by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
I will be very discreet in this essay and name no names, not even the venue of our gathering last night. There was no imposition of Chatham House Rules by the President of the club where it took place, but there is no point in ruffling feathers when what counts here is the overall ambiance, plus the bits and pieces of anonymous chit-chat, not the identity of the individuals who spoke freely and in confidence.
Suffice it to say that this was a gala, black-tie dinner in honor of Russian Christmas, which under the Julian Calendar observed by the Orthodox Church, fell this past Sunday on 7 January. It was held in the most prestigious gentlemen’s club of French-speaking Belgium.
The club has the word “Royal” in the middle of its name, and it should come as no surprise that more than a sprinkling of the 162 participants who were seated at the tables are members of Belgian nobility, the diplomatic service (retired) and others close to the monarchy. The rest are business people and patented members of local high society.
This being a Russia-themed event, there were a certain number of sons and daughters of the illustrious Russian noble families who settled in Belgium after the Revolution of 1917. Indeed, the entire undertaking was initiated by a representative of the most illustrious of these princely families. However, most participants were purely Belgian and with no particular experience of Russia other than, possibly as tourists over the years. They came to have a good time, to enjoy an unusual cuisine for a house that is otherwise very French and to hear 19th century Russian romances performed by a group of Kuban Cossacks who had great skills in a capella singing and produced extraordinary effects from tiny and from oversized balalaikas.
Why take your time with this unremarkable event populated by the well-to-do in their dinner jackets and long gowns? Because what was said about relations with Russia in the lounges before and after, at the tables during dinner by those with whom I came into contact, and by the body language of most everyone else in the room contradicts entirely what one might have expected in attitudes towards Russia given the fraught state-to-state relations between the EU and the big neighbor to the East.
To be specific, my well-educated and successful Belgian interlocutors from last night’s soirée associate Russia with the best of European culture, whether music, literature or the performing arts. They see it as a dynamic country immensely rich in natural resources from which they do not want to be cut off. They view it as another European power having a long common history with their own. They accept that Russia may have a less than perfect democratic government, but they know only too well how imperfect democracy is in their own country, where there is an hereditary caste of ministers and government leaders rife with nepotism and hubris, kept in power by the fragmentation of the electorate among too many parties that the very progressive proportional representation system encourages. Like many other Continental countries, Belgian cabinets are the product of unprincipled coalitions distributing and redistributing ministerial portfolios to their own convenience to patch together majorities of deputies without regard to competence or the expressed will of the electorate. Why then throw stones at the Putin regime?
They view with disdain and embarrassment the vassalage of their political elites before the United States, the sacrifice of national interest and the people’s welfare to keep the Americans happy. And they view NATO not as a common defense but as a mechanism by which the United States maintains the upper hand on the Continent and bullies their government officials.
I remind the reader that this is not my interpretation of how things should be seen by the Belgians. It is the Belgians themselves speaking confidentially.
I saw hints of such views in the past especially before and immediately after George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq but never in people of such high social standing and expressed in such explicit terms. If I had to find a reason for this, it would surely be the Trump factor: the rolling back of the ideological camouflage of democracy promotion and its replacement by the language of raw power that Trump and his administration project unashamedly under the slogan of America First. Trump has freed minds here in Belgium from their earlier reserve in speaking about the United States.
The only question now is when finally one or another Belgian political party will understand that there is a potential groundswell of support among elites with money and social influence, not just among the hoi polloi if they call for a new foreign policy based on co-existence with Russia.
To properly understand what I have just witnessed, I must go back in time to the 1980s when I first came into contact with Belgium’s high society thanks to a club that I will name here: the Harvard Club of Belgium. Though most of the Club members back then were unremarkable lawyers and accountants who had some Harvard schooling, there were ties to an older generation then in their 60s who had been sent by their parents to Harvard and other prestige universities in the United States in the years immediately following the end of WWII to go and understand how the new ruler of the world operated, to go and make friends who might well be useful later in life. Indeed, they came home to Belgium and made fabulous careers in business, in government, in the European Institutions which the country hosted. One of the most successful among them who gave generously of his time to the Harvard Club and helped organize very special events exclusively for Club members was Count Etienne (Stevie) Davignon. These representatives of the elites were pro-American to a man.
The change from then to what I saw last night is unmistakable and suggestive of important things to come in trans-Atlantic relations, possibly also in relations with Russia.
As I have recently become aware, among the several possible scenarios which the Kremlin envisions for the evolution of international relations is wooing Europe away from the embrace of Washington, so as to form a third force in the world alongside and separate from China and the United States: a Russian-European alliance. When I first heard about this, it seemed to me to be pure illusion. However, in light of the views I heard last night, I see some merit to this ambition.
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Over the past several years, I have rocked back and forth on the issue of which side of the Atlantic would be first to reject U.S. global hegemony, end sanctions on Russia and usher in a new world order that is inclusive and shares out seats at the board of directors in a more rational fashion than today.
I initially put my money on Europe, because the voting arithmetic here on Russia-bashing resolutions that are also an indicator of adherence to US dictates, were far more favorable to change than in the USA. Fully one-third of the 751 legislators in the European Parliament abstain or vote against such measures. That compares to the less than one percent who stand up to the thundering stampede of the Russia-bashers in the U.S. Congress.
A year into the sanctions, by the summer of 2015, it appeared that Europe might indeed crack. There were voices among politicians in Italy in France, in the Czech Republic, in Greece and elsewhere who spoke publicly against the herd instinct for survival and blind obedience to Washington. They pointed to the zero effectiveness of sanctions in changing Russian behavior, and to the serious economic harm they were doing to EU countries. But the six-monthly votes in the EU on sanctions renewal came and went repeatedly without any breaking of the ranks. Whether thanks to high-powered visits to Europe by Joe Biden or to the effective threats of Angela Merkel, all the ducks lined up one way when it came time to be counted. Accordingly, I gave up hope that Europeans would find their backbone and free themselves from their American overlords.
Then along came Trump in 2016 and it seemed that the United States would be the first to turn away from the path of ever escalating confrontation with Russia. Embedded in his electoral platform was the notion that there is nothing wrong with having good relations with Putin. However, this new start did not get very far. Within months of Trump’s inauguration, General Flynn, one of his most resolute supporters on this issue was forced out of office, the jackals were nipping at Trump’s heels over allegations of collusion with the Russians, and he made no further efforts to turn around the ship of state, while his assistants loudly continued all the verbal assaults on Russia with which the Obama administration closed its tenure.
Now as he enters his second year in office, there are no signs that this particular promise to his electorate can be fulfilled. It appears unlikely that the United States will be a first mover.
Let us hope, based on last night’s sampling of Belgian high society, that Europe may yet come to the rescue of itself and of mankind by repudiating the American global hegemony and recognizing Washington as just one more global competitor that happens to fight dirty.
Time will tell…
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg