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A Talk with Professor Bill Smullen on NATO, Canada, and more

With unique crises on multiple fronts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, NATO “is clearly more relevant today than it has been for decades.” This was one of the key takeaways from a recent interview with Professor Bill Smullen, Director of National Security Studies at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Professor Smullen served as Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and as Special Assistant to the 11th and 12th Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during his 30 years of service with the US Army. He recently sat down to discuss the developments in Ukraine and Syria/Iraq, the outlook for NATO’s future significance amidst the context of these evolving challenges, and Canada’s role as a NATO ally and valued partner of the United States.

Professor Bill Smullen

According to Professor Smullen, NATO has “rejuvenated its relevance” as a “negotiator” and “peacekeeper” following the demise of the Soviet threat more than 20 years ago. In this context, he is relatively optimistic regarding the unrest in Ukraine and NATO’s potential role in subduing the crisis. To him, the new Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has the potential to be a key figure in this standoff. Upon Stoltenberg’s selection for the position, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that the two have “very good relations, including personal relations.” Smullen proposes that this relationship “may be a positive rather than a negative,” stating that he would urge Stoltenberg to “sit down with President Putin at his earliest convenience and have a discussion as to how they can work together to solve the problems of that part of the world.”

Professor Smullen suggests that this kind of dialogue and solution may be expedited by the impact that economic sanctions have been having on the Russian regime. He believes that Russia has “obviously suffered economic liabilities as a result of the sanctions that have been imposed” and that, “behind the scenes, [the Russian government is] having discussions that ‘we can’t keep on keeping on the way we have been with Georgia and Ukraine and maintain an economic position that is satisfactory to the Russian people.’”

In spite of the “neo-imperial philosophy” espoused by Putin, Professor Smullen believes that sanctions and their impact are what caused Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to call for a “reset 2.0” with the United States recently. This is certainly encouraging news and, in addition to potentially warmer relations with NATO’s chief, may foreshadow an easing of tensions in the near future. As Professor Smullen put it, further Russian incursions would “simply not [be] a benefit to anyone – including Russia.”

Professor Smullen was far less optimistic, however, with respect to the burgeoning threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Its arrival at Turkey’s border—NATO’s doorstep, so to speak—has great implications for the import of the Alliance.

In recent weeks, an American-led campaign that includes some NATO allies and Arab partners has been launched to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. With the coalition exclusively administering air strikes while relying on forces such as the Kurdish Peshmerga to carry the burden of fighting on the ground, Professor Smullen feels that this approach will simply not be adequate in defeating ISIS. “You can’t do it from above,” he insists; “you’ve got to have people on the ground … Not that I’m advocating it, but… you can’t do it without boots on the ground.”

He cites, in particular, ISIS’ growing propensity to hide fighters in urban or civilian areas that would cause collateral damage if bombed, as a key reason why an air campaign cannot be truly effective. “They are doing all of the right things to slow us down from the air.  So, what’s the alternative? It is to get them on the ground… We drop a 500lb bomb on a pickup truck with 3 people in it, and that is not going to make a difference.” Although this may be a difficult decision for President Obama, putting boots on the ground may be a necessary step to achieve a successful operation.

Professor Smullen is also insistent that combatting the ISIS threat cannot be viewed as anything but a “long-term proposition” that could take “four or five or six or seven years.” In large part, this is because ISIS is “getting smarter” and recruiting fighters “faster than we can kill them.”

In light of this fact, the war can be seen as a “battle of ideas.” In addition to fighting a war on the ground, if the coalition has any hope of defeating ISIS in the long run, their rhetoric must be combatted with “our rhetoric” and ideas, stemming the tide of recruitment. Smullen contends that winning the war of ideas is also vital in guarding against the threats of homegrown terrorism and citizens with Western passports who may return home from the Middle East to “cause trouble.”

Professor Smullen also offered some insights into the American view of Canada as a NATO partner and ally, stating that “we view Canada as an integral part of NATO and an integral part of the effort to stem the tide wherever that tide is,” referring to the ISIS threat in particular. He confirmed that “the United States would welcome any kind of a commitment from Canada” to the conflict in the Middle East, whether that contribution be directly military or through training, intelligence, or the delivery of supplies.

He stressed on multiple occasions that, regarding the ISIS fight, “this shouldn’t be another US commitment; it ought to be a multinational commitment which, of course, NATO stands for.” He reiterated this when speaking about Canada, declaring that he would “love to have [Canada] involved in one way or another.  Because if ISIS sees that this is a multi-national commitment to defeat them, it’s going to be more discouraged than they are likely to be if they see that it’s just the United States dropping a few bombs from 30,000 feet”. He pointed to Australia’s commitment to send its forces a “much greater distance” as an encouraging sign for the coalition. “The more the merrier, and I would like to see our Canadian friends join the fray.”

An increased Canadian role with NATO, and its broader security partnership with the US, may help to share the burden among allies at this critical time. When asked about the retreat of the US’ security umbrella and global assertiveness, Professor Smullen responded that “it was a desired position on the part of the current administration, but unfortunately for the current administration, circumstances have not allowed us to take a less dominant position on the world stage.” But more than just drawing the US back into a more militant international role, recent events—and the ISIS threat in particular—caused Canada’s southern neighbour to formally request a military contribution in Iraq from the Canadian government.

As NATO member states work to address the threat of ISIS and the unrest in Ukraine, Professor Smullen’s assertion of renewed NATO relevance has increasing salience. As Canada continues its contribution with the deployment of military advisors and air strikes in Iraq, and the deployment of fighter jets to Eastern Europe, it should remain committed in its service of an increasingly important NATO.

In spite of crises in disparate corners of the globe, however, Professor Smullen did offer a ray of hope: “We will eventually emerge from this bad time.”

Ben Abonyi
Benjamin Abonyi is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto with a double major in International Relations and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies, with a minor in Environmental Studies. He has previously worked at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and at the Population and Community Development Association in Thailand. He has also served as Outreach Coordinator for Oxfam U of T and as the editor of the Oxfam OUT Blog.