“Je voudrais…hmm.” I took French for more years than I would care to admit at the moment. I am in Brussels (Bruxelles to Belgian French-speakers) and disappointed to realize that the Flemish in the Metro stations is more immediately comprehensible to me than the French. What else can one expect after living in Berlin for nearly a year? I am, however, determined to redeem as much French as possible!
Since yesterday afternoon, I have been visiting the “capital of the EU” with a group of 20 students including Americans, a Lithuanian, a Ukrainian, a Brazilian, a Turkish national now living in London, and an assortment of students with two passports, including aTaiwanese/German. American and European students enrolled in the Duke exchange program German-language course on “Germany’s role in the EU and Europe today” forms the core of our group, plus a few randos drummed up by our resourceful professor so that we could receive personal tours of important institutions.
We experienced the first of these institutions today: NATO and the Ständige Vertretung des Bundesrepublik Deutschlands. We arrived at NATO an hour early this morning, having been duly warned that it would take an hour to go through security, that under no circumstances could we take pictures there—not of the inside, not of the outside, not of the statue outside, not of the guard at the entrance, etc.–, and that all of our names had to be on the list three weeks ahead of time. It came as a pleasant surprise, therefore, that we came through security in 15 minutes, that the guards admitted one of our companions whose name had not made the list in time, and that the coffee they offered us while we were waiting was, well, good!
As the name Duke University hints at a group of North Americans, two officials from the U.S. greeted us. You may attribute it to ten-month-delayed homesickness if I say that I was delighted to hear a true-to-life North American accent (or lack thereof, depending on how you describe the lilt of a Californian tongue). The first official spoke to us as a representative of NATO, the second as a representative of the American government. (I suppose it all comes down to which next-door office signs your paycheck.) In particular, the history of NATO as an organization created in opposition to the Warsaw Pact dominated the following discussion. Facing a room of students, the U.S. State Department official took the occasion to push us to question the existence of an organization that originally derived its existence through opposition to the Soviet Union and its communist hangers-on: What good, exactly, is a security organization of 28 allies whose enemy disintegrated nearly twenty years ago? I will leave my reader to hypothesize on the many answers to that question, just as our guide did for us.
His role as devil’s advocate triggered some interesting historical discussions, as well as building on his colleague’s introduction of current NATO operations, most frequently sending soldiers as “peacekeepers.” Afghanistan is by far NATO’s largest operation at present, participated in by the 28 allies and “third nations”, despite the public perception of “interference” in the Middle East as an mainly American activity. NATO’s designated representative to us also reiterated emphatically that the concerns of commanders and “peacekeeping” forces in Afghanistan are usually very different from those touted by the media, often for the worse when allied publics misunderstand the actual dangers and challenges of the military and political situation.
Despite frequent claims I’ve heard in Berlin about the waning of American influence as a world power, the stats presented at NATO very much substantiated the importance of American funds and public opinion for the other allies. The present U.S. administration certainly aligns with European inclinations toward non-proliferation more than the previous did, as well as seeking opinions from the allies more often than taking autonomous action. That said, the U.S. still provides much of the operational muscle behind NATO, namely in the form of funds and weapons. Interestingly enough, the EU has discussed the creation of a European Army, which would definitely shift the nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Given the present economic crisis, however, NATO officials were dubious that a European Army would be a forceful reality anytime soon.
The Ständige Vertretung is nothing other than a euphemism for the German embassy to the European Union. Of course, as the EU is not (yet?) truly a state, national representatives in Brussels cannot be called ambassadors. Even so, the German nation has a fully equipped building with four full-time ambassadors in meetings four times a week, plus an additional office purely for the eyes and ears of the German Bundestag. An “ever closer union”? I think so.
Other than frantic note-taking on political topics and frequent outbreaks of laughter as we try to remember which students in our group speak German, which English, and those of us with a background in French try to rally in restaurants and with security guards, we have tasted “un petit peu” of Belgian culture. Last week, I read a number of concerning articles in the New York Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine on the questionable solidarity of the Belgian state, but our tour guide today assured me that the question of Flanders and Wallonia becoming independent is as old as Brussels itself (freed, with the help of the British, from the Netherlands in 1830). Brussels, as a major French-speaking city in the center of Dutch-speaking Flanders, and the monarchy have proved strong enough symbols of unity to hold the nation together through the death of the last king and the reign of the present King Albert (II). The stronger the supra-national EU grows, however, the more the separation of Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia from one another becomes an increasingly likely reality.
On a more cultural note, we have already sampled a few Belgian favorites: Trappist beer, Belgian chocolate, and street waffles. We also visited the famous statue of the peeing boy “manneken pis”, saw adorable beret-ed children on the bus, photographed the mural comic strips on building walls throughout the city (Tin-tin, Asterisk…), and saw the Brewers’ Hall where Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. Belgium had unprecented freedom of speech in 19th-century Europe, apparently, which made it an attractive refuge for Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and several other critical writers of the age. Much more to come, of course… the week has barely begun!