Security Studies Seminar

Where You Stand Depends on Where You Get Hit:
US and European Counterterrorism Strategies

Jeremy Shapiro
Brookings Institution

November 9, 2005


I want to talk about U.S.-European cooperation on counterterrorism. The U.S. and Europe are united in their rhetoric and condemnation of terrorism, and they work together, often very effectively. They both say that they have a very strong alliance. If you look at their high-level national security strategies, they look very similar. They highlight WMD, terrorism, and state failure as central security concerns. But when you look deeper, there are differences that are likely to cause some differences to emerge. It's a good way to look at U.S.-European views in general, because there's no area in which their distinct worldviews are clearer.

The U.S. views Europe as appeasers who turn a blind eye to terrorism on their soil. American officials view the Europeans as non-responsive or passive. Europeans view Americans as trigger-happy simpletons engaged in a futile quest to protect themselves against every conceivable threat, willing to bomb willy-nilly given the smallest provocation. Even De Vries asserts that the U.S. has unnecessarily increased the terrorist recruitment pool and ruined its alliances by undervaluing the political relationships.

This divide is already having some serious effects. In Washington , people are calling for an end to the visa waiver program, which allows Europeans and Americans to travel freely without visas. The United States is worried this is allowing terrorists into our country. But this has huge commercial value—$66 billion in revenues.

What explains these different approaches to terrorism? We need to start with a bit of a caveat about a "European" approach. The EU is not terribly important when it comes to counter-terrorism, and each country has its own perceptions and approaches. But I think we can make some generalizations about a European approach, relative to an American approach.

The real reason for a different approach is more mundane and amenable to intelligence policy. It comes down to three factors. First, the U.S. and Europe faced different threats from Islamic terrorism. Second, they have different perceptions even of the common threats. Third, they have very different tools in their arsenals and very different means of dealing with the threats. This is a simple explanation, but it hasn't penetrated Washington .

Why is the threat different for Europe ? To them, there is no global jihadist threat. To us, there is a link amongst all these different groups all over the world. That was Bin Laden's innovation—uniting these. He managed to create a degree of ideological unity in the fight against the "far enemy." The US is really the primary target of al Qaeda. It is the far enemy. A lot of the countries of Europe are the near enemy. There are these poorly integrated Muslim populations on that soil. Europeans are really a secondary target because al Qaeda is focused on the far enemy. Europe is threatened, but in a way that could conceivably be appeased. Consider the "peace offer" from al Qaeda: if you end support of the U.S. , there can be a truce. Of course, in practice it's difficult to distinguish between these two enemies. The groups that are against the far enemy are much harder to appease and constrain. Near enemy groups have constituencies and political goals. Far enemy groups are more nihilistic and willing to use WMD. The United States has more interests abroad. Europe does too, but most of the potential targets are in the homeland.

Even beyond these distinctions in what the threat actually is, they perceive similar threats differently. They filter the problem of terrorism through very different institutional and historical lenses. The most basic way is the distinction domestically. It's often been noted that the United States has a relatively small and well integrated Muslim population that poses little danger. In the US , most Muslims are not Arabs and most Arabs are not Muslims. The issue of integrating Muslims is becoming an enormous domestic issue in Europe . It is implicated in every single other domestic issue in these countries—immigration, welfare reform. This is what far right parties are getting organized about. Counter-terror is just one and not even the biggest issue when they think about their Muslim population. The U.S. can think about counter-terrorism in relative isolation from most of its other domestic issues.

Europeans also have a much wider experience combating terrorism, and that shapes how they see the problems. They have profiles of other local and regional groups they've fought, for instance separatists that are deeply embedded in society and have clear political goals. Europeans in general have not defeated terrorist movements; they have managed them. They've used domestic intelligence and targeted leadership, and tried to cut them off from sponsors in neighboring countries. Europe has not experienced one catastrophic attack; it's experienced multiple small attacks. They are both gruesome, but these are two different levels.

