September 09, 2011

Finland and Norway Trip Report

A few weeks back, I was asked by the U.S. embassies in Helsinki and Oslo to visit each city to lead a series of informal roundtable discussions and particpate in formal think tank events on a variety of issues touching on both the anniversary of the September 11th attacks and the lessons learned -- or not learned -- over the past decade. As I wrote earlier, I jumped at the chance to visit each city because I think interacting with our allies is really important, and I am honored to help out the State Department with their public engagement activities abroad.

To begin, I was really impressed with the foreign service officers and other diplomatic staff working for the United States abroad. Without fail, our foreign service officers are smart, funny, and great ambassadors to the rest of the world. Second, I was just as impressed by the many scholars, journalists and other people with whom I interacted. The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the really smart people I met with and the work they are doing.

31 August 2011

What better way to begin a visit to Helsinki than with a drink with Finnish journalist Jari Lindholm? Jari has done some great reporting from Afghanistan to Libya and introduced me to the fine folks expertly mixing drinks at the American Bar in the Hotel Torni. I read about as much Finnish as I read Mandarin Chinese, but Jari gave me a copy of his most recent reporting from Misurata for Suomen Kuvalehti, and his pictures alone -- including one two-page color photograph of Tripoli Street during a lull in the fighting -- were stunning.

1 September 2011

I led a series of informal roundtable discussions on Thursday with the Finnish Min. of Defense among others but started out the day the Finnish Institute for International Affairs leading a conversation about post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization in Libya with Timo Behr. Timo and I used to live in the exact same building in Washington, DC but had never met until five minutes before the event began. I began my presentation talking about the challenges the United States has had in responding to post-conflict stablization operations and shared some lessons we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. I then, echoing both Mona el-Ghobashy and especially Lisa Anderson, talked about how the challenges of Libya will be harder and different than the challenges facing Egypt and Tunisia. The question and answer session that followed was a good one, with question ranging from the Saudi-Syrian relationship to issues relating to R2P.

2 September 2011

I led another series of informal roundtables on Friday, including one at the Min. of Foreign Affairs with their very experienced and knowledgable team working on Afghanistan. I ended the day with a more formal presentation to the Atlantic Council of Finland. I spoke about the ways in which the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Libya has revealed strengths and weaknesses in the trans-Atlantic alliance and in NATO. I then spoke about the economic pressures that will lead to cuts in the U.S. defense budget and what that means for the alliance. The question and answer session included some really good questions, including several from Leif Blomqvist, the former Finnish ambassador to NATO.

3 September 2011

I arrived in a rainy Oslo on Saturday and started off with a tour of the city by famed Norwegian tour guide and sometime scholar of jihadist movements Thomas Hegghammer. (But seriously, you all need to read the man's book.) I visited the Viking ship museum and also the Arctic exploration museum and then dined Chez Hegghammer, which is a gastronomically satisfying but intellectually humbling experience considering Thomas isn't even the smartest scholar in his own house

5 September 2011

After spending Sunday going to church and drinking lots of coffee in Oslo's many and excellent coffee shops, I paid a visit to the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, where Hans-Inge Langø introduced me to some of the great scholars working there. We had an informal roundtable discussion on, primarily, the Arab Spring and security sector reform. I ended the evening with beers with some scholars working on Afghanistan. (Allow me to recommend the Havrestout from Nøgne Ø.)

6 September 2011

The embassy in Oslo scheduled two formal events for me on Tuesday. The first event was a talk at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment on issues related to the transition in Afghanistan. This event was particularly fun for me because it allowed me to pick the brains of people like Thomas and Anne Stenersen, possibly the world's leading expert in the relations between al-Qaeda and the insurgent groups active in Afghanistan. A formal presentation evolved into a broader conversation that began at nine in the morning and lasted through lunch. I then visited the Norwegian Defense Command and Staff College, where I delivered a formal lecture to the students there on the development of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and operations. I began with an exploration of theories of military transformation and then talked about the ways in which the U.S. military has learned -- or, again, has not learned -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I concluded with a few remarks about the future of both insurgencies and counterinsurgency and then opened things up to the students, many of whom had spent time in Afghanistan and wanted to talk about the transition.

Overall, I had a great visit to both Helsinki and Oslo and am grateful to the State Department for both inviting me to visit and coordinating the logistics upon my arrival. Now ...

Coffee and Food

The best place to get an espresso in Helsinki is, hands down, Kaffecentralen. The best meal I had, meanwhile -- and I think Finnish food is underrated and quite excellent -- was the Helsinki Menu at Grotesk. Oslo, for its part, has some of the best espresso bars in the world. Try Fuglen while you're there, and I myself also had a good cappucino at Stockfleths. The best espresso, though, is to be found at Tim Wendelboe. I was myself seriously impressed. I saved up my per diem in Oslo, finally, for a really good meal on my last night. And I'm here to tell you that the 10-course menu at Maaemo was pretty much the most incredible dining experience of my life. Just stunning, stunning food.