I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest collection of essays. The capsule description of the book carried on the pages of internet booksellers is as follows
“The essays in this book deal with major political, social and cultural events primarily in Europe and Russia during the period 2017 – 2019 in which the author was a participant or eyewitness and has personal impressions to share. Several of the essays are drawn from other genres including travel notes, public lectures and reviews of particularly insightful books on key issues of our times like immigration, Liberalism and war with Russia that have not received the broad public exposure they merit.”
However, there is much more to the story that has relevance to its potential readers set out in the Foreword shown below, starting with the several layers of nuance in the title itself.
The title of this book has been chosen with care and a few introductory words of explanation are owed to the reader.
First, the notion of a “Belgian perspective” on international affairs may on its own seem peculiar. In what way, one might ask, can little Belgium, with its population of around 12 million have a perspective that is unique and worthy of consideration? In the same vein, what perspective on foreign affairs in general can a lesser Member State of the European Union have when the most powerful Member State, Germany, denies that it has an independent foreign policy and defers to Brussels, specifically to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who, formally, holds sole responsibility for these matters on behalf of the 500 million plus people from 28 nations? Indeed, in a recent interview relating to the publication of his latest book, the octogenarian former prime minister of Belgium Marc Eyskens pointed out that the rise of the EU Institutions has left national governments with a substantially reduced level of sovereignty and competence comparable to that of a major city rather than of a country.
Meanwhile and in parallel, as the seat of both the NATO headquarters near the Zaventem Airport and of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium marches in lock-step with its US-led allies. Belgium’s mainstream media, both television and print media, traditionally support whatever policy line comes from the EU Institutions and NATO.
There have been rare exceptions to this solemn loyalty to the consensus. In particular, in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Belgium was one of the three “Old Europe” nations, alongside France and Germany, that joined Russia in openly rejecting US policy. For this the nation’s Prime Minister at the time, Guy Verhofstadt, paid dearly, being disqualified from appointment to head the EU Commission, for which he was a leading candidate at the time.
But the aforementioned facts constraining the political elites of Belgium are by no means imperative for Belgian society as a whole. Indeed, as I detail in several essays in this collection, at both ends of society, the high end in their dinner jackets and at the mass, man-in-the-street level, there is very little sympathy for the official foreign and defense policies and a lot of free-thinking going on.
All of which brings us to the question of who is the Belgian whose perspective is set out in this tome. The simple and direct answer is that I am that Belgian.
Readers of my articles posted in various platforms on the internet have seen me described in the past as an American and long-time resident of Brussels. Both statements were and are correct. However, in August 2017 I also became a naturalized Belgian. This ‘second birth’ was more than seven years in gestation. After its successful culmination, I found myself increasingly involved in intra-Belgian, intra-European politics. Consequently, I have written with greater frequency on issues that are specific to the Old Continent. By their nature, these articles have not been picked up and disseminated via the internet platforms based in the United States by which readers know me best. Moreover, in my new guise I have written some of these articles or speeches in French so as to better reach prospective readers around me where I live and practice politics. These materials are also republished in this volume.
Notwithstanding the new elements, as in my preceding three collections of “nonconformist” essays published between 2013 and 2017, the major part of my writings is focused on present-day Russia and its relations with the United States and Europe. Russia is my main field of interest and expertise coming both from book learning and from life experience as a frequent visitor to the country over many decades and also as someone who has both lived and worked there for eight years beginning in 1994. That is something very few of our commentators in the West can say before they launch into ill-informed vitriolic attacks on the “Putin regime” and Russians as a people.
Since all of the essays presented here have been published on the internet in one way or another, it is legitimate to ask what is the added value of republishing them as a book. There are several answers to that question, ranging from the superficial but adequate to an answer that goes to the heart of how I see my social role in writing these pieces.
The superficial but adequate explanation is that everything is transient, nothing more so than the internet, where digital platforms are here today, gone tomorrow, where even one’s own blog site lasts no longer than the latest annual fees payment. And while e-books may be no more durable than the publishing company maintaining and distributing the digital files, physical books deposited in libraries will be accessible to the curious public and to researchers as long as the human race continues on its way, which may or may not be eons depending on your degree of pessimism inspired by this and similar works by my fellow “dissidents” on international affairs.
The deeper explanation is that influencing public opinion towards détente, towards self-preservation and away from confrontation with Russia that can easily end in catastrophe presently does not appear to be actionable. This is so for banal but understandable reasons that have to do firstly with the way the United States is governed internally and secondly how the United States rules over “the free world.”
