Errant European

The weekend of 20-22 March in Brussels saw the fourth edition of the Brussels Forum, an annual conclave of government, think tank, and journalistic interest from both sides of the Atlantic. Moderated by such well-known figures as Nik Gowing and Lyse Doucet from the BBC, it’s a chance for elected officials (the US Congress had a hefty delegation, and a number of MEPs stayed in town for the weekend) to bone up on issues from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (no, I lie; but at least Africa was on the agenda, as in “Is Aid to Africa Drying Up?”).

My notes from the weekend are too voluminous to treat here, but I’ve linked to individual posts in “Avuncular American,” where I “live blogged” (in my own avuncular way; no twittering) when I probably should have been out in the sun. Here are some highlights.


Day One: Scene Setter

It will be worthwhile watching, this debate of talking heads. “Mars” (in the person of neocon Robert Kagan, Iraq war monger now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and “Venus” (pretty much everyone else, starting with Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister) battle over the question of fundamental differences (Kagan) or shared values (everyone else) between Europe and the United States. UK minister Lord Marc Malloch Brown rounded out the European side.

Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter
Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter

Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, is one of the glass-half-full majority. Turning Henry Kissinger’s dictum about Europe – “who do I call?” – on its head, she said that she can mange with three – not 27 – phone numbers: those of the EU troika.

One of the best lines was from Carl Bildt, who knows that to do business in Washington, Europeans certainly need more than the White House or the State Department’s number. Illustrative of the Potomac-on-the-North-Sea representation here at the Forum is the presence of a strong US Congressional delegation, including Senator John McCain…

Day Two: Holbrooke, Mr. “Af-Pak”

According to Holbrooke, the key to success in Afghanistan is Pakistan, and the key to Pakistan is resolving the situation in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration, says Holbrooke, looks at the two countries as a pair.

“The heart of the problem is western Pakistan – the tribal areas,” said Holbrooke. The Obama Administration approach is regional, he said, and puts emphasis not only on Af-Pak, but also “India, China, and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors,” stress on all the neighbors. Holbrooke on Pakistani sensitivities to drone attacks on their soil – “what drones?” he joked. But he forsees no on-the-ground presence by western forces there.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski spoke of avoiding “messianic” goals for Afghanistan. He knows of what he speaks: as a journalist, Minister Sikorski worked as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, which won him the 1988 World Press Photo prize. He was “embedded” with the Mujahidin during their war against the Soviet Union. His perspective, therefore, is probably unique among EU-NATO ministers, and he is sometimes mentioned as a potential replacement for outgoing NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Holbrooke underlined the power of the new approach, calling to mind the image of his President addressing the Iranian people directly in his Nowruz message. Straight-talking Holbrooke admits that drug-interdiction efforts in Afghanistan are a “total waste of money, the worst I’ve seen in decades of government service.” He sees solutions in “draining the swamp” through expanded agicultural sector job creation programs…

Day Three: NATO At 60

While talking heads were busy at the Conrad Hotel, pacifist protesters staged “NATO Game Over,” a quixotic attempt to scale the ramparts (well, chain link fence) of the organization’s headquarters here in Brussels. It was an uneven match: horse-mounted police led the counterattack, and those protesters who resisted arrest were led away handcuffed.

At the Brussels Forum, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, looked more at NATO’s future than its past accomplishments: “NATO has been a Transatlantic bargain,” said Scheffer, “but was it viewed as a fair bargain on either side of the Atlantic?” Americans sometimes resented paying more than the Europeans, who in turn chafed at American interference. But it has held together for six decades. Now Scheffer says “the bargain needs to be extended” to such areas as energy and cyber security.

Ellen Tauscher & Peter MacKay
Ellen Tauscher & Peter MacKay

Scheffer tried to justify NATO’s branching out into esoteric areas like energy security (concern about the Arctic “high north” and free flows of oil) and cyber security (Russia’s 2007 hacking of Estonia). To which Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay (another potential NATO Sec Gen candidate) added concern over piracy on the high seas. There was general agreement on the need to modernize the organization to meet new security challenges, though the BBC moderator reminded the panel that many observers feel that NATO risks straying too far from its Article V core.

The North American contingent of MacKay and Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher – Chair of the House Armed Services Subcommitte on Strategic Forces and probable future State Department Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security – hedged somewhat on the notion of NATO as a cure-all for problems beyond collective security. But Tauscher said that emerging asymmetrical threats, especially in the cyber area, did justify NATO focus. MacKay felt that while navigation in the melting Arctic is a legitimate question, NATO is not going to “do climate change.” There are already other fora beyond NATO – NORAD and NAFTA in the North American context – for many of these issues. Neither addressed whether European-North American relations are adequately addressed in NATO fora and through what are essentially bilateral relations with the European Union.


There it is. Read the “Day One, Two, Three” links above if you want the rest of it. This is not a complete picture of the event, as press coverage was limited to mostly the plenary events. But as talking shops go, the Brussels Forum does provide a very impressive invitation list.

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