End of Complacency — Era of Action?
GMF’s Young Professionals Summit 2017: Putting it All Together

A Young Professional Summit Participant Perspective on GMF’s Brussels Forum

By Brian Thorson, Co-founder of MSC Leader Development and U.S. Military Officer

Brussels Forum Plenary Session (Photos by GMF at Brussels Forum)

Each year, The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosts GMF’s Brussels Forum, a platform for influential policy makers and experts to discuss global challenges and shape potential solutions. This year’s Brussels Forum, convened under the theme End of Complacency — Era of Action?, a title I’m confident was influenced by the rise of populism, BREXIT, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming elections in France and Germany. While history reminds us that popular opinion shifts with the wind, governments change, and conflicts come and go, this year has left many feeling unsure, if not uneasy, about the future. This is the context within which young professionals and leaders in industry, academics, government, and foreign policy from around the world met to discuss the most pressing challenges to transatlantic security.

Young Professionals and Transatlantic Inclusion Leadership Network (Photos by GMF at Brussels Forum)

I entered this discussion in a unique manner, as one of about thirty young professionals selected to attend the Young Professionals Summit (YPS). As such, my involvement started a day earlier in a more intimate setting characterized by candid, open conversation with peers from around the world. The caliber of these ‘young professionals’ was truly humbling, and their collective education and experience greatly enhanced the panel sessions. During the YPS, time was intentionally allocated for networking and sharing experiences. The multiplicity of experiences and cultures made this time investment worthwhile and provided the necessary context for understanding one another during panel discussions addressing current and emotionally charged topics. This year, the young professionals joined the Brussels Forum from the beginning, which facilitated greater understanding and engagement in the forum. Comments from both the young professionals as well as the participants and panel members of the larger Brussels Forum agreed this decision enriched the collective experience and discussion.

Dr. Walter Russell Mead launched GMF’s Brussels Forum with a sense of urgency. Summarily addressing current global challenges and threats to transatlantic interests, he placed responsibility into the hands of all attending and delivered a call to action and an end to complacency. Next, Dr. Karen Donfried, president of GMF, formally welcomed everyone to the Brussels Forum and reinforced Dr. Mead’s comments. In particular, Dr. Donfried emphasized this need for action by framing the conference with the context of time, marking the 70th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan and the 1st Anniversary of the attacks on Brussels. If previously distracted or disengaged, Dr. Donfried had now focused your attention on the content to come.

While reading the agenda hints at the breadth of content covered, attending a single plenary session convinces of depth. With an agenda spanning so many topics, it was interesting to identify the common threads between each. Instead of attempting to dissect each plenary session, night owl discussion, and informal conversation, I have identified and analyzed some of the reoccurring themes from this year’s Brussels Forum, which I summarized below. These themes are often interrelated and interdependent. Separating them into individual themes is not intended to remove the connections between them or belie the importance of understanding their relationships.

Watch GMF’s Brussels Forum 2017 first session “Addressing (Popular) Discontent at Home and Abroad?”

Rise of Populism: The recent election of President Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s vote to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union (BREXIT), and the rise of Marine Le Pen of the National Front as a candidate in the upcoming French election have signaled a rise of populism in the West. This shift in public opinion reflects a general disenfranchisement, a tiring with the status quo, and a sense of a lack of representation and marginalization of the middle class. While populism is not inherently bad, when manifesting as nationalism, it threatens European integration and transatlantic cooperation such as NATO, the European Union, and global multilateral economic agreements by prioritizing domestic issues above global challenges. Throughout the forum, many speakers presented recommendations to counter this growing movement.

Globalization, Free Trade, and Multilateral Alliances: Multilateral alliances supporting collective defense and international trade between western nations have defined the post-war period. At times, external actors threatened this system, but an internal desire to fundamentally alter the way western nations interact is new and different, and change makes people nervous. The United Kingdom’s demonstrated intent to invoke Article 50, the U.S.’s removal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the potential modification or abolishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have shown the world that at least two nations are rethinking free trade and the utility of globalization. While the west collectively holds its breath awaiting the final U.S. position regarding the transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), their relationship to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the outcome of the French election, speculation continues about the space created in the Pacific when the U.S. exited as a trade leader. While rhetoric from President Trump about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) generated concern for many European nations, Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Mattis, National Security Advisor Lieutenant General McMaster, and most recently Senators McCain and Johnson delivered reassuring messages. Furthermore, Senator McCain expressed confidence in the formalization of Montenegro’s accession into NATO. History demonstrates that relationships between nations that intertwine economies and mutual defense agreements prevent conflict. Western multilateral alliances will continue to be defenders of the rule of law and the post-1945 world order.

