GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: May 2014 (Page 1 of 3)

SHAPE and War from the Perspective of an Air Force Brat

Two weeks ago was all military, from WWI to SHAPE to WWII.

The highlight of that week? I met the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. I shook his hand, talked to him, was in a couple of big pictures with him, and was briefed by him. He was by far the most important person I’ve met in my entire life. Unless I’m really lucky, I’ll never meet anyone that important again.

The funny thing was though, General Breedlove really just reminded me of my Dad. When I was younger, just old enough to realize that my Dad and his old Air Force friends weren’t exactly average people, my Mom always told me that fighter pilots were a very specific breed of person. She said it was because they need a very special temperament to do what they do and stay sane. From that, I’ve decided that a fighter pilot needs to be a person who works hard and plays hard, sometimes both at the same time.

When I got to SHAPE, I never expected General Breedlove to be like the fighter pilots I’m so used to, but he was from the same mold. It came out plainly when he joked to the British officer, “They’re still trying to understand your accent!” or when he found himself a beer in record time once we got to the reception. It was all so familiar to me, because that’s exactly the kind of person I grew up with.

The other really cool thing I did was visit the WWI and WWII museums at the Cinquantenaire. The main reason I went into international affairs is my love of history, and the world wars are my favorite subjects, so I really enjoyed the exhibits. As it is the hundredth anniversary of WWI, that exhibit was much better done when compared to the WWII one. They really went into a lot of detail about Belgium’s part in the war, something American history books barely ever touch, being more focused on the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. I had no idea that Belgium actually wanted to stay neutral in the war, then ended up being forced to join when Germany decided to invade France through Belgium. They were defeated and occupied, though a great many Belgians managed to escape, still aiding in the war effort.

In WWII, Belgium was a target of the Blitzkrieg. The nation fell in a little over a week and was occupied very early in the war, so their contribution was not as important as it was during WWI.

My favorite part of both exhibits was the portions where they had recreated what some things would have looked like during the war. My particular favorite was the WWI trench. Walking inside it allowed me to imagine what it would have been like to actually spend months or years hiding down there. I also found the very end of the WWII exhibit to be very powerful, as it didn’t end with the official end of the war, but by walking down a ramp of a transport ship, as though I was part of the army at Normandy.

I think what I’ve learned this is the lasting effects war can have on people. We spend so much time wondering why the Europeans are so reluctant to go to war, or create a strong defense policy. We’ve been told it’s because of the residual trauma from the world wars, but I don’t think I really understood until I went to the exhibits. For America, the wars show how strong we are, coming in at the end and turning the tide back towards our allies, but it wasn’t like that for Europe. Many of these nations were overrun, occupied by foreign militaries for years. They are so obsessed with keeping their sovereignty because they’ve actually lost it. America fought hard for our freedom in the beginning, but once we won it, we’ve never lost it, many of these people have. They know what it means to lose their sovereignty, so they are going to protect it no matter what.

Living the MEP life

Yesterday was another engaging day for our students.  Thursday was a public holiday in Brussels, so our usual classroom location was closed.  Undaunted, the group met in the shadow of the European Parliament, and from there Associate Professor Vicki Birchfield led the group to a nearby café, where the students enjoyed coffee, tea, and orange juice while being quizzed on the structures of the European Union and our site visits this week.

A nice setting for class: a cafe called London in the city of Brussels

After a lunch break, the group reconvened outside the Parliament’s museum, the Parlamentarium.  After the security check, we were ushered into a private section of the museum, where the students took part in a role playing game that put them in the position of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).  For reasons we would shortly discover, the simulation is incredibly popular and requires reservations be made 3-4 months in advance.  But, as we have seen over and over again throughout our three weeks here, the incredible amount of work Professor Birchfield puts in throughout the academic year to lay the groundwork for the study abroad paid off.  We had our spot!  Please note that in what follows, links point to uploaded videos of the students.

