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R. Vandemeulebroucke: Address to the International Leadership Conference

Address to the UPF International Leadership Conference
Seoul, Korea, February 6-10, 2011


When talking about conflict, armed conflict and war spring easily to mind.

My talk will focus on other types of conflict: conflicts involving political, economic, social, and ideological differences in running affairs of state in or between countries and the means to bring these to a conclusion in order to promote peace.

A good starting point is the promotion of internationally accepted common values and norms such as democracy, good governance, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. These principles have been accepted and applied over time by a large majority of modern states. Without them no modern society is able to function.

Over the past 50 years the world has witnessed a development without equal in human history: people have become more mobile, enjoy a better education and lifestyle, economies are becoming more and more intertwined, heads of government, politicians, community and religious leaders meet on a regular basis anywhere in the world, international organizations have been created or reinvented, and new ideas and concepts are spreading around the world by the click of a mouse.

And yet, despite the growing “internationalization” (the global village image springs to mind), people in South Korea, Belgium, the USA, and elsewhere treasure and preserve their rich cultural and historical heritage as never before.

This rich diversity is of paramount importance when it comes to international relations and resolving conflicts. It should be well understood and respected in all circumstances regarding matters of peace. Otherwise, the result of any negotiation will be lopsided, lead to frustration, and be doomed to fail with possible nasty consequences.

I illustrate my remarks with three examples:

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

This event took everyone by surprise. Although expected by every politician worth his political mandate, the speed with which this major political tsunami happened left all chanceries and foreign affairs ministries perplexed. And yet the conflict between the satellite states of the USSR in Eastern Europe and the Kremlin had been brewing for decades.

Remember the popular uprisings in Budapest (1956) and Prague (1968)? Hungarians and Czechs wanted reforms and freedom. Both revolutions were bloodily crushed by the Soviet army.

The gains of the continuing repression were only temporary. The massive popular anti-Kremlin movement went underground. Later, in Poland, events started with an equally dramatic showdown at the Gdansk shipyard. General Jaruzelski, the then Polish leader, instead of crushing the opposition, showed the wisdom to start negotiations with the leader of the protesting workers, Lech Walesa, rather than risking a bloodbath. Whether he did so with or without the agreement of the Kremlin is a matter of debate, even today. This indicates, nevertheless, that the Soviet Union was beginning to lose its grip over its East-European vassal states.

The homo sovieticus that the USSR had been trying to create first in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and later in its vassal states in Eastern Europe after World War II proved to be no more than an illusion. At least the population of the various European states subjected to Moscow no longer wished to be part of it. They wanted freedom and independence and to be able to run their own affairs in their own country.

And so the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall soon became a galvanizing symbol of the failure of Soviet policies in Europe introduced under Lenin and Stalin 70 years earlier.

My point: the speed of the implosion of the USSR in Eastern Europe is equaled only by the peaceful way it was achieved in a very short time. Foremost, credit must be given to the population of the various former Eastern-bloc countries. They had against their wishes endured the Soviet political model for too long. They are the true heroes! But in the same vein I also mention the foresight of the then Russian leader Michael Gorbachev, who reined in his troops and decided against a military intervention. One cannot pay enough tribute to his personal contribution to world peace in this matter at the time. He was honored by receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. But in his home country, Russia, he only belatedly received recognition. Imagine only what the Soviet answer to the revolution would have been under a Brezhnev-type of President! A new war involving Western powers could have become a real, dreadful possibility.

Towards democratic elections in Benin (West Africa)

The second example is a firsthand eyewitness report of an important political event that happened in Benin from 1989 to 1991, during the time I was Ambassador to this country.

I will start with a brief geographical and historical note on Benin.

Benin (formerly known as Dahomey) is a small West-African country with a population of 9 million. Its eastern neighbor is Nigeria, its western neighbor Togo. This former French colony became independent in 1960. The country went through political upheaval after its independence until a military commander by the name of Kérékou seized power in 1972 and established a Marxist-Leninist republic.

