The Lessons of Compromise

For years I have read about the Belgian love of compromise.  It’s in my literature on ‘how to live in Belgium.’ I saw it in the books and archival papers I searched in the US and Europe as I wrote  my dissertation which was recently published with Routledge –  Transatlantic Politics and the Transformation of the International Monetary System.   Belgian diplomats have always been at the center of ameliorating differences among the members of the European Union, the G7 (now 8), G20, and the IMF.  Reading about a concept and experiencing it are often very different things.  I’ve only been here a short time, but I have already observed the culture of compromise and am willing to make some preliminary musings.

The culture of compromise comes with communication! The willingness to understand the other side and bargain for solution is at the heart of negotiation. Yes, there are other factors, such as the ‘power’ one group has over the other in International Relations (IR) parlance which is too complicated to get into here. (For someone arguing that states have to find that perfect mixture see Giulio Gallarotti’s Cosmopolitan Power.) Compromise and communication are essential to diplomacy, and in the world of Belgian sensibilities – expected.  These expectations trickle down to daily life in my experience thus far.  If you present a sensible alternative while considering the relevant procedures, it will be considered, and in many cases, accommodated.

This leads to a bit of a shock when others don’t do the same, which explains some of the reactions I’ve seen in regards to US policies. That the US didn’t tell its allies what the NSA was doing seems inconceivable, even as the American government has done this many times before (e.g. The SWIFT case for starters).

The other take-away from this is the Belgian (and European) perception that Americans know next to nothing about the European Union.  They are flabbergasted by the constant predictions that ‘Europe will fail’ or ‘Europe will succeed’ as the only possible zero-sum  outcomes.  Views which they perceive come from our highest officials in Washington as well as the academic community.   We’ve all seen these arguments and most of us in the transatlantic and EU studies community can poke holes in them too.

Yet, one has to inquire – are they reading the wrong things? or has the US news culture of promoting drama and entertainment drowned out the sensible voices and sent the wrong impression abroad?   Perhaps a bit of all these.

In fact, the Europeans I’ve met are very candid about the problems internal to the Union.  They admit to their transgressions, and say starkly that the latest crisis demonstrates that peace is fragile and should not be taken for granted.  (This is a lesson of all crises, isn’t it?) They know it’s difficult to keep the Union together, but they see this as an incentive to make it better, not a reason to walk away.  Which, incidentally, is exactly what the United States did with its domestic (and the international) financial system after the 2008 fiasco.  And you know what?  The Europeans (and most everyone else) were right there with it because they knew it was less costly to fix it than to scrap it.  The same can be said about the EU.  There are a lot of grey areas where that can become a reality, and Americans need to see the world in those terms for others because the US abides by the grey too – despite the penchant for issue polarization.

So those knowledgeable about Belgian politics might say “Ok, they like compromise,  but didn’t they beat Iraq for the longest period without a government?”  Yes, they did.  The Belgian structures of government are extremely complex and represent a myriad of national identities for a small country.  But that I think is also a lesson in adaptation to make something ‘work.’   A state that will allow its monarch to abdicate for a 24 hour period so it can pass an abortion law and not force the King to betray his allegiance to Roman Catholicism is a place certainly willing to get creative with solutions.  (Thanks to the effervescent Ali Edelstein at the Belgium Fulbright for these tidbits of knowledge – see someone listens during the tour!)

In the end, the path from point A to point B might not be linear, but it eventually brings them back into the respectful middle, which is where we belong. I wish that US politics – and populations – were currently willing to be as sensible in their adaptations.

 

The Fulbright Seminar

I spent last week traipsing around Belgium and a little bit of Luxembourg for the Fulbright EU Seminar that the Belgian Fulbright Commission organizes every year for all the Fulbrighters in Europe.  (You can find their blog about the week here.  It was a very steady schedule that I won’t go into below.)

It was an eclectic group since it included all the programs in Europe.  English Teaching Assistants just out of college, some with plans for the future, others exploring their options. Research students finishing their Masters or Ph.D.  And finally, the smallest group, the Scholars, who were pursing topics in their expert fields.  Although this group was diverse in age, experience, and knowledge – everyone was doing something interesting.

I learned about Swedish campaign finance, nanotechnology, immunology, the psychology of gaming, sustainable energy, education programs in Finland, working as a journalist, art houses in Berlin, Roma populations in Romania and Bulgaria, Hungarian foreign direct investment, Portuguese imperialism and culture, the EU’s efforts to harmonize university education standards, competition law, the Common Agricultural Policy,  slow food in Italy, researching the Spanish Revolution, clearing checks in Cyprus after the banking crisis…and more.

Experiencing this level of intellectual interaction is not common, even as I live in the world of academia. Those who were recent graduates or graduate students were the people you always pray you will get to teach in your classes.  The Scholars were true peers of intellect and support.  One of the first things I noticed, as someone who does not generally feel comfortable around groups of people I do not know, was the high level of comfort.  The knowledge that you were part of the Fulbright experience meant that everyone felt at ease. We jumped from conversation to conversation eager to discover what the next person was doing.

It was also, we quickly  learned, an opportunity to “geek out.”  I assure you, as a geek (and nerd) myself, I consider it an excellent thing indeed.  In short, it was an intellectual and geek safe zone.  No stone was left unturned – gaming, comics, music of all genres, old school technology, etc. etc.

