President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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The West Needs to Stop Obsessing About Putin

Whether the Western media views Russian President Vladimir Putin as losing or winning, as strong or weak, as having a plan or lacking one entirely, it focuses almost exclusively on him as the driving force behind everything that happens in Russia and everything Russia does abroad. For good reason. Putin’s aggression is one of the top foreign policy challenges today. From Ukraine to Syria, no one stands in starker opposition to the Western world order.

Thus, Putin must go.  Focusing on the man, however, ignores the system that he’s put into place, and that system is the key to understanding today’s Russia and how we should deal with it.

The West’s Putin obsession feeds the misconception that if Putin were to step down tomorrow, Russia would be able to democratize and retake its place in the international community. Perhaps at one point in the early 2000s the removal of Putin would have made it possible for Russia to avoid a darker path. But that thought is no more than fantasy today. Putin is the central figure in the government apparatus, and members of his government cannot envision a Russia without him. Yet he has made the political future of Russia unstable by co-opting its political system, twisting it to serve himself and the elite who serve him, instead of the Russian people, and forging a system of rule that will, paradoxically, survive him and hinder democratization.

Putin’s regime is not an effective, responsive government. He has based his authority on corruption, the negation of basic political rights, the alternating appeasement and subjugation of the oligarchs, and manipulation of his people through control of the media. Even if Putin felt secure enough to appoint a successor who would guarantee him immunity from prosecution, as Putin did for Yeltsin, that successor would face problems simply by not being Putin.

This does not mean that Putin must stay for the sake of stability, or that his presence guarantees stability. Russia is not a stable country under Putin. Since the invasion of Crimea, the ruble has lost 50 percent of its value in relation to the dollar, Russia’s GDP has dropped by almost 1 trillion dollars since 2013, and Russia’s oil and gas industry has a bleak future. Russia is not a status quo international actor, as its mischief-making in Ukraine and muscle-flexing in Syria demonstrate. And with xenophobia and propaganda-induced nationalist hysteria on the rise, it could get worse, especially if a more erratic, nationalist politician were to succeed, or supplant, Putin.

If democracy is to have any hope in Russia, change must be organic, with the Russian people at its head. Democratic reformers hope that Putin’s powerbase, with its reliance on economics and the menace of external enemies, eventually crumbles and collapses under its own weight. Putin’s increasingly unpredictable behavior, spinning from crisis to crisis as he tries to maintain momentum and keep his people’s attention away from the country’s economic downturn and the population’s lack of basic rights and democratic freedoms, does not seem sustainable in the long term. Democratic hopefuls may get their wish.

An implosion may not bring about a positive outcome, however, as Russia’s own experience with the dismantling of the Soviet Union shows. The chaotic end of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent rollercoaster of what the West called reform, but many Russians called ruin, had frightening consequences. It largely discredited democracy in the eyes of Russians. They do not want to go through anything similar again.

The sad truth is that only time and more failure can push Putin from his throne. Direct external pressure will only serve to ignite the volatile mix of nationalism and fear—of the past and the future—that reigns in Russia. The West must do its best to make Putin an anachronism, to show Russians that there is a better world. If the United States wants to see Putin out of power, it must be ready for a Russia without Putin and a period of turmoil that could make the end of the Soviet Union look downright peaceful in comparison. The media can help by focusing less on Putin as an epic villain and more on the system that he’s created, how that system blights Russia’s present, and the problems it is likely to bequeath to our common future.  

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers. Melinda Haring is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

 

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Russia returns as al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ‘Far Enemy’

The Soviet defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 left victorious Arab mujahideen adrift.  Many retired from their jihadi adventures returning home to North Africa and the Middle East. Others remained in Pakistan, committed to fighting jihads in other theaters, establishing a network that in 1991 would officially become known as al Qaeda.  With time, Osama Bin Laden aimed al Qaeda’s ideology at the United States whom he believed to be the ‘Far Enemy’ who propped up the ‘Near Enemy’–local apostate Muslim dictators and their regimes.  This strategic logic, annotated in al Qaeda’s 1996 declaration of war on the United States, has powered nearly two decades of terrorist attacks on Americans. 

Al Qaeda’s ‘Far Enemy’ logic for singularly focusing on the United States has proven both wrong over the long-term and counterproductive to the terrorist group.  In the months before and after Bin Laden’s death, the U.S. let North African and Middle Eastern dictators fall to Arab Spring uprisings.  Until the rise of the Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda’s jihadi spawn, the U.S. refused to intervene in Syria–one of the bloodiest and most protracted civil wars in recent history.  U.S. inaction in Syria, rather than meddling, has provided what little lifeblood al Qaeda clings to in its most important affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.  

