Belgium, yesterday a unitary country today a federal one, is composed of different linguistic communities and is characterised by institutions of great complexity in order to increase the autonomy of the different consisting regions. Confronted with never ending arbitration, it has cultivated the art of compromising up to excess. For a long time Belgium has cherished a neutral policy, but in spite of its doing so it has been involved in the two major conflicts of this century and has made, by necessity, the realistic and pragmatic choice of enlisting in the NATO defensive alliance.
The decline of the traditional coal and steel industries forced a difficult transition on both regions of Belgium. The transition began in the late 1950's in Wallonia, and in the 1960's and 1970's came to the coal mines in towns like Hasselt in Eastern Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country. The government of Flanders handled the transition better than that of Wallonia, in that it ensured that federal money for restructuring was channeled into post-industrial business development and job training in Flanders, while it was used to fund social institutions and soccer fields in Wallonia. The result is that too much employment in Wallonia depends directly on the government, and the region has yet to develop a more entrepreneurial culture such as exists in Flanders. The blame in large part due to the long rule of the Socialist Party in Wallonia, which has only recently begun to accept a more liberal approach to the economy, and which has always defended generous social benefits that discourage the unemployed from seeking jobs.
Opinion surveys show slightly more than 30 percent of Belgians are willing to fight for their country. Belgium is among those European countries, such as Italy and Germany, whose populations are least likely to heed a call to arms in the event of war. Seen as symptomatic of the lack of interest in questions pertaining to defense and national security, this must be understood as deriving from the specific nature of Belgian society. The creation of the Belgian state was not the product of an outpouring of nationalist sentiment, but rather the consequence of linguistic and religious grievances.
On the one hand are historians who stress the unity of the Belgian peoples in opposing foreign domination. On the other hand are those who emphasize the separateness of the Dutch speakers and the French speakers, arguing that Belgium is the unnatural creation of the European powers who so often battled over its territory.
The armed services in Belgium have traditionally been regarded as a force to be drawn from the people, who have regarded national defense as a personal as well as a national responsibility. The armed forces were considered a shield of protection, not only from foreign invasion but also from tyranny at home. Several factors nonetheless interfered with public support for the armed forces. Powerful neighbors exerted pressure on Belgium throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forcing it to maintain a policy of positive neutrality. By curtailing external involvement of the Belgian armed forces, the policy of neutrality left the military with no visible mission and no base for public support.
Where in the midst of all the linguistic, regional, and ideological variation can a sense of Belgian nationalism be found? Perhaps it is in the area of foreign policy and national security, where the experience of two world wars and centuries of being run over by greater powers has taught the Belgians the importance of unity in adversity. History has also convinced the Belgians of the need for alliances. Belgium has been a strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a major force behind the integration of Europe into the European Communities
Because of its experiences during the two World Wars and its limited ability for self-defense, Belgium was quick to join as a founding member of the United Nations, with a Belgian - Paul Henri Spaak — serving as the first president of the UN General Assembly. For the same reasons, Belgium was also one of the 12 founding charter members of NATO in 1949 and has served as the host for NATO headquarters in Brussels since 1967, and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) in Mons since 1966.
The armed services in Belgium have traditionally been regarded as a force to be drawn from the people, who have regarded national defense as a personal as well as a national responsibility. The armed forces were considered a shield of protection, not only from foreign invasion but also from tyranny at home.
Several factors nonetheless interfered with public support for the armed forces. Powerful neighbors exerted pressure on Belgium throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forcing it to maintain a policy of positive neutrality. By curtailing external involvement of the Belgian armed forces, the policy of neutrality left the military with no visible mission and no base for public support. Morale within the military was difficult to maintain. In spite of these factors, however, some military tradition and esprit de corps did develop, and a few families made suceessful military careers.
What is called "pacifism" is a widespread sentiment in Flanders. It is virtually impossible to underestimate the influence of the slaughter of 1914-18 on official and public opinion in Europe in the decades after the war, probably no where more so than Flanders, where vivid memories of the special horrors of trench warfare remain alive a century after the fact. On August 4, 1914, German forces poured over the border (exactly according to the Schlieffen Plan) and quickly established control in most of Belgium. Flemish Activism blossomed in early 1917. The army was an exaggerated microcosm of the Belgian social and political system. The officer corps was almost exclusively Walloon, or at least French-speaking, and blatantly anti-Flemish; some 60 to 80 percent of the troops were Flemings, who spoke no French. There was no possibility of promotion for the Flemings and little hope of an improvernent in the miserable conditions of life in the trenches.
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