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An extraordinary education

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George C. Marshall Center, US Embassy, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Le Quai d’Orsay)

Yesterday we visited the George C. Marshall Center in Hôtel de Talleyrand, the US Embassy, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Our first stop was my favorite of the day. The Hôtel was built in 1767 for the comte de Saint-Florentin, however the building bears the name of famous French diplomat Charles-Maurice Talleyrand who lived and died there. This building is not open to the public except for on heritage day in France when they greet thousands of guests. I can imagine people standing shoulder to shoulder trying to get a glimpse of the intricate panels and fireplaces in each tiny room. I feel very privileged to have visited this building in such a private circumstance. The Talleyrand Hôtel is unique in that it holds multiple rich histories. We learned about Talleyrand’s life and activities at the same time as we imagined desks packed into a room while people worked on the Marshall plan.

Our guide explained that when the Hôtel was built, it w as on the outskirts of the city. If you had a lot of money, it was better to build your mansion far away from the overcrowded and dirty city center. One of the first rooms we saw had an Asian theme to the wall paper. Our guide explained that it was very fashionable to display this style at the time as trade between France and Asia had just opened. Then, we saw a room with big green curtains called the grand reception room. From the window we could see the obelisk which our guide told us was either a gift to Napoleon or a stolen good depending on who you talk to. The guillotine stood in that square during the Reign of Terror and it is also marks the beginning of the French Revolution. The next room was the State Office where the most important people were received by Talleyrand. This room had the most gold leaf on the walls and ceiling and was where the most important people worked during the creation of the Marshall Plan. The next room we saw was an addition by the Rothchild family who lived there for one hundred years. While the Hôtel was being renovated, one of the last Rothchilds recounted having breakfast in that room with his nanny. He also remembered a secret staircase he used to climb down from his room to get to the lower levels of the house. I was able to find the door to the staircase 

when I ducked back into the other room. (This is very exciting as I have dreamed of secret passageways since I was a little girl) Finally, we saw the room where many talks and speeches were given during the Marshall plan. After a few words from Dr. Birchfield about the significance of George C.  Marshall and what he meant to the reconstruction of Europe and its relationship to the US, we headed to the US embassy. 

The US embassy security made airport security look like a walk in the park. We were relieved of our passports, phones, headphones, chargers etc. and shuttled through two metal detectors. We arrived in a beautiful conference room where we sat in comfy chairs around a big table. We learned that this is the oldest US Embassy that was specifically built to be a US embassy. We could even see the letters USA woven into the original wallpaper. There, we met Kevin O’Connor from Strategic Communication and Phaedra Gwyn from African Regional Services. They gave us a glimpse into the life of a foreign service officer. Both of them spoke several languages and have lived all over the world. Ms. Gwyn, who currently works for African Regional Services, used to live in South Sudan in a “tricked out storage container.” She told us about her experience in Turkey being a black woman speaking Turkish. She said that she was able to get a lot of people to listen to her just because of who she was.

We learned about their paths and what it takes to become a foreign service officer. There is a test called the Foreign Service test which consists of a general knowledge section and a practical understanding section. After you pass this portion, there is an oral and IQ exam in DC. Both Mr. O’Connor and Ms. Gwyn failed some part or all of this exam before eventually passing. Their stories were the perfect mix of exciting and practical. I think we got a good understanding of what it is like to work in this part of government: usually not glamorous but certainly exciting and fulfilling.

After regaining possession of our passports and electronics, we took a break for lunch. A group of us stopped at a take-away restaurant where we got sandwiches and other goodies. We had a picnic in the garden in between the Seine and Hôtel des Invalides. Dr. Birchfield told us a little about the historic buildings surrounding us and we took a group picture with Hôtel des Invalides in the background.

After a short walk across the street we entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were greeted by the friendliest little cat who wanted as much attention as it could get. We originally planned on visiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs two days ago but I thought this was much better timing. It was interesting to learn the French perspective on topics we have been studying for the past ten weeks just after hearing from the US embassy. It seems that our countries agree on many things but still have important differences. Both the Embassy and the Ministry taught us how important it is to work past these differences in order to preserve a strong alliance. Our speaker talked a little about the difference between an ally and a partner and symbology of each word. He told us an ally is someone who agrees on most foreign policy while a partner has major differences. Some countries who share similar foreign policy, like Morocco, are only partners because of historical reasons that need to be respected. I found this anecdote to be particularly symbolic of the work of diplomats. Word choice and interpersonal communication is everything. 

Today’s site visits taught us about the world of diplomacy in the nineteenth century, after World War II and now. Though government buildings are often dazzling, diplomacy is more than appearances. It takes a great deal of interpersonal skills, knowledge of the world, and nuance to affect change.  It was a great privilege to visit some places most Parisians have never seen and hear from people on the front lines of diplomacy.


