Joanna Shelton 2017

Joanna Shelton

I traveled last month to Europe, visiting old friends in Denmark and France and touring Barcelona, Spain, for the first time. While warm reunions and fond reminiscences filled my days, other aspects of my trip reflected the many, often unsettling, changes taking place in today’s world.

I began on the small island in Denmark where I spent a year as a high school exchange student. Bornholm is idyllic in many ways. Just 25 by 35 miles, it lies in the Baltic Sea south of Sweden and north of Poland. Farming and fishing were mainstay occupations for centuries, but summer tourism now contributes significantly to the island’s income.

Bornholm has long served as NATO’s air traffic control center for the northern European/Baltic region. But other than that largely invisible role, nothing much ever happens on Bornholm — at least nothing of particular significance to nonresidents.

Or so it seemed until this trip.

I’d begun my travels on Sept. 11, flying from Missoula to New York City, where flags hung at half-mast in honor of those who died in 2001. The next day, I flew to Copenhagen, where I boarded a small plane for the hop over to Bornholm.

The pilot told us Bornholm’s airport was closed but that we’d been given permission to land. After a 30-minute flight, we landed and were allowed to leave the plane; the airport had reopened.

It turns out a bomb scare had forced the airport’s closure. A tightly wrapped package had been found in the parking lot, and a bomb squad had flown by helicopter from far western Denmark to destroy it.

What was in the errant package? Not a bomb, but some fine Royal Copenhagen Porcelain that someone must have brought home as a gift. “It’ll take a lot of glue to put those pieces back together,” the local police chief joked.

No one ever did step forward to admit to being the culprit in this ultimately harmless escapade. But the seriousness with which it was taken reflects our uncertain world today.

Two days later, I drove along the island’s north coast to visit friends. With small, undulating fields, farmsteads, and windmills on my right and the deep blue Baltic Sea on my left, I was reminded why Bornholm is such a delightful place.

Suddenly, though, as I topped a hill, I saw a sight that shocked me — a German warship anchored offshore, with a smaller escort ship sitting alongside. I stopped to take a picture of this discordant sight and then drove on.

Within a mile, I saw another such duo. And then another and another. I counted about fourteen ships of various types off the rocky coast.

The reason? Russia was then engaged in a major military exercise along its western flank, judged by NATO to be preparation for a war with countries in close proximity. NATO had beefed up its own forces in the region as a show of strength. The ships surrounding the strategically located island were just one element of NATO’s preparedness.

Traveling on to Paris, I found truth in the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” A newly elected president — Emmanuel Macron, who, like our own, ran as a nontraditional candidate — had announced some far-reaching labor law reforms, prompting a predicable response from unions: strikes and protests.

Daily demonstrations reminded me of my early days at the OECD, when labor strikes shut down Paris’ public transportation system and much of the country’s international air and rail connections. Three weeks of gridlock and fraying public tempers ended only when the then-prime minister gave up on his efforts to pursue labor reforms.

Perhaps President Macron will have better luck with his efforts.

Last stop was Barcelona in the days immediately preceding Catalonia’s controversial vote on independence from Spain.

Police presence was heavy in the region’s capital city. Ultimately, about 40 percent of Catalonia’s voters cast ballots — mostly “yeas” — in a referendum ruled illegal by Spain’s government and constitutional court.

Catalonia and greater Spain are now on an uncertain and rocky path to the future. As the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit chaos and confusion show, it’s much easier to rouse voters’ emotions with unrealistic promises than it is to deliver.

The social and political divisions evident in Europe, our own country, and elsewhere show no sign of easing. They call for cool heads and steady hands to avoid having them spin out of control.

I wish I had more confidence in the hands on the tiller, both here and abroad.

Joanna Shelton was Deputy Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris; held senior positions in the executive branch and Congress in Washington, D.C.; and teaches periodically at the University of Montana. You can reach her through her website,

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