The Internet and Information — A Tool and a Weapon: The idea of “Fake News” has dominated the media and watercooler conversations for months. While the concept of presenting half-truths, misleading statements, propaganda, or simple bold lies is not new, the prolific access to information by all strata of society has underlined the importance of identifying truth. The Internet provides access to people and information but cannot generate understanding. Consequently, the Internet serves as a conduit for people and institutions of either disrepute or scholarly ascension to enter ungoverned space and influence and connect people. This enables the advancement of agendas over great geographical distance and is evident in recent political elections, recruitment of Radical Islamic Extremists, spread of democratic ideology, and continuing globalization. The undertone of the participants was that despite the inherent risks of seemingly limitless access to information, the net effect is positive and democratic institutions secure it. Furthermore, while technological advances have outpaced regulatory statutes, constituents, legislators, and industry leaders must advance with a shared understanding that online freedom and security do not have to be contradictory in nature.

Senator McCain (Photos by GMF at Brussels Forum)
“I would not bet against the United States of America” — Senator McCain

The Future of American Power: The U.S. is unique in its global influence and power because it produces twenty-four percent of the global GDP, has expansive military capabilities, and is recognized as the leader of the free world. Despite these capabilities, the U.S.’s true strength resides in the extensive multilateral alliances around the world. Senator McCain underlined this assertion and expressed confidence that the U.S. will remain engaged in the world and specifically in NATO. This global leadership role will reflect the values of the new world order established after WWII based in peace, prosperity, and democracy. Senator McCain explained that the U.S. remains the leader of innovation, possesses the strongest economy, is energy independent, builds strength through immigration, and sustains the strongest and best trained military in the world. “I would not bet against the United States of America” — Senator McCain.

This summary is far from exhaustive and does not adequately represent the scope, depth, nor impact of the Young Professionals Summit or GMF’s Brussels Forum. Many specific applications by topic and geographical location are omitted for brevity not due to lack of importance. It is also impossible to characterize the importance of the relationships established and grown during the past week. For a better and more comprehensive understanding of the plenary sessions not conducted under Chatham House rules, visit BrusselsForum.org to view the content recorded live.

There was a palpable sense throughout the conference that the West as we know it is threatened. Yet, it remained clear that the generation comprising the panel members remains invested in the post-1945 world order experiment. Arguably more importantly, the generation represented by the Young Professionals Summit is ready to take and advance the torch. Despite the skepticism for the future expressed by many, the transatlantic cooperative sharing of ideas, civil yet productive disagreement, and presentation of potential solutions sets for significant issues encouraged me. Personally, I remain confident that the ideals of good governance, rule of law, and the importance of multilateral agreements will remain the hallmarks of western democracies. I believe this in part because my confidence remains in the supremacy of representative democracies and the resilience of the institutions our predecessors established.

Dr. Donfried (Photos by GMF at Brussels Forum)

This confidence cannot result in complacency however. During her closing remarks, Dr. Donfried reflected on the Dean Acheson quote, “The future is in a fog”, and asserted that instead it may be true that the present is in a fog. Her answer to this uncertainty is boldness and pragmatism accompanied by a call to action. I echo this, believing fully that many solutions to real issues were discussed during the course of the Brussels Forum. Implementing these ideas with another theme of the conference, to think globally while acting locally, empowers the youngest and least influential to make an impact. There is no better way to end the forum than to accept Dr. Donfried’s charge. Fight complacency individually and within your sphere of influence, think critically about these complex issues, and take action!

If there was a weakness in this year’s Brussels Forum, it was not in the quality of production or the credentials of panel members, it was the lack of diversity of both panel members and participants. While most likely unintentionally, the homogeneousness of the group failed to represent conservative thought or include military members from the U.S. and Europe. Conservative opinion was frequently the topic of conversation, as was hypothesizing conservative motivation. Inviting conservative panel members and participants will encourage understanding and provide balance and credence to plenary discussions. The issues surrounding transatlantic security disproportionately affect those in uniform, and they consequently have developed their own expertise. Incorporating their knowledge and experience will enhance future forums and inform influential global decision makers. Despite this shortcoming, the agenda successfully covered the key challenges to the post-1945 world order, threats to the rule of law, and the opportunities of the future and presented viable, actionable solutions.

Global Power Simulation (Photos by GMF at Brussels Forum)

On a personal note, the Young Professionals Summit and GMF’s Brussels Forum were greatly beneficial in broadening my command of geopolitics, growing my understanding of how European policy makers and influential leaders think, and linking seemingly unrelated events and ideas into a common narrative. As an Army Officer, this experience enhanced my ability to understand and describe multiple operating environments. Additionally, I built relationships that will transcend distance, culture, and language that enable future collaboration. I have full confidence experiences such as the Brussels Forum advance the military profession and build a more capable and competent corps of military leaders.

For more on GMF’s Brussels Forum, check out BrusselsForum.org for all of the session videos, transcripts, blog posts, and more.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not reflect those of the Medical Service Corps, Army Medical Department, U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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