Seven years ago, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the advent of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the existing world order was completely turned on its head. The implosion of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union also caused shock waves throughout the West.
Some predicted that NATO, as an organization, would also break up. Some saw in this an opportunity to abolish armed forces, while others - on both sides of the Atlantic - were of the opinion that Europe would henceforth be capable of solving its own defense problems unaided and that a commitment on the part of the United States was therefore no longer desirable.
The Gulf war was the first challenge to such views, and the calamitous war in the former Yugoslavia further increased the disillusionment. Lessons must be learned from all this, perhaps by asking the following question: How can we guarantee that Europe remains a safe place, free from conflict? Optimum use of the instruments at our disposal, including the defense and security organizations available to us, is essential in this regard.
The present peaceful atmosphere of cooperation that prevails in Europe does not mean that we should throw caution to the winds - in fact, quite the reverse. History teaches that we have to be capable of fighting in order to avoid actually having to do so. This is the principal reason why Belgium believes that a strong North Atlantic Alliance will be as important as ever in preserving our security. In the years ahead solidarity among nations on both sides of the Atlantic will continue to be essential.
Quite rightly, the disappearance of the immediate threat from the East led to calls for the "dividends of peace." Our North American friends have reaped their share mainly in the form of the large-scale withdrawal of their troops from Europe. But this reduction has its limits if the US commitment in Europe is not to be jeopardized in the long term. I am therefore pleased that President Clinton is committed to maintaining a contingent of 100,000 troops in Europe.
Europe's peace benefits
On the European side we have also taken our share of the benefits of peace. Required military service has been abolished in Belgium and the Army restructured for changed missions. No longer needing to prepare against a conventional, large-scale surprise attack, it focuses on humanitarian actions, peacekeeping operations, mine clearance, and monitoring the observance of embargoes, as well as peace enforcement measures.
By committing our troops to such varied missions worldwide as in the Gulf, Central Africa, Somalia, Cambodia, Haiti, and, last but not least, the former Yugoslavia, Belgium feels it has rendered some service to the international community. My country has shown itself to be a faithful ally and a reliable partner both in NATO and within the European Union (EU) and the United Nations. It has demonstrated this fact by participating in all major peacekeeping operations organized in recent years.
This is one reason we are not prepared to go along with the growing trend toward decisionmaking on the basis of ad hoc arrangements. It is not acceptable for all important decisions to be taken by so-called "contact groups" not encompassing all substantial troop-contributors. No more than the American or German people, could the Belgian or Dutch people accept risking the lives of their soldiers without their authorities having a say in the security arrangements that form the basis of their military involvement.
I am opposed to the institutionalization of a system of "major powers" in matters that are of equal concern to us all. If we wish to be capable of meeting the challenges that Europe and the West will be confronted with in the 21st century - and that have already begun to appear - we have to combine our forces instead of taking on these challenges in a fragmented manner. Multilateralism has been the key word and the cornerstone of the last half century; it must shape the way ahead.
The most important challenge
Our most important challenge concerns the peaceful integration of all the new democracies into a pan-European security system. This system will rest on three pillars: NATO, the EU/WEU (Western European Union), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. NATO and the EU must extend the internal stability they have achieved in Europe to zones beyond. This can be done in a number of ways: first, through the much-spoken-of enlargement of these organizations; second, by means of intensified dialogue with the rest of Europe's democratic nations. Both NATO and the EU have already come a long way.
In this respect, it should be made abundantly clear that, although the enlargement processes of both NATO and the EU are bound to influence one another, they will remain totally independent, as each will answer exclusively to its own dynamics. All countries concerned should keep in mind that accession to one of these organizations will by no means trigger accession to the other, nor should a country denied an invitation in one circle expect a consolation prize with an open door in the other circle.
No country should be isolated purely on the grounds of history, and that is why I am pleased that the partnership with Russia is now actually beginning to take concrete form. Who would have thought that one day the Russian military and US, German, French, and Belgian troops would be working side by side in an attempt to restore peace in the Balkans? This real and intense cooperation makes me optimistic about the future. Those who are unable to accept that yesterday's enemies have become today's partners and even tomorrow's potential allies, lack vision.
* Erik Derycke is the Belgian minister for foreign affairs.