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Meet Célia Belin, new visiting fellow in Foreign Policy

Editor's Note:

This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar new to Brookings introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been slightly edited from the audio recording.

I’m Célia Belin, and I’m a new visting fellow in the Foreign Policy Program. I specifically work transatlantic relations.

Q: Where did you grow up?

celia belin
Célia Belin

A: I grew up in France, in Dijon, which is the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, and the story of my family is probably a textbook example of the sociological evolution of France. My grandparents were farmers. They lived in a very remote region of France, Haute- Saône. They grew crops, they had several cows, and they had a big Catholic family – my grandmother had seventeen brothers and sisters.

This all changed after World War II. After my parents’ generation got an education from the public school system of the French Republic, they were all able to actually leave the small villages, and all move to the “big cities”, Dijon being one of those “big cities”. And that’s where I grew up, in the suburban neighborhoods of small towns where you have a mix of lower middle class families from the countryside and immigrants families.

My parents’ generation were all civil servants, postal workers, teachers, and hospital staff. And then my generation were college-educated and were able to move to even bigger cities- Paris, Brussels- and be more globalized. So, that’s where I come from, this very rural background up to Washington, DC today.

Q: What inspired you to become a scholar?

A: I studied foreign policy and international relations mainly because I love foreign languages and I love to travel. That started when I was twelve, when I did travel for the first time abroad. Because my mom picked, for me, an American godmother who happened to live in Scotland at the time, and I went to visit her. And, that same year, I went with my class to Poland, which was only a few years after the fall of the Communist regime. It was such an interesting and different country in my young teenager’s eyes that I got fascinated by the idea of traveling and studying other cultures abroad. Later, thanks to the European Union, I got to travel to Spain for an Erasmus of one year.

Continuing with discovering foreign cultures, I ended up, in 2003, at the French consulate in Chicago right at the time of the French-American dispute over the Iraq War. At the time, as an intern, I was in charge of opening the hate mail that was received by the consulate. It was such a tense moment in French-American relations that I got fascinated by diplomacy, foreign policy, and international relations. I came back and decided to start a PhD on those issues, and study French-American relations.

Q: What do you think is the most important issue we’re facing today?

A: I believe today we are a turning point. We are at the moment where the world needs to decide between power confrontation and the more collaborative route that we had taken over the past thirty years. Those who reject that collaborative path are convinced that, today, power is the only way to regulate challenges for the better rather than laws, international laws, or norms.

Yet, I do believe that most of the pressing international issues- like climate change, reversing poverty, building a just globalization- can only be dealt with in a collaborative manner within a multilateral framework but also with the help of civil society and the power of individuals. Even preventing proliferation of WMD. All of these challenges needs a reaffirmation of the need for collaboration.

We are at the moment when the big powers are starting to make us believe that there is a return of the world of the carnivores, where only the biggest and the strongest can prevail, but we need to promote the sense of belonging to a global village where only collaboration can help us solve all of these pressing issues.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Because Trump has been such a disruptive figure in international relations, the state of trans-Atlantic relations is at risk. So I’m currently studying the challenges to the bilateral French-American relations but also, in general, challenges to the trans-Atlantic relationship. I am trying to see if there are avenues for cooperation going forward, or if there will be an inevitable clash.

I am also working on a project of mine, which is studying the demise of the European Left, comparatively, looking at what happened to Social Democracy within European democracies in the past thirty years. What is surprising is that leftist parties that were so powerful in the mid-nineties are, today, in shambles or at least have lost power. Meanwhile, you have the rise of not only extremists on the right, but also extremists on the left and a new brand of cross-party center with the disappearance of the mainstream leftist parties. Therefore, at the moment, I’m looking at what could explain this demise of Social Democracy and also what a new project for the European left could look like, and what type of vision of society they can offer to their citizens.

Q: If you could recommend any book to our listeners, what would it be?

A: If I could recommend any book at the moment I would probably recommend the one that I am reading right now, which I absolutely love. The book is called “East-West Street” by Philippe Sands and it is both a family memoir and a research project. It is a research project on the Nuremberg trials and on the two legal experts who invented the concepts of ‘crime against humanity’ and ‘genocide.’ It turns out these two legal experts studied in the same university in a town called Lemberg or Lwów, or Lviv, which is a town that has been, at times, Austrian, Ukrainian, Polish, but also dominated by Russians, the Germans, then back to being Ukrainian. And it so happens that these two legal scholars also lived there at the same time as the author’s grandfather, of which the author knew very little. All three of them were Jewish. All three of them had their entire family wiped out by the Nazis. All three of them grew up in this very interesting region in Europe which has been challenged over by so many dominating powers and seen some of the most horrifying history. The research is colossal but it is written almost like a detective story because he pulls out family secrets and also explains how the two concepts- of crime against humanity and of genocide- were thought through and what their implications are for international relations. I think at a moment when we continue thinking about mass atrocities and how to bring leaders to justice, it is a fascinating book and it is a very enjoyable read.

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