Jihad’s real ‘Far Enemy’ in Syria for many years has been Iran and now Russia.  For several years, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have helped Syria hold the line against a band of rebel groups to include Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State.  Last month, Russia moved from the shadows and into the forefront with their military build up.  The Russians talk of targeting terrorists, but the pattern of their airstrikes speaks otherwise.  Most sorties have aimed their missiles at Syrian rebel groups including Jabhat al Nusra leaving the Islamic State mostly to the American-led coalition.  Today, Russia, far more than the U.S., has returned to be jihad’s ‘Far Enemy.’

More than a year and a half ago, in anticipation of the Islamic State’s rise over al Qaeda and witnessing the U.S. desire to extract itself from the Middle East post-Iraq, I proposed that, ”U.S. information campaigns in counterterrorism should consider redirecting al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy’ narrative. Today, the real far enemies of jihadis in Syria are Russia and Iran.”  I still believe this to be a wise strategy for the U.S.  First, for more than ten years, the U.S. has failed to successfully counter jihadi ideology and supporting propaganda.  Lacking any demonstrated success winning the hearts and minds of militant Muslims, why continue to waste time and money funding counternarrative efforts?  Second, it’s almost always easier to shift a message (alternative narrative) than to counter it (counter narrative).  If the goal is simply to protect Americans from jihadi violence, then it will likely be easier to shift jihadi violence to another target, such as Russia, than to convince jihadis to abandon their ideology and violence entirely. Third, the Russians have used social media driven information campaigns to discredit the U.S. for years.  Facebook and Twitter remain littered with pro-Russian, Western looking accounts and supporting automated bots designed to undermine the credibility of the U.S. government.  Why not return the favor back to the Russians and restore their place as the ‘Far Enemy’?

Unfortunately, the U.S. will likely be unable to execute such an information strategy to redirect jihadi angst onto a Russian adversary.  Current calls for countering the Islamic State’s ideology echo those of ten years ago to counter al Qaeda.  Americans appear permanently fixed on this failed tact.  U.S. messaging efforts also remain painfully slow to program.  Americans haven’t even figured out how to respond to the Russian invasion of Crimea, therefore it’s doubtful they’d be effective at redirecting jihadi angst prior to the end of the Syrian conflict.  Lastly, the U.S. seems a bit scared of Russia in the information space in part because Russian cyber attacks on the U.S., whether by organized crime or the Russian state, have become a huge vulnerability.  Don’t anger the bear if you can’t keep it in its cage. 

Luckily for the U.S., jihadi propaganda appears to be spinning away from the U.S. and toward Russia.  Months ago, the leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, said he was instructed by al Qaeda’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to avoid targeting the U.S.  Shortly after Russian airstrikes, Julani released an audio message calling Russia the “Eastern Crusaders” and calling for attacks inside Russia and on Shiite villages.  The U.S. at a minimum, through covert or semi-covert platforms, should take advantage and amplify these free alternative narratives to provide Russia some payback for recent years’ aggression.  Russia would assuredly do that to the U.S.

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The Eurasian Economic Union’s growth is not good for democracy in the region

In August 2015, Kyrgyzstan officially became a full member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), joining Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia in the Russia-led European Union rival. The expansion of the EEU could spell trouble for the democratization of Eurasia.

The EEU itself is a new institution, formally coming into existence on January 1, 2015. Loosely modelled, in concept if not yet execution, on the EU, it grew out of the Eurasian Customs Union that had been founded on January 1, 2010 between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan—which itself was the result of a series of customs unions created by various Eurasian countries in the late-1990s and early- to mid-2000s—and seeks regional integration on a political and economic level.

Unlike the EU, the EEU is not held back by the necessity of considering the democracy and human rights records of potential members, as the Freedom House Freedom scores for the founding members are a  6, 6.5 and 5.5, respectively, all “Not Free.” In addition, as Russia has by far the largest and most robust economy in the region, with a GDP roughly nine times that of Kazakhstan and twenty-nine times that of Belarus, and the economies of the other countries are already so dependent on Russia, any attempts at integration will be dominated by Russia and, as a necessary consequence, Putin. Russia’s economic preponderance, codified by the EEU, will give it much greater leverage over its neighbors. Uzbekistan’s heretofore hesitancy to joining the EEU, fearing direct Russian influence over its affairs, evidences that other countries in the region are aware of this risk. Yet even here, the already established economic dependence is working against Uzbekistan: in late 2014 Russia simply wrote off $865 million dollars of Uzbekistan’s debt, with the goal of developing ties between the two countries.

