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.