Hillary Clinton has touched down in Brussels, and already the city seems to be abuzz with excitement. I think I have a pretty good idea of where she's staying thanks to some pretty heavy security I noticed earlier tonight, but apparently journalists aren't supposed to talk about where she is, so I won't mention it! I was at a conference earlier today and all of the journalists were asking the same thing: Are you going to the big Hillary public debate at the European Parliament on Friday? I'm not, but I was speaking with a few people tonight who are and they're pretty excited. The debate is going to take place with European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering and apparently quite a motley crew has been invited to attend, including several young bloggers. It's a shame yours truly wasn't invited! But I did already get a chance to interview her back when I was working as a radio reporter in Washington.
Of course I wasn't here in Brussels for any previous US secretary of state visits but I doubt they generated the kind of buzz the Clinton visit is. It's all the rather strange byproduct of having a celebrity US Secretary of State, and it will be interesting to see how that dynamic affects US foreign policy. But it's safe to say few visitors to Brussels generate this level of buzz, and probably the only person who could match it would be President Obama himself.
So what's all the fuss about? Well this is Mrs. Clinton's first trip to Europe as Secretary of State, and it's a chance to lay down the ground rules for the Obama Administration's relationship with the EU. There was much speculation about who would be the first European leader to meet with President Obama, but that was fairly quickly answered. And really, was there ever any real doubt that it would be Gordon Brown? But as Brown meets with Obama in Washington, it's significant that Secretary Clinton's first visit to Europe in her new role is to Brussels to meet with EU institutions. It shows she intends to take the EU seriously as voice in foreign policy, something Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell never seemed to be too enthusiastic about.
The debate on Friday is going to be broadcast on the European Parliament's new video portal web site EuroParlTV, and the gossip going around today was that the whole debate is just a marketing ploy to get people to visit the new site. I have no idea if that's the case, but it seems to me fairly unlikely Hillary's handlers would donate her limited time to a promotional gimick. Then again if that was the intent it seems to have done it's job; everyone today was talking about this debate.
Of course the debate won't be on the forefront of the new secretary's mind. Top on the agenda for Clinton's meetings over the next two days are relations with Russia, European cooperation in Afghanistan and the US missile shield program in Eastern Europe. Tonight Clinton held "transatlantic dinner" with European leaders, and tomorrow she will attend a Nato ministerial meeting. It is expected that at this meeting Clinton will make a formal request for greater European participation in the Nato mission in Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see what sort of official response this receives. Increasing troop presence in Afghanistan is going to be a hard sell for the European public.
On Friday, Mrs. Clinton will meet with European Commission President Jose Manuel Borroso before taking place in the public debate at the European Parliament, and following that she will go to Geneva to meet with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Many in Europe are eager to see an easing in the Russia-US tensions that have built up over the past eight years, and this meeting in Geneva should give a pretty good first indication of whether that's a realistic expectation.