But things did not go well for Benin, notwithstanding the support from the then Eastern-bloc European countries and the Kremlin. At the end of the 1980s, i.e., after 20 years of independence, a former Benin president summed up the state of affairs in his country as follows: “Benin is like Romania without its exports, Bohemia without its factories, Poland without its coal, and Prussia without its discipline.”

In other words: total chaos.

As popular discontent grew and protest rallies became the order of the day, President Kérékou realized that something had to change and change quickly.

A new constitution was drafted and elections were promised. International observers were invited to attend and monitor the polls. I happened to be one of them.

The polls were well organized, free and fair with a few minor incidents. Beninese citizens turned up massively and proved very eager to vote.

The election outcome was largely in favor of the challenger, M. Nicéphore Soglo. Clearly, it was an unexpected defeat for Kerekou.

It was a politically decisive but also very sensitive moment: what would the incumbent do? Send his army into the streets, arrest the opposition, send it to jail, and grasp power? Let himself be declared president for life? This hypothesis was not imaginary: it had happened in neighboring Togo and in not-so-distant Zaïre, to mention just those two countries.

Some arm twisting involving Western powers certainly happened. But Kérékou realized his time was up, he abided by his promise, validated the election result, stepped down with his head high, and welcomed his successor, President Soglo, into the presidential mansion.

Peace in Benin was preserved as Kerekou went quietly.

And so I became the first Ambassador to present my credentials to the democratically elected President Soglo in Porto Novo, the Beninese capital.

Soon Benin became a beacon of democracy in the region, and its economy developed quickly thanks to the enthusiasm of its population and to the generous aid received from abroad. It is today a stable and prosperous nation in a geographical area where democracy – alas! — is in short supply (see recent events in Cote d'Ivoire).

My point: a peaceful transition from a dictatorship to a democratically elected president happened surely with assistance of the international community. But without the full cooperation of the Beninese population, eager to participate in the vote and forgetting tribal differences. it would not have been possible. Kerekou himself, to his credit, respected the result at the ballot box. The signal this election sent to other African countries with politically unmovable heads of state and presidents for life cannot be underestimated.

The reconstruction of Europe and the creation of the European Community of Coal and Steel (treaty of 1951)

This case is a somewhat atypical example of promoting peace and cooperation between European states.

A short historical note helps to understand the impact of this initiative and its significance today and in the years ahead.

1945: end of a devastating World War II in Europe and defeat of the Nazi-regime. The 1000-year “Third Reich” was no more.

The cost in human suffering, destruction of factories, cities and other infrastructure was enormous. Families had been decimated either as a result of massive bombardments, famine, or deportation to German concentration camps. Few factories were undamaged and able to manufacture, jobs were almost non-existent, and finding food and clothing was the order of the day for countless destitute families.

Soon after the war visionary politicians proposed a bold initiative with unknown consequences at the time: in order to ban war in Europe, French and German leaders suggested the establishment of a voluntary economic union between European states focusing on coal and steel. At first, the idea was rejected massively. An economic union: yes but why involve Germany, the trigger of two world wars and of so much misery and devastation? France had even fought three wars in less than a century against Germany if one includes the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Notwithstanding significant opposition, the idea slowly advanced, and the Treaty was signed in 1951.

One cannot thank enough the founding fathers: French leaders such as Jean Monet and Robert Schuman insisted against all odds that Germany should be included in the deal. Post-war German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer naturally supported the idea. The Italian de Gasperis and he Belgian Foreign Minister Paul Henri Spaak worked overtime to convince their wavering colleagues.

At this junction, I also would like to mention the massive American economic and financial assistance Europe received immediately after the war. Known as the Marshall Plan, it was instrumental in helping to rebuild Europe.

Although coal mines have all but disappeared from today’s Europe and steel factories are of less importance to its economy, one has to remember that both sectors were considered to be the essential engines of economic growth at the time.

The rest is history...

The European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union (EU), was created by the Treaty of Rome (1957) by six European countries: Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Italy. Today the EU counts 27 member states, has its own currency (Euro), and economic and social policies are discussed and agreed upon in Brussels before being ratified into law in all member states.

