Belgian General Speaks His Mind

Belgian Lt. General Francis Briquemont: Ever heard of him? Quite probably not, for although he did emerge onto the international stage in the early 1990s, his appearance there was brief – in fact, briefer than anyone could have expected. He was placed in command in July, 1993, of 12,000 multinational troops constituting UN forces in the former Yugoslavia – in the middle of the period of inter-ethnic conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina – for a tour of duty of one year. Yet he resigned this command after only six months, in early January of 1994, claiming that his job was impossible in view of the “fantastic” gap between UN rhetoric about Bosnia and what it was actually prepared to commit manpower and resources to accomplish.

So General Briquemont speaks his mind, and backs it up with action. Now retired, he is back again, “thinking outside the box” – to put things mildly – in a pair of thoughtful articles in Belgium’s La Libre Belgique that step back and examine the implications – and the fall-out – from the Anglo-American drive last spring to go to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the divisions exposed by the EU’s (failed) attempt to formulate a unified response.

General Briquemont’s main conclusions are presented in an article entitled L’Union européenne: le poids du passé – or “The European Union: The Weight of the Past.” His logic is compelling. The European Union, he claims, has failed to resolved either of the two great problems it has had to face over the last few years: 1) That of enlargement and/or “deepening” (i.e. streamlining the EU so it works better), and 2) Coming up with a new basis for relations with the US, since the old, Cold War-basis expired with the collapse of the East Bloc in 1989-1991.

If the EU has failed to resolve these questions while it only had the views of twelve members, and then fifteen members after 1995, to take into account, how does it expect to resolve them when it has twenty-five members or more? Naturally, it simply won’t be able to resolve them, and the reason why it won’t is because “the majority of European political figures are inhibited by the taboo of the nation-state.” The nation-state, with its glorious national history stretching off into the past, is still in their eyes the indispensable, ultimate political construction – even though, as General Briquemont points out, this past “glory” ultimately ended up involving them all in the great consolidated European war of 1914 to 1945, leading to their devastation and resultant significant political weakening on the world’s stage. He can see further signs of this mania for the nation-state hampering the EU in the draft EU constitution, which continues to put the most important national functions (foreign policy, defense, social and fiscal policy) at the national, not the Community, level.

A common European foreign and security policy, then, is simply impossible, no matter how much European politicians may want to appear to strive for it in their rhetoric. Europe is simply too heterogeneous in the make-up and interests of its component nations. Why do the smaller European nations continue to insist on each having their own European Commissioner, and on the continued six-month rotation of the European Commission presidency, when it is clear that, with the soon-to-be twenty-five members, these arrangements are a recipe for institutional paralysis? Europe possessed four of the fifteen seats on the UN Security Council during last spring’s debates over Iraq; why couldn’t the actions of these four representatives have been better coordinated to represent a united European stance?

No, there cannot be any true, combined European foreign and security policy – and that is fine with the US, which would rather continue to splinter European nations and form new “coalitions of the willing” whenever there is an international problem to confront and solve. (Briquemont also characterizes as a delusion any thought of European politicians – including Tony Blair – that they can actually influence American strategy.) What is more, for the reasons given above, that lack of any such policy is fine with European politicians as well, despite all their talk of building up European military capabilities so as to be able to work with the US in an equal “partnership.”

If the European truly want such an equal partnership, it’s quite likely that NATO itself is a leading obstacle to attaining it, given that it has come to institutionalize European subservience to American wishes. What would really bring that “partnership” about would be a new, ambitious initiative by the two powers of the EU’s “axis” – that is, France and Germany – to devote their manpower and financial resources to the building-up of a truly independent, and powerful, European military force. This would be an grand initiative on the order of the one that led to the eventual creation of the European Economic Community in the first place, back in the 1950s. And the United Kingdom’s decision whether to join it would mark that nation’s moment of truth: in Europe, or outside of it?

But that’s the only way, in General Briquemont’s estimation, for Europe to eventually be able to form that geo-strategic “pillar,” equal to the United States, that European politicians fervently claim to want. Not that he is optimistic at all that this can happen – the required imagination and resolve is most likely lacking, and it will be easier to continue to reduce defense spending and continuing to rely for security on the US, letting it call all the shots.

This sort of suggestion makes me recall why such an idea of a French-German independent military initiative has not been tried before. I think it has a lot to do with those independent military initiatives that Germany itself famously took in the first half of the twentieth century. Has so much time passed that other Europeans, victims of the Nazis, no longer get nervous at the prospect of an expanded German military, steered by nothing more than Germany’s national interest? I suspect that that is hardly the case; and I wonder whether even tying Germany to France in this project could guarantee control over the Frankenstein monster that could be created, which already raged out of control in 1914 and 1939.

