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Former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman and the Snowden Factor

The rot at the door of former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman is emblematic of the new Ugly Americans at the core of this US administration, starting with its boss, Barack Obama. Read on...


Former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman and the Snowden Factor


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.





This past June, at an end of the season gathering of Columbia University alumni in Brussels, outgoing US Ambassador Howard Gutman delivered the speech he had been taking around to all the five hundred eighty or so communes of Belgium during his four-year tour of duty. The essence of the speech was that under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama, the United States had largely recovered economically from the calamitous recession left behind by George W. Bush and that it had also recovered politically on the international stage, restoring luster and appeal to the American standard which his predecessor had done so much to damage by his war of aggression in Iraq and ‘in-your-face’ unilateral foreign policy. Whereas America was rated as a danger to world peace when Gutman arrived in Brussels, he claimed it was again looked up to as he planned his departure.

Tucked away in the speech and, presumably outside the field of vision of the superficially genial Mr. Gutman, was a stern reproach to Belgium for its slow and inadequate response to the challenges of industrial restructuring brought in by the economic crisis of 2008. One example he noted was that in contrast to America, which had downsized its automobile industry right from the start, closing factories and laying off workers to bring costs into balance with a shrunken market, Belgium was still in the throes of labor unrest at its key Ford factory in Genk which was very belatedly slated for closure.

Gutman remarked that in so many towns he visited the local authorities had asked him to find American investors who would bring in jobs. And he claimed to have done his best to induce U.S. retailers and fast food operators to move into Belgium but was stymied by the high structural costs from taxes and social benefits and by labor inflexibility codified by law. He cited figures on comparative labor costs in a variety of countries that Starbucks had researched to illustrate his point. The fact that Belgium has world leading capabilities in pharmaceuticals, information and communication technologies in Greater Brussels, but also in Flanders and Wallonia, somehow eluded Gutman’s attention in his efforts to be helpful on the employment front.

Whereas the local situation was dismal, Gutman pointed proudly to the turnaround in American fortunes. If Belgians had money to invest, he said in confidence, they should have put their funds into Florida real estate, where the recovery was now giving stunning capital gains to investors in condos who had the foresight to buy on the cheap from foreclosures post-2008. Never mind that the very same real estate distress in the United States (sub-prime mortgages) had been the direct cause of Europe’s economic travails lasting to today and might have been an unacceptable profit opportunity for Belgians with idle funds.

Moreover, Gutman told us, the US recovery, now in its third year, was being fueled by the shale gas production boom, which assured cheap energy to manufacturing industry. The movement of factories abroad, which had seemed unstoppable before the crisis, was being reversed. That would contrast with Europe’s inability to get its energy house in order and, most recently, its squeamish environmental objections to drilling for shale gas and oil where possible in its own back yard.

In summation, to anyone listening closely, there was in Ambassador Gutman’s remarks a fairly heavy dose of condescension if not outright contempt for Belgium, and more broadly for the European Union. And yet, Gutman closed his remarks with the hope and expectation that he would be returning to Belgium to pursue personal business opportunities.

Just a few weeks after that alumni event, the wire services were carrying shocking allegations that the good U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium had repeatedly procured sex from prostitutes and from underage minors while strolling in the park adjacent to his official residence. In this country, still reeling from the Dutroux pedophile scandal of 1998, there could be nothing more heinous than charges such as were now leveled against Gutman.


The rot at Gutman’s door and his comeuppance are emblematic of the new Ugly Americans at the core of this US administration, starting with its boss, Barack Obama.

The boorishness of Americans abroad fifty years ago could be attributed to poor general education, an uncouthness and cultural insensitivity that came with easy money and fast social climbing during an age of relative prosperity and burgeoning, low-cost intercontinental jet travel. The boorishness of Americans on the world stage today cuts across social strata, is indifferent to educational attainments and is wholly bipartisan. It is an outgrowth of the triumphalism that took hold in America after we “won” the Cold War and the Soviet Union, with its world-wide push-back to American foreign policy, collapsed, with no other great power or combination of powers to fill the breach.  What followed has been two decades of America’s largely getting its own way in international affairs and paying very little heed to the interests or the views of others.

Readers will note I am asserting that the unilateralism which the George W. Bush administration proclaimed as a matter of pride, both preceded and followed Bush during the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama years. The only constraints on American power have been technical (or financial) and not political.  If it can be done, then U.S. power has been doing it, whether it was bombing Serbia in 1999, invading Iraq in 2003, sending drones across international borders to assassinate presumed bad guys or, as Edward Snowden has shown us,  under cover of anti-terror vigilance, snooping on tens of millions of Americans and citizens of friendly and allied countries, up to and including presidents, popes and the United Nations Secretary General.

In a recent essay on these pages, I alluded to Barack Obama’s revealing and damning performance at his press conference in the Konstantinovsky Palace, St Petersburg, on 6 September at the conclusion of the last G-20 meeting. Now I will be more specific. A journalist asked him how he expected to patch up relations with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff given her outrage over NSA spying on her personal communications. Obama clearly was thinking spontaneously and spoke from the heart, such as it is.  He said that this is what intelligence agencies the world over do, that U.S. capabilities merely happened to be so much greater than those of other countries just as its military capabilities were greater, and that since Brazil and the United States have so many common interests, it was obvious that the countries would swiftly move beyond the present differences.  To summarize, his position was essentially: “And what is she going to do about it? This is who we are…” George W. Bush could not have arrived at a more arrogant and insulting response had he been put to the same test. All of which is rather disappointing, given that George W. was a C-student, the lazy favored son of a political dynasty, whereas Barack Obama was a top student in his class at the Harvard Law School, presumably owing his success to hard work and superior intelligence. Moreover, Obama had waged his 2008 presidential campaign precisely by highlighting his greater capacity for dialogue and empathy in a rebuke to unilateralism.

In the month since then, as American authorities have responded to the daily drip of revelations about the misdeeds and overreaching of their intelligence agencies thanks primarily to The Guardian and other media entrusted with Edward Snowden’s trove of secret documents, the notion that what can be done in the name of homeland security should be done has finally taken a hit.  In ordering a review of NSA operations, Obama now specifically set as the objective to see what can be scaled back, how to ensure that the agencies take no more than they truly need and that a new balance is struck between privacy and security.


So far, so good.  But the broader principle still has not come to the surface:  American foreign policy ambitions must be similarly pared back to take into account not merely the physical and financial limits of power but also the limits of decency in a world where other countries also exist and have interests which must be respected. Failing that, a stable world order is not sustainable and we may anticipate great turbulence ahead.




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 G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013

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