Wow, this past week has been chock-full of some pretty great stuff. On Tuesday, we went to visit NATO headquarters, where we were briefed by a member of the international staff, an American diplomat, and a German diplomat. The three presentations were all very informative, letting us know NATO’s positions on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and anti-missile defense. The American and German diplomats were both assigned to Afghanistan, so they were especially knowledgeable on that subject. However, I couldn’t help but notice how SIMILAR all their answers were. We would ask each official some similar questions, and we would get the same response repeated nearly verbatim. I guess they only wanted to give the official NATO position on these subjects rather than offer some more personal insight. Anyways, many of the responses to our questions were helpful and encouraging. For example, NATO is confident that they will be able to pull out of Afghanistan by 2014, leaving it a stable and sovereign country. However, one response did not make me very happy. That was the issue of Syria. The atrocities in Syria are well-known to NATO member states. 108 people were killed in the massacre this past weekend. I did not find NATO’s reasons for not intervening very satisfactory. They had three: no UN Security Council resolution, lack of confidence that the mission will succeed, and lack of regional support. The UN resolution will probably not come because Russia and China, permanent members of the security council, support the Syrian regime. The other two reasons just sounded like excuses. To me, the situation in Libya and Syria are similar, except Libya has lots of oil. It is a little disheartening to know that countries are so hesitant to do their part to stop abuses of human rights.
Later that day, I went to attend a debate between a member of the European Parliament and a member of the European Commission about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The arguments on both sides sounded very familiar to those I heard during the debate about SOPA; however, I have never heard of ACTA, even though the United States signed the agreement and the two pieces of legislation are very similar. I will have to look more into this trade agreement. After the debate was over, members of the audience were able to talk with the two officials, and I jumped on the opportunity to meet these them. I introduced myself as an American curious about European politics, and we discussed the similarities and differences between SOPA and ACTA. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have a casual conversation with these people!
Wednesday, we attended a workshop discussing the Business-Security Nexus. There were many well-respected academics and public officials at this workshop, and it was great to hear them speak about a variety of topics. The topics that interested me most was how the US was using the legal system to sue those supporting terrorism, cutting off money supplies to the terrorists, and how to get companies to invest in post-conflict areas like Kosovo. However, I was disappointed to learn that there was not a reception following the workshop where I could ask my own personal questions.
Thursday, we took a trip to Mons to visit Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the military arm of NATO. This was my favorite site visit yet! I came in with a preconception that soldiers are serious, formal people all the time, but I was pleasantly surprised when a Polish officer heartily greeted us with a big smile on his face and took a picture with us. At SHAPE, we were briefed by a Polish NATO officer, a Swedish EU officer, and an American NATO officer. They were all very candid, answering our questions with the official NATO position supplemented with insightful personal opinions. I felt more satisfied leaving that briefing than the one at NATO headquarters earlier that week. After the briefing, we had lunch with the American and Polish officers at the officer’s club. This was the most enjoyable part of the day. I learned more about the US in Afghanistan during a casual conversation with the American officer than I ever have listening to news reports. The officer was an Army spokesperson, so he was telling me how difficult it was to present NATO forces as the good guys while the Taliban was doing everything they can to undermine their efforts in order to recruit people to fight against them. I learned of all the good things that NATO was doing in Afghanistan. The media tends focus on the negative aspects of the operation there; it was refreshing to know that some good was coming out of it as well. All in all, I learned a lot about how life was in the military and about career options for civilians to work alongside the military. On our way back to Brussels, we stopped at Waterloo, and the little history nerd that is me was delighted. For those of you who don’t know, Waterloo was the site of Napoleon’s last battle where the combined forces of Britain and Prussia finally defeated him. We took pictures of a well-worn statue of Napoleon and the Lion of Waterloo, a metal lion made from melted French cannons.
Friday, we took a day trip to Maastricht. I am a little embarrassed to mention that I did not know that it was located in the Netherlands; it took a roaming icon on my cell phone to tell me that we were in fact leaving Belgium. This was my first time visiting the Netherlands, and my first impression of it was a fantastic one. Maastricht was everything I had pictured a European town to be. It was small and quaint, with cobblestone streets and little shops and cafes lining the street. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic young professor who taught at Maastricht University; with his youthful energy and brisk pace, he managed to show us the entire city within the course of a few hours. We saw monuments, cafes, universities, markets, churches, and churches converted into bookstores and hotels. I left Maastricht feeling like this would not be a bad place to move to after I retire; also, I was very happy to know that I would be returning to the Netherlands once more to visit the International Court of Justice in two weeks.
Throughout the week, along with spending time with my study abroad group, I spend a considerable amount of time with my host family. Every night, I would eat dinner with them, and we would talk about a wide variety of things from Eurovision to the crisis in Syria. The father, Ser, would take me with him to visit his brothers and sisters in town. His brother lived in typical house in the suburbs of Brussels, and his sister lived in a big old house build in the 30s with a large plot of land surrounding it. They were both very kind and were interested about how I liked Belgium and how life was in the States. Last Sunday, my host brother invited me to go with him to what he called “the Spanish festival.” I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the spectacle that I witnessed as I hopped off the subway at the Atomium. It was a full-blown carnival, with the games, prizes, and rides that one would expect from the state fair. The only difference was instead of cotton candy and corndogs, it was tortillas and tapas. I was overjoyed! In high school, I studied Spanish, even spending a week studying in Spain. I rejoiced in the opportunity to practice my Spanish, an opportunity that hasn’t presented itself during my time at Georgia Tech. My host brother and I spent the day eating churros, drinking hot chocolate, listening to Spanish music, and watching a horse show. I’m glad that my family has been kind enough to invite me to do these things with them. It made me feel very welcome, almost as if I was a part of their family.