I have always found the comment by Prof. David Calleo of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies particularly apt (it is probably in his The German Problem Reconsidered (1978)): Germany’s population and economic strength mean that it not only dominates Europe but that it is, in a sense, “too big” for Europe – meaning that it is all-too-easily tempted to want to take charge, as in 1914 and 1945. Yes, further attempts are unthinkable given German anti-nationalism and Europhilia – for now, that is. Generations live and then die, and new generations are born whose attitudes can be very different. (That is of course what has by now happened with the “Nazi generation” of Germans who personally lived through the Hitler era with mostly an attitude of support of what was going on, or at best apathy.) Fortunately, as those two episodes also demonstrated (barely), Germany is also not large enough (economically, demographically) to be a world power/superpower. And naturally, the EU and NATO were formed after the last of those episodes with among their most important functions “tying Germany down” in a multi-lateral Europe.

General Briquemont’s second article in this series, La Belgique: en fait, qu’en reste-t-il?, or “Belgium: What In Fact Is Left of It?”, naturally focuses more on Belgian concerns, but it’s appropriate to mention some of the general’s points here, too. He is clearly glad that he’s a retired Belgian general; from the sounds of this piece, these days it’s no fun to be in the Belgian armed services. Convinced from his first article that the European Union’s foreign and security policy suffers from a lack of cohesion and relevance? That’s nothing compared to the problems Belgium’s foreign and security policy suffer from.

Once again General Briquemont (clearly a very organized individual, skilled in giving military-style PowerPoint presentations) pinpoints two problems, recent problems, which have accelerated Belgian foreign policy’s descent into comic-strip fodder: 1) The springtime confrontation with the US over going to war with Iraq without an authorizing UN Security Council resolution, and 2) Our old friend! Yes, the only-recently-repealed “law of universal competence.” (Don’t know what I’m referring to? Past entries of EuroSavant dealt with this Belgian in law in detail – quite likely in too much detail; maybe you can start your review of this material here.) Regarding 1), you’ll recall that Belgium was firmly on the side of France and Germany against a US/British attack on Iraq without first further inspections – and also in the second, related dispute within NATO about whether to authorize NATO protection of Turkish airspace in the anticipated conflict with Iraq. But it seems that Belgium went even further than the French and the Germans (and I wasn’t aware of this until now) in actually forbidding the crossing of Belgian territory, and Belgian airspace, by American forces prior to the War in Iraq. Doing that in conjunction with the French and the Germans (or even one of the above) might have been a meaningful gesture; doing it all alone was simply a ridiculous gesture, which assured Belgium of a very special place on America’s “list of countries we don’t like.” (There’s an even shorter term for that, but I guess I’m supposed to watch my language and keep this weblog at least “PG rated.”) As for 2), it was basically the same story: The fundamental idea behind that “law of universal competence” was that Belgium – little Belgium! – could teach the world a thing or two about human rights violations and how to hunt down and prosecute their perpetrators, and so to that end could appropriate for itself broad jurisdictional scope for that prosecution that few other countries bother to claim. Two cases of “the mouse that roared” – and made an annoying fool out of itself.

And once again, foreign and security policy falls victim to localism. In an analogy to the way General Briquemont shows in his first article how the nation-state impedes the formation of a common European policy which is elegant in its symmetry, in this article he shows the bad effects on Belgian policy stemming from regionalism – from the continuing fragmentation of the Belgian federal state. For example, recall that Belgium closed its territory and airspace to American forces last spring; it seems that the new Belgian government (formed as of early June) has recently passed a law devolving the granting of passage to armed forces to the regions to decide – that is, to Flanders (Dutch-speaking), Wallonia (French-speaking) and the bi-lingual capital Brussels. Besides this, the General cites the twenty-year history of reductions in the Belgian defense budget, resulting among other things in the country’s failure to create a truly professional army (i.e. one not relying on conscription to fill its ranks). This makes it particularly ironic that Belgium was the host and one of the principal organizers of that meeting last April of the heads of states of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Germany (covered in EuroSavant as The EU Gang of Four) to explore a new European defense initiative. (Of course, the initiative they considered there was far from going far enough to constitute what General Briquemont recommended in his first article; you might remember that representatives from the four countries participating were at pains to emphasize that what they were up to did not undermine NATO, even though that may not have been exactly true.) Calling that meeting was a rather bold move coming from a country that obviously regards its own armed forces as little more than a money-sink!

Actually, if you analyze it more closely, those armed forces are quite obviously a common (that is, federal) expenditure, and in a Belgium where political focus and significance is steadily shifting from the federal to the regional level it’s should be obvious that interest in devoting money to them will wane. But that also means that a common foreign and security policy at the national level also crumbles. “Belgium: What in fact is left of it?” General Briquemont asks in his aritcle’s title, and he can only come up with some sort of answer at the end: Oui, bien sûr, Kim et Justine! That’s (Kim) Clijsters and (Justine) Henin-Hardenne to you – Belgian tennis players on the international tennis tour. Evidently there is more of a future (and satisfaction) in contemporary Belgium in becoming a tennis coach than an army general.

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