Students are clearly excited to get started

Verdaan gets his assignment

The simulation is very well put together.  The entire thing is run through smart phones, which send the students to specific locations within the game playing complex as well as provide important information.  The students were divided into 4 political groups, which roughly reflect the dominant groups in the Parliament.  After a short briefing, they dispersed to their group ‘headquarters’ to choose leaders (spokespersons) and hear from virtual political group leaders as to their political position on two fictitious-but-plausibly-real issues: water distribution and networking across Europe, and human ID microchip implanting.

After their party briefing, students were split up to hear from virtual constituents and lobbyists as well as debate each other on the issues.

After the Information gathering and political debating, the students were separated into two groups, where they negotiated on the amendments to the directives presented to them by the European Commission.  The contestation was spirited, and it was clear to the faculty that the students were taking the game very seriously.

After these sessions, the students came back together to hear from their spokespersons as to why they should vote yes or no on the amended directives.  It was a great chance for the students to practice policy making through persuasion.

Following the vote, the students were sent back to their committee rooms, where condescending virtual members of the European Council informed them that the Parliament’s position was not acceptable to the member states of the EU.  The students engaged in a complex virtual negotiation with the Council, only to be interrupted by an ‘emergency’; an earthquake in a fictitious European city had changed the political calculus surrounding the issues.  After watching a news report on the crisis, the students returned to their negotiations with the Council, to find that the member states had changed their position on the water and microchip issues.  The students were able to find a compromise (defined in one of our previous site visits as an outcome that makes everyone equally unhappy—a logic the students also invoked) amongst themselves and with the Council.  They then came together for a ‘second reading’ of the two pieces of legislation, both of which passed.

It is difficult to adequately reprensent here the rich experience of the game.  Nonetheless, I hope something of that richness comes through.  The students did an excellent job, and the game was a great way for them to get direct experience with the complexity of policy making within the EU, and some perspective on what a tremendous accomplishment it is for the EU to continue to operate and strive to make the lives of Europeans better.

Week 3: EEAS and CEPS

Week 3 of our time in Europe has seen some more excellent site visits.  On Monday, the students visited the European External Action Service (EEAS).  As the EU’s proto-foreign service, the EEAS manages external relations where the EU has a foreign policy competency.  The students got excellent briefings providing an overview of EU-US relations, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and cybersecurity.

Students hear from EU staff first hand on the most pressing foreign policy issues confronting the EU

As usual, the students asked some very astute questions, and the staff providing the briefings ranged far and wide over the subject area as our students explored the complicated terrain of EU policy.  This third week also represents an inflection point of sorts, as the students start to bring together the various threads they have been exposed to in class and in past briefings to begin to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the EU.

This ‘synthetic moment’ (as in synthesize, not fake) was very apparent as the students took briefings at the Centre for European Policy Studies on the issue of climate change.  Everything from TTIP to Ukraine to industrial espionage factored into the students’ questions as they sought to make sense of one of the EU’s signature policy areas.

Students and faculty briefed on an EU signature policy area: Climate Change

Tomorrow the students will have even more exposure to the issue as our own Assistant Professor Janelle Knox-Hayes will give a lecture on the history and operation of the EU Emissions Trading System.

Some Things are Better Left in the Past

After the World Wars, people hoped to never experience the atrocities and world destruction brought on by an all-out war.  Institutions such as the European Coal and Steel Community (the foundations of the EU), NATO, and the UN were developed in an effort to bring peace and trust among nations by creating an area in which to discuss relations that would unite nations together in such a way as to make war costly and unadvantageous.  So far, while there have been wars and conflicts, none have been as large-scale and devastating as WWII.