Despite attempts by the European Union to court post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia and bring them into direct association with the EU via programs such as the Eastern Partnership, support for European institutions is down in several key target states. In Moldova, for example, seen as one of the leading lights of the Eastern Partnership—and one of the most successful Eastern Partnership countries in terms of reform—support for the European Union hovers around only 40 percent. In 2007, 78 percent of Moldovans supported the EU. The recent protests have cast further doubt on Moldova’s chances for a successful integration with Europe; while the protestors themselves are not openly pro-Russia and have valid reasons to protest, the collapse of the fragile pro-European coalition could see pro-Russian political groups profit, with two of the most vocal supporters of the protests, the Socialist Party and the Patria Party, holding pro-EEU positions.

At the same time, support for the Russia- and Putin-led Eurasian Economic Union is growing in the region as a whole. Armenia, one of the Eastern Partnership countries, has already joined the EEU, acceding in January 2015. In a poll carried out by the Moldovan Institute for Public Policy, 50 percent of respondents favored integration with the EEU, versus 32 percent that favored joining the EU. Although support for the EU in Georgia, one of the most Euro-centric countries in the region, remains high at 68 percent, 31 percent of Georgians now favor joining the EEU, up from 16 percent only last year.

That support for the EEU is rising even in countries with relatively competitive democratic institutions is deeply troubling. Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are countries that, while perhaps not yet on the level of the strongest Eastern European democracies, have slowly been taking the necessary steps to establish certain democratic and pluralistic norms that are not often found in the region.

The lack of conviction of the EU initiatives and the unwillingness of EU politicians to make any promises about the chances for Eurasian countries to join the EU, both in evidence at the May 2015 EU summit in Riga, puts these trends in an even more worrying light. The difficulty of joining the European Union potentially makes the EEU a more satisfying prospect for populist politicians looking for successes to sell to their constituents.

In creating the EEU, Putin has found a vehicle for binding post-Soviet countries more tightly to Russia. Although the EEU’s founding members were countries already linked to Russia and Putin, the accession of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan and the increase in support for the EEU in Georgia and Moldova shows that other countries in the region are being convinced by Russian rhetoric. The greatest danger if these countries fall under greater Russian influence is not only that they will move further away from Europe, but also that Putin will be able to influence their politics more directly and so any democratic gains they have made in the past few decades will be lost for good. 

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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The Battle for History: Why Europe Should Resist the Temptation to Rewrite its Own Communist Past

Former Soviet Union
 

Earlier this month the Czech and Slovak governments criticised the airing of a Russian documentary on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, with the Slovak ministry of foreign affairs describing it as an attempt ‘to rewrite history.’ Martin D. Brown writes that while the documentary was undoubtedly flawed, the diplomatic spat was symptomatic of a situation in which Russia has increasingly adopted a resolutely Soviet view of history, while post-Soviet states have supported the construction of a consciously anti-Soviet history built around the concept of totalitarianism. He argues that there is little to gain from Europe rewriting its own past simply to counter the Russian narrative.

David Cameron spoke last week at the 10th GLOBSEC Security Forum, held in Bratislava, Slovakia. He addressed the key security concerns facing Europe: conflict in Ukraine, the rise of ISIL and the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. His speech was clearly aimed at reassuring members of the European Union’s eastern and southern flanks of continued British support. He also stressed the need to find credible policies to combat the menacing appeal of ISIL’s extremist ideology and the radicalisation of Muslim populations across Western Europe.

ISIL is not the first movement attempting to use social (and other) media and revisionist history to buttress its geopolitical strategy. Cameron’s hosts, the Slovaks, and their neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe, have had plenty of experience dealing with extremist ideologies, so it might be presumed they have developed workable solutions to tackle this threat.

Most recently, along with her neighbour the Czech Republic, Slovakia has been embroiled in a diplomatic spat with Moscow over a Russian television documentary about the crushing of the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 – a pivotal moment in the history of one of the preeminent extremist ideologies in European history: communism. There’s nothing surprising in this: the twentieth century is a vigorously contested subject. The past has regularly been weaponised in propaganda wars over ‘historical truth’. Even the Cold War has been persistently, and inaccurately, press-ganged into service with reference to the current conflict in Ukraine.

Russia appears to be reverting to a resolutely Soviet view of history, whereas the post-Soviet states have supported the construction of a consciously anti-Soviet history built around the concept of totalitarianism. The two narratives are incompatible, and it’s questionable whether either encourages a useful dialogue or tells us much about history’s ability to proffer policy recommendations.

