Today we met with Johnny Jones, a U.S. foreign service officer currently stationed at the U.S. embassy in Paris, France. He came to have waffles with us in Grand Place. He also happened to be a graduate of the Nunn School, before attending Georgia State Law School and the foreign service thereafter! It was extremely interesting learning about his career trajectory, from his initial decision to be posted in the Middle East, to actually living and working in Islamabad and Cairo, where he was present during the start of the Arab Spring. After deciding he wanted to take an 8-month-intensive course in French, he arrived at “the place where everyone in the foreign service wants to go,” Paris.
I asked him what it was like to be at the embassy during the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. He said that as soon as reports started coming in of the attacks, the atmosphere got very stressful. He and the other embassy employees worked in rounds to keep writing up and sending in reports of the events back to the U.S., as well as keep track of the U.S. citizens in Paris at the time. He pointed out that it was very difficult to track the attacker as well as other terrorists for several reasons: First of all, the Schengen area treaty makes it extremely easy for citizens and residents of member countries to travel from country to country in Europe; i.e. the attacker fled from France to Belgium with relative ease. Second of all, because terrorists are starting to become more and more people who are French or E.U. citizens, it is harder to track them, infringe on their citizenship rights, and keep constant surveillance. Moreover, a typical “radicalization” path leads these citizens to “go on vacation” to Turkey and then go to an ISIS or other terrorist group’s camp somewhere like Yemen in order to receive training. Then, the terrorist will return and carry out an attack in his home country, which he knows well and is less likely to make a mistake that will lead him to get caught.
The irony of the situation was fascinating to me: something that has contributed so much to the European project, the Schengen area, has posed a significant problem for European security. NATO has done its job in terms of protecting the EU from external threats, but I think the EU and especially the CFSP needs to take a bigger role in terms of inter-European security. There’s already been a lot of progress in terms of information sharing among governments, but Europe doesn’t have border checks along each border road like the U.S. does. There is also the problem of integration and French culture, which is not the most inclusive of European cultures, according to Mr. Jones. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of strongly held cultural practices, but sometimes it can lead to a significant lack of integration with immigrant populations. These poorly integrated immigrant populations can then become hotbeds for extremism. This is something that I’ve also observed in Brussels. The neighborhood Molenbeek, with a predominantly immigrant population, looks more like a Moroccan city than a part of Belgium, from the languages spoken to the isolation of the community.
Overall, I really enjoyed meeting up with Johnny Jones and seeing how he went from a Yellow Jacket to a diplomat. He encouraged us to keep being well-read on European issues and to get involved in INTA-related organizations at school if we wanted to prepare ourselves for a career like his.
After we got back to our host families’ apartments, our bellies full of waffles and icecream, I had a chance to reflect on my experience during the three-day long weekend. For 8.50 euros, I bought a round-trip train ticket to Antwerp, a port city north of Brussels. The city is famous for its diamonds, train station, and Het Steen, a medieval fortress right on the banks of the Scheldt river. I walked through the city’s large shopping district, to Grote Market, and then finally to the newly created MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), which offers panoramic views of the city. The “oldness” of everything in Europe never ceases to amaze me—I had coffee in a room built in the early 1500s! Whereas Americans tend to have little historical “memory” in dealing with situations (partly because the U.S. is much younger than France or Germany), I’ve realized that it’s important to take the long-held traditions and deeply-held values that EU citizens hold into account when determining how to balance sovereignty vs. security within the region.