GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Author: Risha Parikh

Passing through Potsdam

With colorful graffiti, modern architecture, and wide open streets everywhere, Berlin is an amazing place to be. The people are really cool, too: yesterday while on a long metro ride, I struck up a conversation with a woman who’d lived in West Berlin about her experience on the day the Berlin Wall fell, and of her opinions on Angela Merkel. She said she’d sat in shock for about an hour when she saw what happened on TV, because for so long the wall had become a normal thing for her: “I didn’t realize how abnormal it was until it fell,” she said. As for Angela Merkel, the woman had a positive opinion of her. “Many people think she isn’t strong or assertive enough, but I think her tactfulness is a good thing. You can’t have someone like Trump when you’re dealing with Syria!”

However, this morning, we had a much more somber experience. First, we ventured to the Grunewald S-Bahn station memorial on the outer western part of Berlin. In 1941 and 1942, trains carrying Berlin’s Jews left from this station to deport them to death camps and ghettos such as Auschwitz and Minsk. Along the railway there were plaques bearing the amount of people deported, the date they were deported, and where they were taken. Stevie, our tour guide, told us an interesting story about a survivor from Theresienstadt who she’d taught English to. Because the woman’s husband had been a doctor, they’d had a leg up on escaping murder.


plaque: taken to Auschwitz




site of the Wannsee conference


Afterwards, we travelled to the site of the Wannsee conference. On January 20, 1942, high-ranking members of the SS and the Nazi party met in a mansion to discuss specifically how to eliminate all European Jews, what they called “the Final Solution.” It was horrifying to realize that the Nazis had meticulously planned out the murders, down to the dates and the construction of the death camps. Their detailed reports are partly why we have so much information about them today. “This is why Holocaust deniers are in such a minority–it happened,” said our tour guide. He explained the different reasons leading up to the Wannsee conference, starting with anti-Semetism that dated back to the Middle Ages and what he called “biological racism”–the idea that Jews were biologically less evolved and inferior to the “Aryan” race. I couldn’t believe how easy it was for the Nazis to successfully blame the Jewish people, an extremely small but generally affluent population, for the entire ruin of Germany after World War I. 

one foot in west berlin, one foot in the GDR--at Glienicke Bridge

one foot in west Berlin, one foot in the former GDR–at Glienicke Bridge

We then travelled to the Glienicke bridge, the infamous bridge featured in “the Bridge of Spies.” During the Cold War the bridge connected West Berlin with Potsdam. Only diplomats could cross the bridge freely. It was amazing to walk across the bridge and literally stand on an object that had divided a country for so long. After getting back on the bus, we took a tour of Potsdam (including the Dutch quarter) and stopped by the Sanssouci Palace, the former summer palace of King Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Directly across from Sanssouci Palace was the New Palace, which was built in 1763 by King Frederick as well. Continuing our royal tour, we ventured to the Charlottenhof Palace nearby, which was the summer residence of King Frederick the Great’s palace in the 1740s. After listening to our tour guide Stevie’s descriptions of him, I found King Frederick to be an extremely interesting character. As he was somewhat of a humanist, Frederick was good friends with the French philosopher Voltaire, who was the longest resident of Frederick’s palace. Also, since Frederick was credited for introducing the potato to Germany, people were leaving potatoes on his grave!

King Frederick's palace

King Frederick’s palace

Our last visit in Potsdam was to Cecilienhof, the former palace of the last of the Prussian royalty and the site of the Potsdam conference. (The Potsdam conference was the conference between the leaders of the UK, USA, and the Soviet Union in order to determine the post-WWII order, including reparations, borders, and war crimes). To stand in the very room that the Big Three–Churchill, Truman, and Stalin–had stood in 65 years ago  was incredible. It was amazing to think that the decisions made in that room led to the birth of modern Europe. All in all, it was a great day.

site of the Potsdam conference

site of the Potsdam conference

This post will be my last for the trip. I couldn’t be more thankful to have gone to Europe this summer. I’ve been at the right place at the right time for so many things: at the EU on the day of Brexit, at the Swedish Parliament when they passed a controversial refugee bill, in Paris during the Euros, and everywhere in between to witness European reactions to events like the Nice attacks and the coup in Turkey. Getting up close so many security, political, and humanitarian challenges has been enlightening. There has not been a day of this program when I haven’t gone, “Oh my god,” in response to something I learned or saw. Auf Wiedersehen, Europe! Je T’aime!