Over the past twenty years or more, repeated polls taken by Pew and other research institutions have shown that the American public does not support foreign military adventures or a world gendarme role for their country. However, the political establishment pays no heed whatsoever to this clear disposition of the electorate just as the views of the electorate on a great many other issues are ignored by Congress and by the Executive branch. This follows from the financial dimension of getting and staying in power. By campaign funding and lobbying, a tiny number of exceedingly wealthy individuals and corporations effectively make policy at the federal level, and accommodation with the world is not on their agenda.
Meanwhile, whether as a result of awareness of their powerlessness or for other reasons, the broad American public is apathetic as concerns foreign policy. People just don’t want to disturb their peace of mind by contemplating the aggressive, bullying behavior of their government on the international stage. “Our boys” are not being killed abroad in significant numbers. The budgeted military expenses of the USA are being financed by others who buy Washington’s Treasury notes. There is nothing to force a reckoning with what is being done in the name of America abroad. Least of all, with respect to Russia, which has taken with surprising equanimity the sanctions and other punishments meted out to them over their alleged bad conduct in Ukraine and Syria, over their alleged meddling in American and European elections. The notion that the West might be crossing their red lines at some point, that the economic and informational war might spill over into kinetic war that escalates quickly – such thoughts could not be further from the minds of people in the States or in Western Europe, including those who take a real interest in public affairs and think they are au courant.
This is not to say that the essays published here and similar writings by my comrades-in-arms have no readers. On the contrary, our works are republished by portals other than our own. They are referenced on social networks and attract considerable numbers of “hits,” meaning individual readers. Some of the essays in this book have reached an audience numbering in the tens of thousands. But so far the dry residue of this relative success remains inconsequential. No broad-based political movement championing my/our principles of détente has emerged. There are no demonstrations on behalf of peace, while there are American and worldwide demonstrations to fight for renewable energy and for programs to combat climate change, or to fight for gender issues and equality of pay.
So, why write? why publish?
This takes us to the question of self-definition and social role.
We are living through Dark Ages today, notwithstanding all the technical achievements of our science and technology and advanced medicine. At the moral, social and political levels, these are bleak times when “progressive” values trample upon traditional moral and ethical, not to mention religious values, when freedom of expression and other civil liberties have been gutted for the sake of public security and to serve demagogic purposes.
In this context, these writings are intended to be an eyewitness account of the prevailing moral and political decadence for the edification of those in future generations who will have their own battles to fight to safeguard cultural traditions and freedoms. In assuming this role of a chronicler, I seek to continue the work of those who passed this way half a century ago or more and who left behind their own writings of the day, which gave me spiritual encouragement and purpose when I came across them.
At the same time, I do not abandon the hope that my compatriots in America and now also in Europe will come to their senses and explore these writings and the writings of my fellow dissidents to find an antidote to the propaganda about the recent past and present being dispensed by government, by mainstream media and by all too many scholars in the field.
One straw in the wind was a July 2019 editorial in the hawkish, till now fanatically anti-Russian New York Times calling for a rapprochement with Russia before that country aligns definitively with China and recreates a global threat to American interests. Or I refer to the publication of an article co-authored by former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn in the September-October edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, another standard bearer of U.S. hegemony, stating in detail the existential risks we incur by having cut lines of communication with Russia and by entering into a new, uncontrolled arms race with that country. As the Chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services from 1987 to 1995, he was a leading figure in arms control negotiations. In the new millennium, Nunn has been one of the generally recognized “wise men” in the American political establishment, alongside Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker.
There is also an impulse for optimism coming from the latest declarations of French President Emanuel Macron, who is striving to assume leadership of the European Union’s policy agenda now that control is slipping from the hands of Germany’s Iron Lady, Angela Merkel in the waning days of her chancellorship. In his speech to French ambassadors following the conclusion of the G7 summit meeting in Biarritz on the weekend of 24-25 August, Macron stated very clearly that Europe must put an end to its policy of marginalizing and ostracizing Russia because the Old Continent needs to work cooperatively with Moscow if it is not to become a powerless bystander to the growing conflict between the United States and China.
Such signs of sobriety and concern for self-preservation suggest that all is not lost in the cause of détente.
For those who have not read my earlier works, I repeat here that my essays are often devoted to major events of the day, but are not systematic or comprehensive. I wrote only when I believed that I had a unique perspective, often from my direct participation in the event as actor or firsthand witness. I have not taken up subjects where all of my peers were piled up on the line or were basing themselves on secondary sources. I consider my own writings to be primary sources in an extended, autobiographical genre.
However, they do not constitute pure autobiography. That is something I am writing in parallel in a book devoted to Russia in the wild 1990s, which I saw at ground level as the country General Manager working from offices in Moscow and St Petersburg for a succession of major international producers of consumer goods and services.
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©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019