On Tuesday, June 11, the students of the European Union program traveled from The Hague, Netherlands to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. SHAPE is the headquarters of the Allied Command Operations (ACO) which is one of two military commands of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – the other being Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in Norfolk, Virginia. The ACO’s mission is “to prepare for, plan and conduct military operations in order to meet Alliance political objectives.” The students were greeted by a public relations director upon arrival, then immediately briefed on the basics of NATO, and specifically how it interacts with SHAPE. Further in the brief, students were informed of the organization of the ACO and ACT in regards to SHAPE. SHAPE is led by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe or SACEUR who is currently United States General Tod D. Wolters. The SACEUR plays not only this leadership role, but is also the Commander of US-European Command. Next in the line of command are the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe or DSACEUR, the Chief of Staff, and the Vice Chief of Staff, consecutively. The SACEUR works closely with NATO and the Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Center (CCOMC) to understand the political breadth of situations. CCOMC is the body that enables SACEUR’s decision-making by putting his orders into action. As of right now, the ACO has two main strategies outside of their key core tasks discussed later in the post. They are defined as the Eastern Challenge, where NATO and SHAPE work to deter state actors, and the Southern Challenge, where they work to contain non-state actors and project stability in an otherwise unstable region.

In a continuation of the trip to SHAPE, on Thursday, June 13, the students visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. The group was first greeted by former NATO employee and current Georgia Tech distinguished professor, Robert Bell, then sat down for the first briefing with Justin Suni. Mr. Suni works in the public diplomacy department, and he discussed NATO’s current priorities as well as further defining the difference between the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political machine, and the Military Committee, made up of the ACO and ACT. NATO’s first priority is, of course, their main core tasks: cooperative security, collective defense, and crisis management. He specifically discussed the challenging security environment after the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine in the Donbass region, and the enlargement of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. NATO’s second priority is deterrence and defense. This includes defense of NATO territory, and an increase in Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) and Tailored Forward Presence (TFP). EFP is NATO’s defense along the Russian border in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, while TFP is their defense along the Southern parts of the alliance that shows solidarity. NATO’s third priority is a projection of stability. This includes supporting the Middle Eastern and Northern African regions, creating a coalition to defeat ISIS, and assisting other nations beyond NATO’s borders. Lastly, NATO’s final key priority is enhancing the transatlantic bond. As of now, this mostly encompasses the idea of military spending. Only five NATO members spend the 2% of their GDP that member nations promise to give upon joining. In response, a new pledge has been released and signed saying members will attempt to reach this 2% GDP mark by 2024, but many are pessimistic as there is little to no definition on what counts towards military spending. A major question concerning this is whether pension payments to retired military officers are an applicable part of GDP to be counted towards NATO spending.

After Mr. Suni, the group was briefed by Mr. James Hursch on Alliance Management from a U.S. perspective. He began the briefing by giving two quotes that define U.S. alliance management. First, “Sometimes the U.S. manages the alliance, and sometimes the alliance manages the U.S,” and second, “The only thing the alliance hates more than U.S. leadership is when the U.S. doesn’t lead.” After discussing the key points of U.S. leadership within the alliance, Mr. Hursch gave the group a chronological rundown of important events in NATO that changed the landscape of member relations. He also discussed, per curiosity of the group, the difficulties of dealing with differing voices in the U.S. government, and how to speak about the U.S. position with allies without causing too much confusion or distrust.

After Mr. Hursch, Professor Bell briefed the group on NATO’s Nuclear Posture and Policy. NATO’s posture on nuclear weapons is, “as long as nuclear weapons exist we will remain a nuclear alliance.” NATO promises its members that it will retain the full range of weapons necessary to maintain adequate defense measures, and, at this time, nuclear weapons encompass that. NATO’s nuclear policy, however, is much different. NATO preaches heavily for nonproliferation, arms control, and nuclear armaments, and is in full support of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). On the other hand, NATO does not view the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in such a favorable light. This treaty is in direct violation of their promise to member nations, and NATO has no intention of accepting it.

Following Professor Bell’s discussion, the group was treated to a delicious three-course meal from NATO where many students had the opportunity to sit with some of the briefers and discuss topics that weren’t covered or they wanted to speak more in depth about. After the lunch came to a close, the group continued the day by participating in a Q&A with a panel made up of Mr. Milos Nikolic from the NATO Montenegrin Delegation and Ms. Tina Tarvainen from the Finnish Mission to NATO. During the panel, students got an in-depth look at how NATO membership can be crucial for nations such as Montenegro, which needed the strength, security, and partnership after declaring independence in 2006. In an interesting reversal, Finland works closely with NATO, and has been offered acceptance, but doesn’t want it. For Finland, their cooperation with NATO and the possibility to join in the future is the assurance and security they need. For the final briefing of the day, Mr. Diego Ruiz Palmer and Mr. Bell discussed their individual perspectives of working on an international staff. The students were also given time to ask questions pertaining to their own future careers, many of whom aspire to work at organizations like NATO.