When we went to see IFRI

It was a harrowing weekend for us international affairs students here in Europe. The BREXIT (Britain’s decision to exit the EU) decision was released Friday morning (a.k.a. I was addicted to my laptop the entire weekend as I read the apocalyptic implications that most websites predicted, Tweets from devastated British people, and various statistics). As I stood inside a meeting room at the Committee of Regions in Brussels that day, realizing how many chairs would be left empty soon, I felt incredibly humbled by the gravity of the situation. One of the reactions to BREXIT that really drove home the impact of the vote for me was of Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer, who said that BREXIT is the biggest international political risk since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finding out that 75% of young people like me had voted BREMAIN didn’t help the frustration that I felt. Needless to say, I was excited to take the Thalys train to Paris on Sunday to get a break from the stressful environment in Brussels.

a picture outside the Notre Dame on our first day in Paris!

a picture outside the Notre Dame on our first day in Paris!

Our first site visit in Paris was to IFRI, whose French acronym translates to the French Institute of International Relations. IFRI is a leading nonpartisan think tank that often advises the French government. Among the panel of speakers that visited us, the first to speak was a research fellow at IFRI’s security studies center. He started off by giving us a brief history of French dealings with terrorism: First came the Hesbollah attacks in 1985/1986, then the civil war in Algeria that spilled over in the 90s, then the relative calm in the ten years post-9/11, then the anti-Semitic Toulouse and Montauban shootings in 2012, and then the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the attacks on Jewish supermarkets a couple years ago, and finally, the most recent (and most deadly): the November 13, 2015 Paris attack that killed a staggering 130 people. I was concerned to learn that the Paris attacks did not come as a complete surprise: hundreds of French citizens had been traveling to Syria and Iraq to become radicalized for years, with a huge uptake in recent years. Many of these “travelers” are lower-class teenagers previously involved in petty crime, which is a phenomenon that has been well-documented by the media. However, the statistic that has caught IFRI by surprise is that around 30% of these radicalized people come from middle-class backgrounds, where they “get mostly radicalized online,” said the speaker. I asked the speaker about his thoughts on the Schengen Area, which Johnny Jones previously mentioned made it easier for terrorists to move freely between EU countries. He said that although the Schengen Area isn’t at fault here, the Belgians should have done much more to prevent the terrorists from entering Paris. He also mentioned that there are many problems with Europol and insufficient coordination with intelligence sharing among member countries.


Next, another speaker talked to us about the other side of the battle: the French government’s response to the the terrorist attacks. Since January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, French authorities have improved upon military operations and homeland security, increased social education, and implemented judicial process reform throughout France. He talked about how the French army has been involved with homeland security for centuries—mass protests and riots were handled by the military because the police were not large enough a force. Unfortunately, this led to the wide use of military force for repression, so after WW1, the French government decided to create a new Parliamentary Police Core. However, after the rise of the Cold War, the army became re-involved in homeland security. This involvement increased tenfold after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when the president mobilized about 10,000 troops as part of a homeland security force. Unfortunately, the size of this force combined with a drop in training capabilities proves a real challenge. Moreover, there has been a growing morale drop in the army because its homeland security duties are not as exciting—patrolling the streets without having the power to arrest anyone isn’t the same as a battlefield. On the other side, there’s been growing militarization of police forces, so the inversion of roles of the police and military forces is interesting.

I wondered, is this very expensive ubiquitous military presence really needed for the safety of French citizens, or is it just being used to reassure them? France hasn’t even met its 2% GDP quota for NATO spending, so why should it divert this money for troops that seem like nothing more than intimidating “window dressing”? The speaker took a defensive stance on this position: “Their presence makes it much more complicated for a terrorist to carry out an attack efficiently. The question is, how much is our security spending affecting other areas—how can we be cost-efficient?”

