Friday, September 14, 2012
Welcome to NATO! Our very last meeting of this entire trip was spent in Brussels at the world headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I really didn’t know a lot about NATO going into the day and came out with a wealth of knowledge. I really enjoyed our time there. Unfortunately, they have a strict no-picture policy inside so I only got a few exteriors of the building but they’re building a new site across the street and will be moving in a few years anyway.
Our day consisted of three different sessions, followed by an amazing lunch (which I couldn’t photograph!) and informal Q&A with a NATO official. We discussed NATO’s current agenda, NATO’s enduring commitment in Afghanistan and the US perspective on NATO & Partnerships.
Our first session was hosted by one of NATO’s press officer who’s one of 5 below the top 3 ranking officials in the press and media section. He explained that since he’s not one of those top 3 people, he can be quoted but only as “a NATO official,” hence the reason I’m not sharing his name. I just thought that was interesting because they only want to have a few official names out in the public and not every NATO employee being quoted, which I definitely understand.
We talked about the history of NATO and what the organization is, operations, Afghanistan, military capabilities and partnerships. It was all incredibly fascinating. NATO’s main priority right now is Afghanistan and we got into more detail about that mission in our second meeting. But here’s what you may not know about NATO:
- The organization basically is involved in 5 missions right now: Afghanistan, Kosovo, two maritime endeavors dealing with counter-piracy and anti-terrorism efforts and the Libyan operation in 2011
- Every decision is taken by consensus so no weight is given to larger nations – all 28 member states must agree and there is officially a silence rule where instead of voting for something, you have to speak out against it, otherwise it goes into effect
- The purpose of NATO is to protect the sovereignty of individual nations in the alliance
- NATO was formed in 1949
- The logo for the organization includes the acronyms NATO and OTAN (which is NATO backwards) – it is only coincidence that the French translation of NATO (the other official language of the agency) is a mirror image of NATO
Our second speaker of the day was Daniele Riggio, who specifically works as information officer for Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics, Iraq & Mongolia. He lives in Afghanistan and travels to Brussels every 4-5 months for meetings. He actually told us that he was in Afghanistan during 9/11 and we talked a bit about that as well.
In terms of the mission in Afghanistan, we discussed the context of the mission, rebooting of the campaign 2009-2010, and the impact of the NATO summits in Lisbon and Chicago in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
As he explained, there is a misconception as to why NATO is in Afghanistan. The reason troops are there is because of a UN Security Council mandate and by request of the Afghan people to make the country no longer a safe haven for terrorists. In his opinion, it is in NATO’s best interest and NATO’s 22 partners (50 countries in total – a quarter of international countries) to stabilize Afghanistan. The end goal is not open-ended assistance but rather a self-sustainable government with aid and training coming from the next mission.
Right now, the end of 2014 is cast in stone when it comes to ending the combat mission in Afghanistan. Right now, troops are working on transitioning by training Afghan forces to securely patrol their own country. Since 2009, nearly 350,000 Afghan army and police have been trained. After 2014, NATO will not withdraw all troops but instead transition from a combat mission to a non-combat mission, through assistance and training to help support a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.
Daniele made a point to explain how Afghans have felt betrayed in the past after the Gulf War and during other conflicts and that this is the first time they haven’t felt that way, hence why it’s important for NATO to not just pack up and leave in 2015. He explained that change must happen through them, not on their behalf.
Our final speaker was David Gehrenbeck, deputy political advisor for the US mission to NATO. He is specifically in charge of partnerships so we discussed how NATO works with its partners and how it gains new ones. At its summits in 2011 & 2012, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to partnerships with countries outside Europe. Right now, 22 countries are official partnerships with more in the process. The 4 current aspirant countries are Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro & Georgia. He told us it can take 15-20 years for aspirant countries to become partners and the fastest transition was about 10 years.
After our three meetings, we went to lunch at the NATO restaurant where I had a delicious salad, pilaf and vegetables and crème brûlée. It was fantastic! Belgians definitely know how to make a good meal. We talked over lunch with one of NATO’s public diplomacy employees who is an American but lives here in Brussels working for NATO. It was really interesting to get her perspective as a young adult from the US.
All in all, I feel like my understanding of NATO went from a 1 to a 9 on a scale of 10 in just those few hours.
After we returned from NATO, we were free to explore Brussels on our own for the afternoon and evening. A group of us went chocolate shopping, including stopping at the famous Pierre Marcolini shop. It’s very expensive Belgian chocolate and the store is set up more like a jewelry store than a chocolate shop. I didn’t purchase anything there but the building was so beautiful, I wanted to share the picture. I bought other Belgian chocolate to bring home at a less expensive location.
Chocolate shopping then transitioned into dinner and a group of us made our way to Lola, a really nice – and slightly more up-scale – restaurant near the grand square. The vegetarian options were limited but I really enjoyed what I ordered:
Angel hair pasta with basil and fresh tomatoes in a tomato sauce with olives and cheese
My cherry beer from the outside cafe we grabbed a drink at before dinner (I’m going to miss fruit beers!)
After dinner, we made our way back toward the hotel and along the way, came across police and blocked traffic. When we asked, we found out that every Friday night, hundreds of people gather for an inline-skating parade about 25 km around the city. They had a portable DJ in the back of a pick-up truck leading the group and they had seemed to be having a great time!
Now normally I don’t share many details about my evenings out on the town but I just had to give a few details about how we wrapped up tonight. We got local recommendations from two different people to find Spirito Nightclub. We made it and it was worth it! The building is an old CHURCH that’s been renovated into a dance club and bar and is stunning! We walked up to a red carpet and 4 guys in all black wearing earpieces. The atmosphere inside was electric and exclusive and even though we felt slightly out of place, we had an amazing time. Take a look at the pictures:
We have one last full day in Belgium before heading home on Sunday and it’s amazing to think about how fast the time as gone. Tomorrow we’re going to the small, historic port town of Brugge for a day trip and it’s supposed to be gorgeous so I’m really looking forward to it. Don’t miss tomorrow’s post for some more great pictures!