Europe is a more elite policy-making community. They fear involving the public and losing control. Americans fear losing support and want to involve the public. So this causes them to present the threats to their public and to perceive it in very different ways.

U.S. capabilities in military and intelligence assets really dwarf those of the Europeans. They can operate more effectively at home and abroad. The differences in capability really do create differences in perspectives. Europe is really trying to limit its concerns with the rest of the world. The U.S. has a broader perspective because it is able to influence a lot of these things. For instance, when you get into issues of terrorist sanctuaries, this is really critical. The first impulse of any country dealing with terrorism is to destroy potential sanctuaries, either through diplomacy or military means. Europe had the same impulse. But Europe quickly realized, for instance in Algeria in the 1990s, that they had little power to act abroad. So they made a virtue out of necessity and brought the fight home—focusing on police and intelligence domestically, because they couldn't act abroad. The U.S. is focused on acting abroad and isolating the homeland, which requires a capability that the Europeans just don't have.

The United States is also better able to marshal its power at home. There is little EU role in counter-terrorism. Coordination is basically bilateral or ad hoc on terrorism in the EU. Not good tracking of movement of suspects within Europe . They don't have good rules or procedures for exchanging information. So Europe is to some extent a prisoner of its least motivated and least capable members. EU does not have the bureaucratic competence or the sense of insurgency to take on a task like this. And it would be hard to create given the variation in threats across Europe .

The United States wants one strategy: isolate terrorism externally. The EU is more willing to pursue a mixed strategy of appeasement and brutality, depending on the circumstances. EU doesn't see democracy as a panacea; for them instability is the enemy—unrest may spill over onto their soil. For the US , instability is OK because it may lead to democracy in the long term, eliminating what it views as the real source of terrorism. The US sees Iraq as part of the war on terror; Europe sees US in Iraq as part of the problem. Europe is very worried about Iraqi returnees coming back to Europe . Europe is more concerned about root causes. We shouldn't take this generalization too far—they are interested in aggression against terrorism. But Europeans do pay a lot more attention to this, because the threat manifests itself differently for them. The U.S. has an elimination approach. Europe has a management approach, treating it like crime.

So what are the policy implications of all this? It's important to emphasize that different strategies that stem from different views of the threat, do not mean that cooperation is impossible. Cooperation doesn't require perfect harmony of interests, just mutual benefits. As should be clear, cooperation is both possible and important. Still, these differences have created a lot of difficulties. The U.S. has been a pretty tough negotiator on things like passenger name records, extradition, and container security. But because these do not reflect European threats, there is little political support and enforcement of them.

This problem is very hard to solve. But I think a few things would help. First, there needs to be a legitimating of these basic differences. Policy-makers really do not recognize these things. I feel like this talk is too obvious, but every time I think that, I get reminded that people really think the other side "just doesn't understand." It's not just about European cowardice. There are legitimate differences.

Second, the U.S. needs to think more strategically about Europe . Currently the U.S. is agnostic about the best level of counter-terrorism cooperation with Europe—intelligence agencies, NATO, EU, etc. European governance is a European issue. The US has an ability to affect this process, because relationship with US is a valued asset to institutions in Europe .

One way for the U.S. to demonstrate support for this process would be to make more information available for terrorist trials in Europe . The U.S. has received a lot of information from Europe , but it has largely withheld information that the Europeans want to conduct their proceedings. This is a diplomatic success, but in the long term it is a disaster. Having the U.S. minimizing flow of information for use in trials creates a lot of anger among EU counter-terrorism officials. This is a constant complaint I hear from Europeans involved in these judicial processes.

Europe also wants the U.S. to turn down its rhetoric. Statements meant for U.S. domestic consumption play very differently in European Muslim communities.

These recommendations can start to bridge the gap. Working together doesn't imply that you have to think of the problem in exactly the same way.


Jeremy Shapiro is Director of Research, Center on the United States and Europe, and Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, at the Brookings Institution.

Rapporteur: Caitlin Talmadge

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2005