Anyway, since many of them were unfamiliar with the European Union, the seminar’s main purpose was to get them to as many EU institutions as possible in 4 days.  I think only a few of us were experts in these areas, and I used the opportunity to make contacts for my research, which made it a very productive week.  However, even when I wasn’t talking about my work (believe me being “on” for 4 days can get tiring) it was a joy to speak with officials to get their views on a variety of subjects – off the record of course.

So highlights of the trip: (Photos can be found here on their Flicker stream.)

1) The reception at the residence of the US Ambassador to Belgium.   Beautiful house, great food, wonderful performance by a former Fulbrighter and his wife (piano and violin), and hilariously many of us swiped an official hand towel from the bathrooms because they were embossed with the State Department seal.  The consensus was that it was just “too cool” not to.  Don’t worry, we left plenty.

State Department Towel

 

 

2) Sitting in a hearing at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.  Imagine every court case being heard in multiple languages at the same time.  There are booths on both sides with translators narrating the proceedings and ear pieces for everyone in the audience.  Much of it was in German so I could follow pretty well.  There was the plaintiff, a German corporation, advocates from any state that might want to comment (Germany and France in this case) and the lawyer for the European Commission.  While I’m not going into the facts of the case, I will say that as a lawyer it’s important to listen well to questions from the bench – least you get a little smackdown.

Oh and the ECJ has a fantastic art collection.

3) Tie – NATO & the College of Europe in Bruges

I wish I could prove that I’ve been to NATO HQ but they confiscated our phones! After the presentations we had lunch there and I got to talk a little International Relations with a member of the Policy & Planning office.  The last time I was in a NATO facility it was at the now defunct CAOC in Eskisehir, Turkey, which was a great experience too.

The College of Europe trains future EU leaders and is a 9 month Masters program, in both French and English.  However, there are many students who attend that go to international careers in the pubic and private sector outside of Europe.   Prof. Marco Rimanelli, another Fulbright Schuman Scholar, gave a fantastic overview of transatlantic relations to the students (there was nothing but praise afterward), while I got to hang out a with faculty member, and former Fulbrighter,  Prof. Michelle Chang.

Next post: Living in Belgium and the Culture of Compromise

Discovery

I’ve been in Belgium a few days now, but before I begin blogging about my experiences I want to explain how I started on this journey.

I learned about the Fulbright program when I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University.  As a dual degree student in International Studies and German, I could take classes from a host of departments.  It was really a 700 level course called “United States National Security and the Cold War” that solidified my future as an Historian and International Political Economist.  I successfully convinced Dr. Beyerchen that I belonged in a class that was clearly designed for graduate students. There were 6 of us. I was the only female and the only undergraduate.  The reading list was extensive, as were the writing requirements, and I had no background what-so-ever in the topic.

I loved every minute of it.

I still have that syllabus somewhere.  It keeps company with a few others that have contributed to how I look at the world.  (Some of them will show up in later entries.)

There were many readings that ignited my passion for intertwining history and policy, a few come to mind here:

–        Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation, about his time at the State Department and the art of diplomacy that continue to intrigue me.  His comments about the birth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization started my obsession with NATO and nuclear strategy.

–        Bruce Jentleson, Pipeline Politics, about US attempts to undermine the USSR’s oil production with embargoes on certain equipment.  Jentleson altered me to oil politics and the role that dual-use technology plays in national security and economics.  It was, without me realizing it at the time, the first book on Political Economy I had read (not the last!).

–        Richard J. Barnet, The Alliance, was a rich narrative of early post-World War Two reconstruction and how the US established itself as a ‘European power’ to create a bulwark against Communism.  This was an absolutely enjoyable read (with lengthy sections on Japan as well).

So what does this have to do with the Fulbright? I learned about it in this class and immediately knew I wanted to become a part of it. This was the era where Americans were forced to go beyond their borders in every way possible – economically, culturally, militarily, and socially — because they suddenly had a bigger role to play in global affairs.  Now, the US needed to be out there and engaged in the world.  This is the context and spirit in which William J. Fulbright conceived of the program. Fulbright sought to promote education and cultural exchange for understanding, which he knew might lead to the possibility of agreement.  This is still important, indeed today it is absolutely essential for healthy international relations. The character of America’s relationships may have changed, but they still rest (or should rest) on these principles.   Knowing the ‘other side’s’ view only makes you stronger in the long run.

Within the history of this program is the aim to contribute to the world and make it a better place, both when you are abroad and after you return home.

I know it sounds hokey, but most of us want to connect to something; we want to understand and better ourselves and those around us.  That class, and the Fulbright, struck a chord in me because I am that kind of person.  I try to present events and perspectives as accurately as possible in my work with the aim to suggest solutions and facilitate dialogue among many different and often conflicting groups.  I am constantly seeking different ways of doing that.  I want that other angle, that other piece that might provide a more complete picture of a problem in the hope that it might make a difference.  I’ve been given a rare opportunity to find more pieces as a Fulbright-Schuman Scholar.

William J. Fulbright’s vision involved the exchange of ideas and the hope of understanding.  He knew that within those processes there needed to be personal and shared experience.  He wanted to create a cadre of American educational and cultural ambassadors, and open the United States to people in other parts of the world who felt the same way.

To me, the Fulbright represents the optimism of exploration.  Of finding something new or rediscovering something forgotten.  That’s what experience is – discovery.

So let’s go.