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IFRI’s logo

The speaker then moved on to the next issue: lack of cooperation in intelligence-sharing among governments. Although the cooperation level between major powers like the France, UK, and the US, is “good”, most intelligence-sharing is done bilaterally, not multilaterally. This needs to change, but member countries have to build trust: “You need trust to share intelligence, and there is a lack of trust among EU states, especially with the Baltic states.” He also mentioned how the Internet Jihad presence makes fighting terrorism infinitely harder. There have been three stages of terrorist presence on the Internet: 1. Top-down public websites in the 90s 2. Jihadist forums where passwords were required in the mid-2000s 3. Social media jihadists (which skyrocketed starting 2012): allowed terrorists to reach the vast public The first two stages were much easier to deal with than the third stage, where governments are now constantly clashing with companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Apple to gain access to social media accounts (which we heard a lot about previously at Google Europe and on the news with the Apple-FBI issue). Looking towards the future, it’s safe to say that the French government’s most pressing goals in this area are having a strategic vision for French homeland security, rethinking the army’s role in sharing resources with the police, and increasing cooperation between governments.


The next part of our panel discussion was of French involvement in Africa. To me, this was the most surprising part of our visit to IFRI. It showed me that despite France’s failure “on paper” to meet the 2% GDP spending requirement on NATO, it is actually a huge leader (where the U.S. is not) in leading anti-terrorist operations in Africa. I assumed that French media coverage, like in the U.S., would be heavily biased towards terrorism in the Middle East. However, according to the IFRI panel, terrorism coverage in Africa and the Middle East is more balanced due to France’s operations there. One of these operations is named Operation Barkhane, which started in 2014 and represents a new approach for French military operations in Africa, with troops in five countries including Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Its main tenet is partnering with local militaries and multinational institutions (like the UN) in order to combat terrorism and reduce freedom of movement in those five countries. However, there are many challenges in working with African armies in combating terrorism, including limited military capacity, human rights violations, corruption problems, and disastrous human resources management within those armies. This really demonstrated the danger when it comes to only focusing on increasing militaries when fighting terrorism—a regional, long-term, multifaceted strategy needs to be developed instead. “You need to understand the African way of doing things—you can’t just imply that the 1st world countries ‘know best’,” the Africa expert said.

Operation Barkhane, in 5 countries in Africa

Operation Barkhane, in 5 countries in Africa

Because media coverage in the U.S. tends to be so Eurocentric and Middle-East-centric, it was fascinating to learn how much of an investment France has in Africa. I realized how much I had been in the dark when it came to terrorist groups like Boko Haram and AQIM. It was also interesting to make comparisons between U.S. involvement in Iraq and France involvement in Operation Barkhane—while the U.S. made the mistake of pulling out of Iraq too quickly, France seems to have taken note of that mistake and doesn’t look like it will be leaving Africa anytime soon. Then again, it is very scary to think of Boko Haram growing into the quasi-state that ISIS has become.


All in all, French military operations and anti-terrorism efforts seem to be much stronger than I previously thought. Although when I visited NATO in Brussels I got the impression that France was not pulling its weight, after being on the other side of the coin I learned that quality is much better than quantity when it comes to defense. In that, France is well-prepared strategically despite its strained forces. I suspect that France, which has already surpassed the UK economically in days since BREXIT, will take greater leadership in the European defense space now that the U.K. has left the E.U.


(Side note: one of the few positive and uniting things about being in Europe has been football. After our long days we went to sit at a café and watch the Euro 2016. Your economic policies and voting histories didn’t matter—only the team you were rooting for. I had several conversations with people all over the world in that café just because they were also rooting for Belgium! If only fighting over international affairs was as simple as fighting over a football!)

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A picture of a view of the Eiffel Tower from the boat tour of the Seine we took that day–it has a football hanging from it because of Euro2016, whose fanzone is on the Eiffel Tower’s lawn. 

Waffles and the Foreign Service

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.

Maison Dandoy, where we had great waffles and greater conversation

Maison Dandoy in Grand Place, where we had waffles with Mr. Jones

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.

Antwerp train station

Antwerp train station


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