Nous et Les Autres and Musee de l’Homme

The morning of june 12th, everyone in our EU program woke up with a feeling of anticipation. Today is the day we are to leave Metz for a city with more cafés, more historical monuments, more cathedrals, and a much higher population density. After stepping off the relaxing two-hour TGV train and into the chaotic streets of Paris, we headed to drop off our bags in our beautiful hotel located in the famous area of Paris in the Latin Quarter and right next to St-Germain-des-Prés. Surrounded by historically significant churches and fabulous high end shopping, it was a great introduction to Paris: très célèbre et très cher.

After getting settled in, it was time for us to do a follow up visit on a film we had seen in Metz called I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary that gave a compelling depiction of the history of racism in the US through the lens of James Baldwin’s personal recollections during the civil rights movements in the 50s and 60s. We took the metro over to the Musée de L’Homme, a museum that offers insight into the evolution of humans and human society, exhibits objects representing the history of human sciences, and raises awareness about modern-day and future environmental and societal issues. With racism, having been at the forefront of the US political environment lately, especially due to the increased police brutality associated with racial profiling and the problematic discourse used by our president during his 2016 campaign, the timing was perfect for us to visit thought-provoking exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme entitled Nous et les Autres (Us and Them), From Prejudice to Racism.

The exhibition Nous et les Autres is the first temporary exhibition organized by the Musée de l’Homme, offers a fresh perspective about racism, diversity, alterity, and equality of human beings today and throughout history by responding to three overriding questions: What is racism? Why does it exist? And Are all humans racist? The exhibition is especially unique because of its interactive component, it completely submerges the guest to become more of a participant than an observer through the use of touch screen games, 360-degree videos, and creative object display cases.

At first when you walk in, you see a wall filled with terms and definitions of some concepts that are common in the academic world, but sometimes difficult to understand or define concretely. Among them are racism, essentialization, discrimination, and a term that we discussed in length during class one day: ethnocentrism, which was described as “an attitude that involves promoting the cultural characteristics of one’s own group, which are taken as a yardstick for assessing other groups, and regarding the latter’s characteristics as secondary, without necessarily being hostile towards them”.

The exhibition was organized into three main segments: Me and Them, Race and History, and The Situation Today. The first part, “Me and Them” challenges the visitor to reflect on their own sense of identity, the differences between individuals, and how these create stereotypes, prejudices, and racism. The principal element of this segment that stood out to me was a simulation where the visitor walks through various doorways while a sound system simultaneously projects/shouts discriminatory phrases at them.

The second part, “Race and History” began with a room that showed a timeline of accounts and significant dates relating to institutional racism dating all the way back to the 16th century. Most of the older accounts were related to European colonization and slavery, but the timeline also included books written and scientific studies published. The one that stood out to me was published in 1837 and entitled: The Brain of the Negro, compared with that of the European and the Orang-Outang by F. Tiedmann.

As the visitor walks further through the exhibition, three rooms are set up that were projecting films about some of the most significant cases of institutional racism: one about slavery in the United States, one about the Holocaust, and one about the Rwandan genocide. In the “theatre” room that projected the short film about the holocaust, a gas chamber funnel from a concentration camp was placed in a clear display at the middle of the room, which was a truly heinous sight. Directly in front of me sat the vessel that was used to diffuse the Zyklon B which murdered hundreds of thousands of human beings during World War II; the Nazi’s means to achieve their ends of perceived racial purity. Even more stunning yet, the label underneath the funnel stated that it was from the concentration camp at Natzweiler/Struthof, which is the very concentration camp that our group had visited just days earlier. I have studied and read about the atrocities committed on behalf of nationalism, racism and discrimination for years, but the exhibition Nous et les Autres displayed them artfully as a reality which I was forced to confront.

The third and final part of the exhibition entitled “The Situation Today” included a circular table with touch screen computers and head seats placed in the middle of the room. The walls were covered with information, statistics, graphs, figures and images that depicted studies conducted by social scientists which show how certain minority groups still suffer noticeably from unequal treatment and discrimination. Most were conducted by the National Institute of Demographic Studies and concerned immigrants and their integration in the French population. It was especially interesting to see the minority groups that struggled disproportionately with discrimination in Europe in comparison to my knowledge of discrimination in the US, and it was important to see how minorities struggle globally to receive equal treatment especially in the hiring/employment process.

Nous et les Autres left everyone in our group with a much deeper understanding of the importance of the principle of equality. It set up a clear trajectory for how the categorization of one another based on our perceived differences as humans can lead to horrific acts ranging from discrimination to extermination, and used sciences to disprove the legitimacy of racism. Racism assumes the differences between us as humans form the basis for hierarchy, and unfortunately attributes value to these differences that make us unique. I left Nous et les Autres wishing I lived in a world where diversity and equality could peacefully coexist, but also hopeful that exhibits like these and documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro will help raise awareness about this problem and bring us all one step closer.

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!


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