learn that a tone of cooperation is much more desirable than one of domination and competition; that social Darwinism will only insure that our planet becomes a social jungle with winners and losers. In the end, we all lose. We in the West ought to hope for the best but prepare for the worst that may be coming. Let those who have ears, let them hear.
About the author:
*Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D. has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.
This article appeared at Modern Diplomacy