From Brussels, with Love

This post was writen by Adam Daigle. Adam is a Student of the Internationa MA in National Security Studies.

For the second year in a row, the International Graduate Program in National Security Studies at the University of Haifa graciously accepted an invitation by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for a three-day all-expense-paid trip to Brussels, Belgium. The city of Brussels is the headquarters of NATO and the capital of the European Union. On 22 March 2016, the city became the latest target of Islamic terrorism on Europe, which included suicide bombings at Brussels Airport, located in the Zaventum municipality, and at the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels. For Belgium, this was the deadliest act of terrorism in its history, resulting in 32 deaths and over 300 injuries.

On the morning before our departure to Brussels, a classmate brought to our attention that, according to the website gov.uk, “The Belgian threat level remains at Level 3 – a serious and real threat. Police operations are ongoing and there have been a number of arrests relating to the recent terrorist attacks. You should remain vigilant, stay away from crowded places and follow the instructions of the Belgian authorities.”

Duly noted.

Exactly two months after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, my fellow classmates and I departed from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and ascended into the clouds, high above and away from the Holy Land. As a graduate student in the National Security Studies program at the University of Haifa, I considered this a fascinating time to be visiting NATO and the EU. As we have learned throughout our studies, national security is about the broader picture and the long-term future. This means that decision makers need be able to identify which issues are urgent versus which are important, and then be able to prioritize them accordingly. I was eager to hear how the leaders of the upper echelons of NATO and the EU apply these principles of decision-making and address the challenges and opportunities they are facing today.

Okay, okay. Also, as an astute student of “gastronomy studies” my taste buds were also looking forward to the plethora of gustatory delights that the country has to offer, e.g., the waffles, chocolates, chips, and beer! Oh, my!

The flight to Brussels was far from mundane. Flying with extraordinary people leads to extraordinary experiences. We are a rather boisterous and gregarious bunch – even at 30,000 feet in the air. On a number of occasions, the ever-so-patient flight attendants for EL AL Israel airlines requested that we bring our voices down from an intolerable to a tolerable decibel level. The bonding had commenced. Classmate love was in the air… literally.

One of the things I looked forward to every day was the delectable all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet that was offered at our hotel every morning. It was the breakfast of champions, indeed – the kind that would keep you attentive and sharp for the daily security briefings that we would receive over the next several days.

The security briefings at NATO were highly informative. Regardless of one’s perspective towards the organization, it was a privilege to be able to hear from the leaders of the intergovernmental military alliance on how they perceive new threats, challenges, responses, and opportunities. I’d love to expand more at length, but I’m not quite sure what was considered privileged or not. If the conversations were indeed privileged, and if I were to tell you, then I’d have to… well, you know how the saying goes.

Our visit with the new Head of the European Union’s (EU’s) Middle East II: Israel, Occupied Territories and the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) was one of the most constructive or destructive – depending how you look at it, really – conversations that we had during our visit. This was due in part to the radically different worldviews and strong differences of opinion regarding the realities in the Middle East, mainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a lively debate which everyone seemed to have enjoyed and found enlightening.

Our meeting with a member of the UK Independence Party, who is a representative from the European Union Parliament also proved to be quite interesting and informative. The representative mainly discussed the referendum (commonly known as Brexit) that was to be held on 23 June 2016 to decide whether Britain should leave or remain in the EU. He was quite an articulate and eloquent speaker who made a persuasive case for why the UK should leave the EU. I would have preferred, however, if there were alternative viewpoints represented at the parliament to express varying insights on the matter, but that’s neither here nor there.

On the morning of our last day, the Israeli Ambassador to the European Union visited us at our hotel, with his security detail in tow. He discussed the current challenges that the EU is facing, which include terrorism, the Brexit referendum, challenges in Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, and relations between the EU and Israel. I appreciated his candor. His brash frankness made for some compelling Q&A dialogue.

We were lucky enough to have a little bit of free time during our trip and enjoy what the quaint yet cosmopolitan city of Brussels had to offer. Our five-star hotel was conveniently located in the heart of Brussels. The main attractions of the city were merely a short walk away. We took strolls along the city’s charming cobblestone streets, visited the ornate medieval Grand Place Square and the shopping arcade of Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, and saw the Manneken Pis (a bronze sculpture depicting a naked young boy urinating into a fountain’s basin). We also satiated our gluttonous appetites with light and airy waffles featuring copious amounts of toppings, and with melt-in-your mouth local chocolates. To wash all this down, we went to some friendly local pubs and indulged ourselves with some of the best beer the continent of Europe has to offer.

The national security program at the University of Haifa not only focuses on the academic approach and perspective with regard to national security issues, but also those of the practitioners. Our professors work to bridge the gap between the academic viewpoint and the practitioners’ methodology by exposing us to both perspectives.

What I learned in Brussels provided me with a deeper understanding of the infinite complexities that exist within the national security paradigm. Our interaction with NATO and EU officials has expanded our knowledge and comprehension regarding many of the real-world dilemmas that we have discussed throughout our program, and the decision-making process that is conducted under pressure in an ever-changing environment. As a result, we have been given the tools that promote critical and analytical thinking which are necessary in order to view the issues from a broader perspective, and to accurately assess situations in order to make well-informed decisions.

Many thanks to Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa; Einat Hakim, Coordinator of The National Security Studies Center; and, of course, NATO and the EU.

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