Every January the Defence and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly visits Washington and this year's visit coincided with Trump's Inauguration.
The goal was accessing the Canadian Embassy. The police would not let us cross the road so there we were, representatives of 11 NATO countries stuck, with anti-Trump supporters in front and pro to our rear. It was an apt if very uncomfortable position to be in especially when those to our rear became agitated and began shouting God bless Trump and let us cross while pushing forward.
So what was I doing, stuck there in this crowd on Inauguration Day? The Defence and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly visits Washington each January for meeting with the defence community. This includes the military, think tanks, senators and congressional leaders. This year we were also invited to watch the inauguration of the new President from the Canadian embassy which overlooks Capitol Hill. I want to use this article to give you an insight into what we saw and how it felt to be in Washington for those few days.
The military and police had closed off streets, blocking them with large vehicles and armed personnel along the route to the Embassy. The fear was a Nice-like attack. The streets were strangely deserted outside of the city centre which Americans with the delegation told us was very unusual on an Inauguration Day.
Near the Washington Monument we talked with demonstrators opposed to the incoming Presidents stance on climate change, Obama care, Muslims and immigration. Those who voted for Trump wore red Make America Great Again baseball hats many saying this was their first ever visit to Washington. There was no feeling of tension, no animosity between the opposing groups and everyone we met was polite and wanted to know about our visit to the US.
All went well until the inauguration speech. The Canadian Embassy was full of visitors, the atmosphere positive, even festive. This changed as everyone was struck dumb as they listened to inauguration address. People talked in small groups about the tone and language which was unlike anything anyone had heard before from an incoming major political leader. There was deep concern as to what this meant for the future. The event fell flat and people began to leave.
In the evening walking across the city we passed armed riot police, people with faces hidden behind masks and scarves, alongside men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns and high heels. It was tense, there was clear divisions, but I saw no violence.
We left Washington the next day to visit the navy at Annapolis so did not see the women's march. We did however meet many of those who went on the march when we returned including some who had flown in from Alaska and a group from California who had driven for 29 hours to attend. Many spoke of the need to be politically active and to push back against values they felt were threatening Americas outward looking tolerant world view.
The President and his press secretaries claims the next day about the numbers attending the two events was again shocking. We had seen the small numbers attending the inauguration and the empty seats for the parade. To hear the attacks on the media and the claim that there were no lies just different interpretations of facts was chilling.
The news that the White House website had removed information about Obama care, domestic violence support and climate change was made more worrying by news reports of freak weather across America. High winds, hurricanes, snow storms, flooding and unseasonal high temperatures were hitting many states.
Our visits on the Hill were a mixed bag. We stood on the inauguration balcony, on the floor of the Senate and Congress in between meetings with political figures, academics, officials and think tanks. The general tone of meetings was of insecurity, nervousness, and the repeated mantra of its early days. One senator urged me to touch the pieces of the Berlin Wall in the plinth of the Gerald Ford statue which celebrated his call to President Gorbachev of Russia to, ‘tear down the wall’. I commented that it was a little ironic that America now had a President who wanted to build walls. We were told the scenarios were different, this was about protecting the US border. Keeping people out not keeping people in.
In side meetings I was urged not to give up on America and told we will need your help, don't be afraid to speak out and condemn the administration when they do the wrong things. There was high hopes of Theresa May’s visit and hopes that she would set the tone for serious political debate and decision making. In one meeting we explored the scenario of a Russian invasion of the Balkans and one of the delegates saw his town destroyed in the first hour, others saw their country lost within days.
This was the most depressing overseas visit I have made. I have been in war zones, dictatorships and countries whose views on women and family values were an anathema to me, but, I was still left with some hope that change was possible even in such dire situations. To see the lies, hear the threats and watch the political anxiety in America was not good. So many people told me the next few years would see a testing of the strength of the American constitution and not to forget not everyone supported the direction the country was taking. Since then we have had comments endorsing torture and blocking immigration by Muslims contrasted with a mainly respectful visit by our Prime Minister.
I fear America will face many challenges over the coming years as the new President makes his changes. None of us will be unaffected by the decisions made here. We will all be challenged. I want to end as always on a positive note. Another great change is happening, one I have felt coming for a while, the coming together, the closer unity, the closer bonds and sense of common destiny of NATO Parliamentary Assembly members facing the uncertainty of the new America.