In the past few years feelings of pre-WWII tensions have emerged, especially in the older generations who remember the 1930s and 1940s.  My godmother is Dutch and her mother (who was a close family friend) grew up in the Netherlands under the political turmoil of the 30s, the Nazi occupation during the war itself, and the American reconstruction afterwards as an older teenager and a young adult.  About five or six years ago she mentioned that socially and politically the world felt as it did in the years leading up to WWII.  I believe that the such an idea would have been scoffed at in the media and possibly by the diplomats themselves at that time.  Our main concern in America was the Middle East and the war on terrorism, something that did not spark memories of the Nazi domination.  Yes, there had been a few skirmishes in the East with Russia in Estonia and Georgia, but Russia was still seen as country trying to recover itself from losing a large portion of its territory about twenty years prior and the collapse of a political orientation.  The EU and NATO had seen enlargements promising the continuation of peace and democratic norms on the European continent.  Despite these appearances, something did not sit well in the air for her– she could smell turmoil coming.


Looking at current global events the parallels between now and the pre-war era are strong.  Even some of the diplomats and military personal involved in NATO and the EU that we have talked to on this study abroad have brought up the uncanny idea that events are playing out awfully similar to the 30′s. So just what are these similarities?

1. The entrance to the twentieth century saw the rise political ideas like communism, socialism, and fascism.  These were considered radical groups.  The past EU elections saw the rise in the radical right.  These groups are becoming more popular with the people as their trust in the EU diminishes.  While they do not form a formal political group nor do they have the majority of seats in the EU Parliament, there number of radical right MEPs increased to be about 1/6 of the parliament.

2.  1929 saw the collapse of the stock market and unemployment around 27% in the U.S.  High inflation persisted throughout the world, most famously in Germany.  Granted this downturn was worsened by the dust bowl.  The “Great Recession” in 2009 is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Once could call it the the Great Depression of this century.

3.  In 1938, Hitler invaded the Sudetenland under the pretense of protecting the German speakers in Czechoslovakia…… Sounds familiar to what our good friend Putin announced a few a weeks ago in accordance to his annexation of Crimea — The protection of Russian speakers.

4. Hitler continued to take land, yet the Brits called for Appeasement, the French followed suit, and the Americans stood by in an efforts to be isolationists.  Putin annexed a part of Ukraine with no war and no formal agreement between the two states.  What did the rest of the world do???? Oh, Ukraine, you are not a NATO member nor an EU member state, therefore, we can not defend you.  We can only support you.  We can step up security measures in member states who are neighbors in an effort to show military strength in that area.  We are willing to send third party observers to confirm that Russia is not acting within norms that were agreed upon in the NATO-Russian Council.  A statement that Ukraine is an Eastern European country that means nothing to the West nor our self-interests.  In a sense we are using Appeasement methods again, and that just leads to more conflict in the future.

5. Goebbels was the propaganda minister to Hitler who waged essentially a propaganda war– just check out the movie Triumph of the Will  by Leni Riefenstahl.  Now, look at just look at the titles of articles from Pravda: “Ukraine: Another US mission gone wrong”, “The West: Blind, Manipulative and Evil” or this quote from the article “Can Germans afford it a third time”– “Yet the West is accusing Russia of deploying armed forces and arming Russian-speaking protestors to create unrest and chaos in Ukraine to prevent Presidential elections on 25 May.”

6. While the rest of the Europe and her allies were decreasing their militaries, Germany increased its despite the 100,000 men restriction.  As a result of the 2009 “Great Recession” and ensuing Eurozone crisis, the European members of NATO and the EU struggle to find the room in the budgets to increase or at least maintain defense spending.  Europe is in a minor security crisis trying to create a  “smart defense” that is effective in providing interoperable military capacities.  Russia doesn’t seem to have this issue, with 4.5% of their GDP going to defense spending, while most NATO countries are not even at half of that.


If the people running our governments and controlling the alliances acknowledge this parallel, what does that mean for our policies that will be developed in the future against these developing threats?  Could just the talk of the past war lead to policies that reflect what happened in the 1930s?  Could we be brought closer to the brink of war, again??

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