Monday, May 2, 2016

In Europe, talking US politics

I spent much of this past week in Europe, engaged in a whirlwind cultural exchange speaking tour to help explain U.S. politics and 2016 election dynamics to (often perplexed, frequently worried) Europeans. The tour, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, had me and co-presenter Sewell Chan of the New York Times speaking at five events in three countries over three days, plus a few equally engaging dinners.

Arriving in Brussels -- where the airport departure hall and parts of the metro system were still closed on account of the recent terrorist attacks -- we kicked things off at the European Parliament, at a well attended talk sponsored by EU40 -- an organization of young members of parliament -- and the U.S. Mission to the European Union. Victor Negrescu, MEP from Romania, acted as our formal host, but the audience was a mix of diplomats, parliamentary staff, businesspeople, American expatriates, and European officials. Here and elsewhere, I kicked things off with a five-minute lesson on the Balkanized nature of the U.S., a country comprised -- as per American Nations -- of rival regional cultures, most of which date back to the colonial period.

The most frequent questions here and throughout our tour were about Donald Trump, who most West Europeans find horrifying and who their American counterparts had previously (and incorrectly)
assured them would drop out of the Republican nomination contest early. Would Republicans try to stop him at the convention? (I suspect not, as their runner-up would likely also lose the general election, meaning they'd be damaging their coalition without a clear pay-off.) Are Americans ready for social democracy on account of Sanders? (The younger generation in three or four of our regions may be, but they will likely have to settle for something more akin to New Deal national liberalism on account of the libertarian-minded nations: Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and Far West.)

Later that first afternoon we presented and took questions from another full house at the German Marshall Fund's Brussels office, and the following morning -- traveling to France by train -- at their Paris office in St. Germain. I had a couple of hours free to roam the Seine, including the neighborhood where my wife and I stayed last I was here, in those glorious-if-less-consequential days before the kids. Won't be too long before they're old enough to make the trip.

That second evening we flew on to Belgrade via Air Serbia, a three-year old successor to JAT which serves a pretty decent late night dinner. Although I spent most of the 1990s in neighboring Hungary, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, I'd never visited Belgrade, first on account of the war and, later, because as successor to David Rohde at the Christian Science Monitor -- a fellow Mainer who won a Pulitzer for finding (and being arrested on) the Srebrenica mass grave sites -- Serbia wouldn't issue me a visa. I was just there one full day, but it was personally meaningful to be there, especially in a context where I could talk about the challenges to sustaining a liberal democracy (the topic of my new book, American Character.) There are a lot of souvenir merchants
selling Putin paraphinalia -- and even a few with t-shirts celebrating the mass murderer Ratko Mladic -- but there are also clearly a lot of people fighting for change, for integration with Europe (and, thus, weaker ties with authoritarian Russia), and a refutation of the Milosevic era.

As far as speaking venues go, its hard to beat Belgrade's Aeroklub, in a mansion that once belonged to the Serbian monarchy, with art deco details and frescos on the ceilings. There, hosted by the GMF's Balkan Trust for Democracy and moderated by GMF's vice president, Ivan Vojvoda, we fielded questions from Serbian journalists and civil society representatives.  No surprise that they instantly got the American Nations paradigm -- it was my time in the Balkans that helped me see the fissures at home, so it felt poignant to be bringing it back, full circle. That evening we gave a talk at the University of Belgrade's Faculty of Political Science, which has a Center for American Studies.

Thanks to all of our hosts -- and to my excellent co-presenter Sewell Chan -- for a delightful and informative trip. I look forward to seeing many of you in future.

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