Many social, economic and even policy issues are today decided by a simple majority. Only in exceptional circumstances can a country make use of its veto (e.g., EU enlargement issues). In other words: on a majority of issues member states have voluntary submitted huge chunks of their national sovereignty to the European Commission and other EU institutions.

My point: in the course of the last 2,000 years Europe has been the theatre of perennial conflicts and wars, local, regional or continental. The Roman Empire at its zenith including Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East — much bigger than the EU today — came and went. Charlemagne started an embryo of the European Union; it came and went. Charles V created an empire so vast it was said that the sun never went under in his realm; it came and went. One of the best-known French kings, Louis XIV, unwittingly prepared the downfall of the French monarchy later in 1789, when the French revolted, deposed, and beheaded Louis XVI. The colonies’ independence wars from their European masters started in the 18th century and continued in the 19th century. New independent European countries came into being, notably Belgium and Greece in the 19th century. World War I and 20 years later World War II reduced Europe to rubble, requiring a painful and costly reconstruction.

The list of armed conflicts in Europe throughout its history is endless...

And yet, soon after the most devastating war Europe had ever seen, men of vision in Western Europe stood up and defended the idea of creating a union including, from its inception, arch-enemy Germany.

Defending such ideas needed lots of political courage at the time. Outside the small nucleus of inspired politicians, such proposals were branded as ridiculous — even suicidal — and its promoters were considered to be deranged.

Today, with the exception of the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, dismembering the former Yugoslavia, and creating eight new states aspiring to become respected EU members in the future, it is safe to say that a more closely-integrated Europe is on its way to become the first continent where wars and armed conflict will be banned for a long time, hopefully...forever!


Case studies comparable to the ones I highlighted are abundant and can be multiplied at leisure.

I leave to you to consider the following thoughts and recommendations helpful in addressing conflicts.

Never underestimate people’s power. History teaches us over and over again they – the people — are the main initiators of change in societies. It is the simplest but also the hardest lesson to learn. Especially today.

Tunisia and Egypt are obviously cases in point. The reading on the wall, albeit repeated many times over for many years, had not been understood by the leaders. The lifespan of any autocratic regime is limited. Either it evolves in time into something new, responding to the expectations of its people, or it disappears completely at the risk of revolution and armed conflict.

No one is able to predict beforehand how long change will take. But history is definitively not on the side of autocrats.

People’s power is of course not limited to autocracies: remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rallies in Washington DC in the early 1960s, the student protest marches of May 1968 in France and other West-European countries? They send loud and clear messages: citizens wished their grievances to be heard and taken into account, thus forcing national leaders to take swift action. Even in China, the Tienanmen Square student protest in 1989 initiated change, albeit grudgingly and discreetly.


The following list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subject to further debate:

  1. Leaders and politicians of every country and at every level must remain connected with their constituencies. If not, they should plug the gap without delay. Dialogue is the best remedy against popular alienation.
  2. Preventing a conflict is far easier than repairing the damage afterwards. It takes longer to heal a broken leg than to avoid falling.
  3. Forget arrogance when addressing conflicts. Show respect for your opponent and make him aware that he is part of the solution, not the problem.
  4. Start negotiation with good intelligence about the matter at hand. A well-prepared negotiator has a much shorter distance to cover.
  5. Include on your team experts familiar with the issue. Quality over quantity is essential when negotiating.
  6. Seize opportunities that come your way, because windows of opportunity close quickly. The time frame between the start of a conflict and its escalation can be short. If not extinguished in the bud, a fire may get out of control, forcing negotiators to seek additional and costly resources to quench it.
  7. Stop the blame game. No explanation is needed for this.
  8. Be patient, but make sure this is not seen as a sign of weakness. Be flexible or touch wherever and whenever necessary.
  9. A carrot-and-stick approach is a good instrument in any negotiation, but use it only if applicable or needed.
  10. Establish a friendly and relaxed atmosphere in order to facilitate negotiations and create good will.
  11. Be prepared to work overtime. If you aren’t, your challenger will.

Final recommendation: If you fail, try, try again!!

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