Interview with Ambassador H.E. Raoul Delcorde the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Transcript of an interview; views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What are the new dimensions of diplomacy which are broadening its scope, by blending culture, economy and politics?

Ambassador Delcorde: In the 21st century, diplomats indeed have to embrace a new kind of diplomacy. Traditionally, diplomacy was mainly a political relation between two States. As I have written in my book ‘The Belgian Diplomats’, Belgian Diplomacy from its very beginning has been focusing on trade. Foreign trade was and still is vital for the Belgian economy, as you certainly know. In order to export you have to discover new markets. In that sense, our embassies give crucial support to the business community.

This sounds almost as a cliché today but 180 years ago it was an innovative approach. From this perspective, we can say that from the start Belgian diplomacy was an economic diplomacy. However, today’s diplomacy is not just about economic or political relations. It’s also about what the Americans would call ‘soft power’: we are striving to make our country attractive going beyond the clichés that people have about Belgium. We are challenged to broaden people’s view on our country, showing that Belgium is not only about diamonds, chocolate, beer and Belgian (instead of French!) fries, but also a country rich in high-level pharmaceutical research, economically interesting harbours and very talented cartoonists.

Last but not least, nowadays the embassy becomes an actor on social media, a new world for people of my generation. 5 years ago I couldn’t even have imagined that I would become an active twitter user! This kind of public diplomacy is of utmost importance in our days.

Many countries like the Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are interested in Belgian art for their new museums, inviting even some famous Belgian artists like Wim Delvoye and Luc Tuymans. These new museums in the Arab World are sending out a strong message of global togetherness. How do you see this evolution on a cultural level? Do you have any concrete plans to expand your cultural relations?

First of all, it’s up to the individual artist to decide where he/she wants to be known. You mentioned Wim Delvoye. As a matter of fact, this very prolific artist is inspired by Iranian Art and spends a couple of months per year in Iran. In international affairs Iran is a country on the forefront, but on the artistic level we don’t make an immediate connection between Belgium and Iran as Wim Delvoye does. Delvoye recently settled in the city of Kashan, 200 km South of Tehran, where he is renovating a set of old houses. Last spring the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels had an exhibition on his work which was really worth visiting.

In the world of Belgian cartoons and comic books we can find some excellent non-traditional ambassadors. The best example is comic strip hero Tintin, created by Hergé, one of the most impressive creators of the 20th Century. In a certain way, Tintin embodies typically Belgian values: modesty, interest in others, sense of adventure, curiosity about other cultures. Unfortunately, many foreigners assume Tintin is French. By promoting Tintin in various occasions, we try to correct these widespread but false assumptions. For instance, both in Sweden and Poland I organized an exhibition with the Hergé Foundation.

Besides visual arts, the Belgian art scene has a lot to offer in other forms of art too. The famous fashion academy in Antwerp is one of our best ambassadors abroad in terms of fashion design. In performing arts, the Royal Ballet of Flanders is worth mentioning.

This dance company is currently being directed by the internationally acclaimed choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. He came to Ottawa when I was ambassador to Canada, promoting his avant-garde dance creations. The Queen Elizabeth Music Competition is another magnet for foreigners. Many laureates are from Asian origin, coming from South-Korea, China, Japan. By bringing their families along, these people get acquainted with a country they probably never heard of before.

Since cultural matters fall under the competence of the regions, in our embassies we collaborate closely with our colleagues from Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels to support them as much as we can. Usually exhibitions or concerts abroad are a joint effort between the embassy and the Flemish, Walloon or Brussels Regional Representatives.

So yes, personally I am a strong supporter of cultural diplomacy and its huge potential. These days diplomacy is no longer about drinking a cup of tea or a glass of champagne, to use a cliché. Nowadays, diplomats venture out of their offices and residences to meet, interact and create bonds with people of all kinds, not just the elite.

As a high level diplomat, have you been involved in a specific cultural project that could be of particular interest to us and our readers?

Ambassador Delcorde: In Canada I developed a cultural project with young people. Interacting with famous artists is important, but creating bonds with youngsters who will build the world of tomorrow is crucial too. The project dealt with the commemoration of World War I, the first war in which the Canadians fought outside their territory.

In Flanders you can find several cemeteries with many young Canadians who fought and died in and for Belgium. I organized a competition amongst all the high schools in Canada, asking to produce either a painting, video or poem related to Flanders Fields and World War I. Out of more than 200 pieces of art coming from all over Canada, the winner was awarded with a trip to Belgium. During this trip, they were accompanied by a professional guide in their visits to different sites of historic or cultural importance, such as Bruges, Brussels and Ypres. They learned a lot about the history of Belgium and of the Canadians who fought in our country. Afterwards, a film was made about their experience.

When they came back, I saw a group of young enthusiastic teenagers, moved and happy about what they learned about their country abroad. These youngsters are the engineers, managers, teachers of tomorrow, and their views on Belgium will be different, just because of this very special trip they made when they were 17. Hence I conclude: a diplomat has to connect with renowned artists, but first and foremost we have to connect with people of all generations from all walks of life.

Barbara Dietrich and Maarten Vermeir