5th Jul 2020

US grooms 'meek' Belgium to take on the big kids

  • The little peeing boy, Mannekin Pis, the symbol of Belgium (Photo: elmada)

America has quietly been encouraging "small, meek" Belgium to shed its inferiority complex, move out from under the thumb of Paris and Berlin and undermine the 'directoire,' or core of big powers, within the European Union, a fresh diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the digital whistleblower, has revealed.

"For the past few months, Embassy Brussels has been working to set the stage for a change in Belgium's self-concept as a small, meek country living in the shadow of France and Germany, to a country that can show leadership in Europe," a briefing note said last November, likely from the ambassador to the country, Howard Gutman, and intended for US secretary of state Hilary Clinton ahead of a visit to the European capital.

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"It is a matter of convincing Belgium that not only does it have self-interest in a more assertive role, but it also has a uniquely trusted character within Europe that permits it to be effective."

Addressing Ms Clinton directly, the author writes: "Your visit is a chance to foster and encourage this transformation."

Behind the motivational, ego-boosting encouragement, the cable gives an example of the chess game Washington plays within Europe, using the Belgian pawn to coax other EU powers into greater European engagement in Afghanistan and encourage them to take in detainees from the Guantanamo prison for 'enemy combatants' in Cuba.

The cable explains why it was Belgium that led the move within Europe last year for the continent to take in the detainees. The move did not come from within: it was spurred on to take on the leadership role by the US.

The author says that the country can show leadership "in spite of stretched financial and material resources, mainly by becoming more vocal on the need for Europe to assist in the closing of Guantanamo and on the need to support the new Afghanistan strategy."

The timing was key, as the cable explains: the country's previous prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, had just been promoted to president of Europe and Belgium was busy preparing itself, despite its ongoing internal linguistic battles and caretaker administration, to take up the reins of the rotating presidency of the European Council.

At the same time, Belgium's political class was beginning to "chafe" at its "exclusion from G-20 membership" despite its position as the 18th largest economy in the world, and frustration was setting in at the "perceived influence of a 'directoire' of large countries in the EU."

America believed that now was the time, with Belgium's temporary prominence and growing jealously at not being prominent enough, to encourage the country to begin "stepping forward from the chorus line and up to the footlights."

"Embassy Brussels believes that properly motivated, Belgium can be a leader in mobilizing Europe to assist the United States in meeting two of the key challenges faced by the Transatlantic community - Afghanistan and Guantanamo."

"The Embassy has been encouraging Belgium to take a leadership role in Europe in the closure of the Guantanamo detention centre ... Helping solve the USG's - and Europe's - problem with Guantanamo is a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe."

At the time of the message, the country had taken in one detainee the month before and the US was discussing with the government the resettlement of a further two, from Tunisia.

"Embassy Brussels suggests the time is right to ask Belgium to take more than a handful of detainees and ask in coordination with others (as led by Belgium)."

Grooming the Belgian defence minister

The message also gives an insight into how Washington grooms particular politicians to support policies in line with American interests.

In this case, the favourite is the then-new defence minister Pieter De Crem, for his "bucking" the "pacifists" in the government over the question of Afghanistan.

The author salutes Mr De Crem for having despite "sometimes grudging support from Leterme and others in the cabinet, reoriented Belgium's defense policy."

"Where his predecessor had promoted a mainly humanitarian, EU and UN support role for the Belgian military, De Crem sought to re-establish Belgium as a small but reliable Nato ally," the memo reads

"As a result, Belgium's troop commitment to Nato ISAF operations in Afghanistan has increased from about 250 troops to nearly 540, with further increases, perhaps to 680, in the offing."

"The government has also bucked critics inside and out of government who prefer a more pacifist, less Nato-oriented approach and are ever ready to make political hay out of possible casualties."

The cable explains that the US ambassador was successful in encouraging the minister to speak up on the issue and back other Afghan-war supporters in Europe.

"Minister De Crem moreover has reacted positively to suggestions from the ambassador that he become more vocal in his support as a way perhaps to help shore up the support of other partners."

At the same time, the memo complains that Belgium's funding of civilian police trainers in the country "has not kept pace."

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