Column: Why we should be concerned about Turkey and Russia

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens to statements at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. (Francois Mori/AP)

On Nov. 24, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, claiming that the plane violated its airspace. Turkey shot the plane down without warning, after having been in Turkish airspace for 17 seconds. Angry at what they perceive to be a deliberate attack, Russia has responded with economic sanctions against Turkey. On Monday, Putin announced that the Russian plane was en route to attack ISIS in Syria and accused Turkey of shooting it down to protect a clandestine oil trade with ISIS.

This state of affairs is deeply alarming and we should pay close attention to the increasingly global cast of characters involved in the Syrian Civil War. While a contained simmer at the moment, the international tensions in Syria run the risk of boiling over into a catastrophic interstate war.

Many Americans may think that tensions between Turkey and Russia have little to do with them. They could not be more wrong. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (commonly known as NATO), a mutual defense treaty formed during the Cold War in which all member states are required to defend any member attacked by a non-NATO state. This treaty was formed with an attack from the Soviet Union in mind, but has continued in force after the USSR’s collapse in 1991.

Should Russia ever declare war on Turkey, the United States and all other members of NATO would be bound by their treaty obligations to declare war on Russia. This is a harrowing prospect. Russia has disclaimed any interest in war at the moment, but this crisis may continue to escalate or others may follow and prompt nations to take the deadly plunge. Though President Obama has urged the two nations to reduce their animosity and focus on the common enemy of ISIS, the rhetoric and barbs thrown by both countries continues to escalate. Americans should view these international events with alarm and grave concern.

If there ever were a time for Americans to start paying attention to current events and rouse themselves from complacency and a false sense of security, it is now. We should not treat these foreign developments as merely a subject for dinner table politics, but a subject of serious and concerted national deliberation. The specter of global war threatens and we should do all we can to avert it before, caught unaware, we find ourselves suddenly engulfed in destructive conflict.

Let us not console ourselves with ideas that a modern war between nation states is impossible. We should put our trust in neither globalization and economic interdependence nor mutually assured destruction, for they may not save us. Few thought World War I was possible given the robust financial and commercial ties between European nations that had developed by the early twentieth century. The threat of economic disorder and widespread hardship did not prevent that tragic conflict from exploding over the heads of that unhappy generation.

That is not the only similarity we should worry about. The system of alliances and mutual defense pacts, growing nationalism, and increasing militarism of today are eerily similar to Europe before World War I. The tension over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine recalls the Moroccan crises.

To those who think global war is unlikely to erupt out of a conflict confined to Syria, they should remember that World War I, a war involving Germany, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, was initiated by civil unrest in the Balkans. A conflict of such scope was unanticipated, yet it occurred nonetheless. The advances in military technology made that conflict far more destructive and deadly than any expected; the possibility of total war between states with 21st century military technology is too terrible to contemplate.

This article is not meant to induce panic or an undue sense of fear. It is only meant to inspire a due sense of caution and recognition of the dangerous path the international order is currently treading. Those who do not learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. Lest we find ourselves facing another global war and another Lost Generation, we should recognize the potential danger we face and make sure we prevent it.


Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at brian.mccarty@uconn.edu.