The West after Paris - an interview with Dr. James Strong

The world is what it is, which is to say, nothing much. This is what everyone learned yesterday, thanks to the formidable concert of opinion coming from radios, newspapers, and information agencies”. Thus, on the 8th of August 1945, Albert Camus started his editorial commenting the bombing of Hiroshima, in the French Resistance newspaper, Combat. A similar “formidable concert” took place after the attacks of the 13th of November in Paris. Media have not spared us any sort of commentary. We have been submerged by a deluge of information in which it is easy to drawn. So much has been said and written, that the quality of the arguments has succumbed to the sheer quantity of news and opinions.

There is very little indeed to add to this mass of information about what happened in Paris. However, with the hope of contributing to an informed debate, we asked James Strong, fellow in International Relations and Foreign Policy analysis at the London School of Economics, about the role of the media and the public opinion in the wake of the attacks. He has previously been interviewed by the New York Times and Al Jazeera

The attacks in Paris have shocked the western world just few months after blood was shed in the French capital (in January 2015). We have witnessed deeply emotional international reactions, from social media to declarations of the most important women and men on the planet. President Holland has defined the attack as an “act of war”. You have written that “media logic (...) colonises foreign policy decision-making”. Could you explain what this means and how this applies in the context of post-Paris attack?
In this context there is a risk that the media’s desire for quick reactions, simple soundbites and clear policy lines makes dealing with a hugely complex situation in Syria significantly harder. The media wants to know NOW what governments plan to do. They have no time to reflect or to plan, they just have to react. Similarly, the emotive and highly shocking nature of the Paris attacks generates massive media coverage that forces governments to focus on Paris specifically, excluding for example similar developments in Lebanon or Nigeria. Finally, it makes coming up with a nuanced, balanced policy response difficult. President Hollande has declared a state of emergency and despatched an aircraft carrier to join the fight in Syria. Far more people are talking about keeping refugees out of Western Europe (and the US) than about protecting Syrian civilians so they don’t feel the need to become refugees in the first place. To some extent that reflects the public’s immediate reaction. But the media amplifies and exacerbates it.

Do you think that the kind of language used by international political leaders is a hint that a major shift in the EU and US foreign policy is going to take place in the Middle East?
I think a policy shift of sorts was already underway, with the realisation growing that the US and Russia are going to have to cooperate to address the common threat of ISIL. That’s happening from Moscow as much as from Washington after the Metrojet bombing a few weeks ago. At the same time, it’s far from clear that there is a real appetite for a large-scale involvement in Syria from Western publics, even on the limited scale that Russia has launched on behalf of the Assad regime. Certainly we’ll see the West drop its objections to Assad staying in power at least in the short to medium term.

And what about Britain?
In the UK the parliamentary arithmetic still militates against a military response to ISIL. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn opposes the use of force on principle. But if the government can put forward a comprehensive strategy addressing issues of multilateral cooperation, international law, humanitarian protection and diplomacy it might well get parliamentary support for further military strikes.

Some commentators argue that the strategy of the Islamic State is to incite Europeans civilians to more hatred towards “Muslims”, indiscriminately. These commentators invite to be more cautions and to avoid the use of phrases like “clash of civilisations”. Others, instead, see this attack as an opportunity to seize in order to take concrete steps to eliminate the threat and bring security to European citizens. What do you think is the role that public opinion will now play in shaping European foreign policy towards the Islamic State?
Public opinion is a difficult concept to work with. For example, when you talk about French public opinion, you need to include in that the opinion of French Muslims, most of whom want a balanced approach that protects them from ISIL without harming civilians. ISIL may well be trying to provoke a clash of civilisations. But to some extent the tradition of pluralism in Western democracies should protect them. If we see too much of an anti-immigrant backlash it’ll be harmful. There are however good reasons to be hopeful that cooler heads will prevail.

Muslims make up for 4.5% of the population of England, as opposed to 7.5% in France. Is the British public opinion going to be different than in other European countries?
Dr. James Strong
British opinion probably won’t differ that much from that in other European countries. The British public in general tends to be more willing to use force abroad and to intervene in other states. But it is also prone to insularity, especially on the issues of immigration and European co-ordination. Minority populations will definitely have a role to play in the debate, ideally making two points. First, the people carrying out these sorts of attacks are the people the refugees are running away from. Second, minorities alone can’t defeat ISIL. I particularly enjoyed the tweet from one British Muslim who said “I can’t even get the girl I like to text me back, and you expect me to defeat a terrorist group?!”. Ultimately the Western traditions of pluralism and tolerance that so offend ISIL are what protect minority groups in Western states. Most members of minority groups, Muslim or otherwise, support these values strongly. I’ve argued for some time that you can tell the West is going to beat ISIL from one simple fact. People are fleeing in terror from ISIL in their millions. And they’re trying to come here, because here is better. In the long term, as long as we don’t forget that, the West will win.
Luigi Lonardo

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