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Atlantic loyalty, European autonomy. Belgium and the Atlantic alliance 1949-2009

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Myths colour the past and Belgium’s history in NATO is no exception. Contrary to what is often thought, the Cold War did not start when the Second World War ended. The war coalition against Nazi Germany was to hold out for several more years and give rise to a number of international initiatives, which all the allies would endorse, with the establishment of the United Nations at the top of the list. Only in 1947 did the war coalition turn into confrontation and a cold war. Misperceptions, incompatible security designs and ensuing diverging interests between the United States and the Soviet Union had reinforced each other and finally transformed the former allies, both of whom had been crucial in the defeat of Nazi Germany, into new geopolitical adversaries. In those first post-war years Belgium emerged as a convinced supporter of Western European defence arrangements under British leadership. Only in 1947 did Belgium gradually discover a privileged partner in the United States, though initially only at the economic and financial level. It would take till the summer of 1948 before Belgian diplomacy shelved its post-war project for European defence and signed up to an Atlantic alliance. In the decades that followed, Belgium proved itself a loyal NATO partner. Nevertheless, the good relations between Brussels and Washington did not prevent profound crises disturbing the calm now and then. Moreover, unlike some other member states, Belgium was to make its own original contribution to détente between East and West. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, and the implosion of the Soviet Union, in 1991, brought an end to the Cold War and to the bipolar world order. This led to a debate about new European defence architecture in all the NATO countries, including Belgium, now the continent was no longer divided between East and West. In Belgium the debate was settled fairly quickly when the body politic, across party borders, returned to the original European defence option Paul-Henri Spaak had championed from 1945 to 1948. Combining European primacy and autonomy in the field of defence with Atlantic loyalty became a balancing act that turned out not always to be easy.
(Photo credit: EP, Flickr)