Building Bridges between Europe and America

I had the great privilege of representing EVA Junior Fellows at the 2008 Atlantic Youth Forum on 4-8 August, organized by Wilton Park Conferences. The five day forum was aimed at building bridges between Europe and America, and treated its humbled delegates to contributions by highly knowledgeable speakers, including the likes of Prof. Philip Bobbitt, an authority on defence strategy and formerly entrusted with senior positions in numerous US administrations; and Kerry Kartchner, a senior adviser at the US Department of State; as well as many other distinguished experts, from both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to great discussions, this Wilton Park Conference sent us on a day-trip to London during which we visited the Palace of Westminster, the American Embassy, Portcullis House, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Although the greatest asset of this conference was its speakers, the standard of the delegates themselves did not disappoint. Participants varied from first year university students to those already establishing themselves in careers related to politics and international relations. The countries represented included most European countries as well as Egypt, South Africa and the United States. One participant’s background provoked a particularly excited reaction as we realized he was America’s youngest ever ‘Super Delegate’. The sheer variety in backgrounds, nationalities and points of view fostered a climate in which exchange flourished. Heated debates ensued over such topics as political participation and the future of the European Union. Most importantly the Wilton Park atmosphere, entailing knowledge and perspective, ensured that these discourses were informed and meaningful.

This pool of around 35 young people (aged 18-26) also helped to bring out the best in the experts. After each presentation, the speakers were bombarded from all fronts: a question from a US government intern was very different from one from an ‘Oxfam perspective’. As one of our speakers, Tom Ilube, wrote on his blog shortly after the conference: “[I] sat back in my chair for the usual one or two polite follow up questions that you typically get from a group of young people… [Instead] the [group] lent forward in its collective seat, charming eyes gleaming and in accents from Albuquerque to Zurich they fired questions at me for well over the allotted time. Fifty or so erudite and probing questions later, drained of everything I know, have known or ever will know, my emptied intellectual husk was cast into the Sussex countryside.” Many other speakers felt the same way, and I was also glad that many issues were raised that would not have crossed my mind otherwise.

The Forum made us reflect a great deal on US-EU relations. From a Western point of view, we are currently moving from US hegemony to the increasing importance of cross-Atlantic cooperation. Dilution of power amongst various poles will increase the fundamental importance of this relationship for both the US and Europe, as the West seeks to retain (some of) its influence over the rest of the world. Although it would be foolish of Europeans to rejoice in a weaker America, a less hegemonic US might even served to increased reciprocity.

As a key component of this relationship (and as a sponsor of the conference), NATO had a strong presence throughout the week. Still, many delegates probably came to listen to NATO’s director of Policy Planning, Jamie Shea, armed with the usual cynical question: “is NATO rapidly losing relevance as the nature of threats evolves away from conventional warfare?” But when thinking of NATO in terms of US-EU cooperation, this question becomes secondary. Indeed, Dr Shea was quite successful at dismissing the notion of a NATO in decline by making a strong case for the importance of Western cooperation, and for why his organization is a valuable forum for nurturing this cohesion. The conference certainly increased my personal appreciation for NATO’s role in the post Cold War era.

However, more than anything else, I left Wilton Park with a sense of gratitude. I was taken aback by how close we had gotten to so many senior players in the game of international relations in a short time period. This feeling was emphasised by an eerie coincidence. On August 5th I had, after all, employed a theoretical Russian invasion of Georgia as a thought experiment, as I asked NATO’s director of Policy Planning how his organisation would likely react to this type of aggression. My flight home that Friday was a late one, and a few hours after I got home the next morning’s newspaper revealed, in big bold letters, some of the connections between conferences and reality.

Severi Saraste is a BSc Student in Economics, Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom.