For decades, we at the University of Georgia School of Law have welcomed collaboration with Belgium and its people and institutions. Even before 1978, when Belgium’s national airline became the 1st foreign carrier to fly nonstop to Atlanta, a Belgian attorney became the 1st foreign-trained lawyer to earn Georgia Law’s Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree. And thanks to the hard work and generosity of Georgia Law professors like Gabriel Wilner and our Center’s namesake, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, we’ve partnered with leading Belgian universities to offer summer seminars on issues related to international law and policy, often with a focus on European Union and transatlantic cooperation. That tradition will continue via this summer’s global governance school at the home of our partner, the Leuven Centre for Global Governance at the University of Leuven, one of Europe’s premier research institutions.
Thus it was a special pleasure to attend last Friday’s “Consular Conversations: Luncheon Interview With Belgium’s Consul General,” held at the Atlanta office of Miller & Martin, where Tom Harrold, Georgia Law alumnus and member of our Dean Rusk International Law Center Council, leads the International/World Law practice group. The event was part of a series of conversations sponsored by another Center partner, Global Atlanta.
Guest of honor was William de Baets, who’s served since last April as Belgium’s top diplomat in the Southeastern United States. In a wide-ranging conversation with Phil Bolton and Trevor Williams, Global Atlanta’s publisher and managing editor, de Baets explained he’d joined Belgium’s foreign service following 9 years as a Navy officer. Postings before his arrival at Atlanta included deputy head of mission in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, and Venezuela, and political counselor at Belgium’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
De Baets said that his office provides consular services and also engages in public and economy diplomacy; Friday’s conversation fulfilled the latter role. He spoke to a full house – a testament to the fact that Belgium ranks among the top 10 foreign investors in Georgia, which is home to more than 70 Belgian companies and more than 5,000 Belgian nationals.
Asked about Belgium’s renown as the home of Tintin and the Smurfs, not to mention 20th C. surrealists like René Magritte, de Baets recalled an artistic tradition that reaches back to the 16th C. Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens. Additionally, Belgium did not gain independence until 1830; before that “the territory kept changing hands and was ruled by other people,” he noted. “We couldn’t speak up too much. We were saying yes and thinking no, or saying yes and doing what we wanted to do. It was a source of our humor – we couldn’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Again answering a question, de Baets spoke of his father’s participation in the resistance during Germany’s occupation of Belgium during World War II.
Conversation then turned to Belgium’s role in contemporary matters. Regarding Brussels-based NATO (right), the defense alliance established 68 years ago by the North Atlanta Treaty, de Baets noted apparent disagreement within the new U.S. administration. Indeed, earlier in the week the South Carolina Governor tapped to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, had called NATO “important.”
Although the United States can defend itself without NATO, Europe cannot, and so de Baets advocated strengthening the European Union’s security pillar to offset any weakening of NATO. Such alliances are essential for countries like Belgium and its neighbor, Luxembourg. Yet de Baets acknowledged difficulty in achieving the goal, given disagreement among EU member states – including Britain, even before its people voted in favor of Brexit.
Dubbing compromise a “Belgian export,” de Baets indicated that his country could a key role in aiding Europe’s efforts to resolve crises in financial and security sectors, as well as migration. The goal, he said, is to “strengthen our security without giving up our values.”