The Battle for History

This particular incident was triggered by a new series on Russia’s Rossiya-1: Warsaw Pact – Pages Declassified. The programme defended the Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (involving Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian, Polish and Soviet forces), claiming it was a pre-emptive intervention to avoid a NATO/Nazi-led putsch. Outraged, both Bratislava and Prague made formal complaints to Russia for allowing such distortions to be broadcast.

Rossiya’s claims are nonsense: a crude rehashing of old Soviet justifications. We now know from oral testimonies that similar stories were fed to Warsaw Pact troops crossing the Czechoslovak borders, who were surprised at the hostile reception they received. More nuanced accounts can be found in various articles, books and document collections that conclusively demonstrate the falsehood of Rossiya’s claims.

So, on the face of it, this was another example of Vladimir Putin’s attempts to manipulate the Russian/Soviet past for political gain in the ongoing information war with the ‘West’. Perhaps it’s also symptomatic of Russia’s concerns over western-sponsored ‘colour revolutions’ and regime change. But this is only half the story.

For the past twenty-five years, post-Soviet Europe has also been busily reclaiming and rewriting its history. During the communist era the past was strictly policed and heavily censored. Public discussion of human rights abuses, political repression, and the murder of tens of millions was suppressed. Well-known examples include the official obfuscation over the Ukrainian famine, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Katyn massacre.

Although the past was confiscated by communist regimes, this does not mean the west’s version was wholly objective or accurate either. All research into the Cold War was politicised, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Previously established estimates of the death toll under Stalin are currently being revised and reduced.

Since 1989, post-Soviet states have been opening up their archives and enacting legislation to establish institutes to document and publicise these events: the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory; the Terror House in Hungary; the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland; and the Nation’s Memory Institute in Slovakia, grouped together under the umbrella of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.

Led by the Czech Republic, a campaign was launched in 2008 to formularise these perspectives into the EU itself. A European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism was subsequently established, to be commemorated annually on the 23rd of August.

Collectively, and inspired by a reading of the work of Hannah Arendt (or perhaps a misreading), these bodies and laws promote a state–sponsored conception of totalitarianism, in which the histories and crimes of fascism and communism are expressly equated. The most vocal exponents of this concept in the west are Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder.

Controversially, this discourse has also been exposed to attempted efforts at Holocaustization; co-opting the terminology of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. In 2014 the Estonian film In the Crosswind, dealing with the mass deportations of 1941, expressly used the term “Soviet Holocaust”. Again, the purpose being to equate what is argued are the lesser-known communist crimes with those of the Nazis.

Entirely justifiably, these post-Soviet countries are reclaiming their long lost pasts. However, their politicians have constructed and funded bodies to produce an ‘approved’ totalitarian version of history diametrically opposed to the former communist narrative. Regardless of what one might think of the usefulness of such an approach, the official nature of the programme should give one pause for thought. History is about discourse and any process that limits or hinders debate should be a source of concern.

Treated with care, and protected from political interference or national sentiment, such an approach should yield useful results. But as Dr Muriel Blaive, Advisor to the Director for Research and Methodology at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague, warned in a recent interview, this hasn’t always been the case. There have been wide discrepancies in how well these communist-era archives have been protected and utilised, as well as in the outcomes produced.

I would argue that the central problem is not with what the totalitarian approach claims to have revealed, but rather with what it has failed to explain. Yes, the crimes of communism have now been documented and rightly exposed, but what exactly has been revealed about the comparison with fascism, especially in those states that actively engaged with both? It’s difficult to see how the lumping together of disparate regimes is an aid to analysis, especially as the concept of totalitarianism remains at best fuzzy and ill-defined.

Furthermore, the totalitarian approach is avowedly Euro-centric and geographically myopic. It offers no insight into the global Cold War, and it ignores the fact that, outside of Europe, Moscow was often regarded as the champion in the anti-imperialist struggle.

More problematically the project has failed to explain why tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people willingly joined fascist and communist parties in the first place or later collaborated with these regimes. Were they deluded, coerced, or, more worryingly, did they actively embrace the ideologies on offer? We have no answer.

Put bluntly, the opposite of communist lies is not ‘truth’. Nor does Russia have a monopoly on falsifying the past. The issue here, as Cameron addressed in Bratislava, is how societies comprehend and confront ideological extremism, be it fascism, communism, or the current rise in violent Islamic fundamentalism.

More than twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall, what hope does the EU have in confronting the allure of ISIL, if it’s yet to develop a sophisticated and holistic understanding of its own history of extremist ideology?

This post originally appeared on the LSE EUROPP Blog

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About the Author

Martin D. Brown is an Associate Professor of International History at Richmond, the American International University in London. He is co-editor of Slovakia in History

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