In response to a seventh grader’s question about NATO's reticence to get involved in the Crimea, Ambassador Verbeke spoke as a man—representative of a truly international organization—who had completed the calculus. At first he was taken aback. How old was this child? Are we at a school or a think tank in the midst of a strategy session? He complemented the thoughtfulness of the question but lamented that he didn't think that we had enough time to treat the question with the appropriate respect and complexity. I assured him we did. And I assured him that we could handle it.
His Excellency, The Belgian Ambassador to the United States Johan Verbeke graciously accepted our invitation to speak with our students on Wednesday, 2/3/16. We were so fortunate! Here is a man who has traveled the world (not just for holiday), been embedded in some of the most challenging geopolitical quagmires for generations, someone who speaks four languages and is probably eloquent in each. Ambassador Verbeke routinely shares space with global power brokers; he may be one himself. And here he is indulging a last minute request for a bit of his time in the midst of a whirlwind tour of Alabama. When I met him at the door, I was informed that they had just arrived back in town after a morning visit with Governor Bentley in Montgomery. I don't presume to know the mind of any man, but his actions indicate that he valued time with us. Of this man, this speaks volumes.
A conversation with a diplomat—in this case a chief diplomat—is akin to being inside the game. Over the course of an hour, he shared anecdotes and responsibilities. He illuminated global complexities, and he advocated for the continued significance of organizations and institutions that do diplomacy. Institutions that facilitate conversations—that talk. Ambassadors don't draw arms. They wield rhetoric, logic, and compromise. When those weapons fail, they urge more dialogue, from different angles. They realize the value in the conversation, the appeal. The world is too complicated, Verbeke asserted, for everyone to act on impulse or public sentiment. Nor do we have a firm-enough grasp of the "other" to presume to know motivations. That only comes with dialogue. Now, there are many who might call this endless chatter, sophistry, or a concession to paralyzing relativism. Ambassador Verbeke acknowledged that talking isn't always enough—a pure panacea. Action is frequently necessary and justified, and inaction can be fundamentally immoral; but he celebrated the virtues of patience and measured reactions. In a world that is hyper-reactionary, impulsive, and shallow, I was refreshed to listen to this man who articulately championed dialogue and dialectic. The conversation should never end.
This tendency doesn't come out of the ether. He readily admitted his disposition is in large part the result of his heritage. This proud Belgian talked about his home as a historical and current nexus of ideas and cultures. The tiny nation, roughly the size of Maryland with the population of Georgia, is the political seat of the EU and the home of NATO. It is diversity made manifest. He explained that on any given day on any corner in Brussels, one might hear German, Japanese, Greek, Dutch—I could go on. He celebrated that the Belgians could have tea with the Brits in the morning and could toast ouzo with the Greeks at night. An outsider might think a chameleon’s traits are antithetical to culture—that they are the realization of a world that has started to shed its diversity. Verbeke assured us that the opposite was true; tolerance, flexibility, and diversity were hallmarks of Belgium, written in to the nation’s DNA. The Japanese that we hear on the street corner isn’t a hybrid, having been mixed with French. In Belgium, each culture celebrates itself right next to another group doing the same. See Belgians are adept at dealing with diversity. It is a central component of their cultural identity. This cosmopolitan city is not flawless; every free nation engenders its own blemishes and cultivates the potential for radical dissent. But they do many, many things well.
We should think of them as a textbook. They can teach us about inclusion. Any nation with three official languages has worked out most kinks! They can teach us about listening. A sure-fire way to preempt conflict is to close one’s mouth and hear the other. They can teach us about code-switching. Learning how to adjust to various norms indicates respect and a desire to connect. They can teach us about compromise. If we are to get anything done in a collaborative, big-tent manner, we must learn to give-up first.
Ambassador Verbeke’s response to the Crimea questions was actually quite simple. He told the student that NATO acknowledged the illegitimacy of Russian aggression and Ukraine’s sovereign right to its borders. But the allies knew that responding with violence would be puncturing a hornet’s nest, which, at this time, is certainly not ideal. Other mechanisms could be used to show collective disapproval. And Putin, he argued, had already begun to moderate his tone. In addition, Russia is a major player in other conflicts. Fighting them jeopardizes any potential for collaboration for decades.
Many rational heads disagree and would’ve taken an aggressive posture. And the future may demonstrate that as the best course of action. But I’m reassured that we have deliberative bodies that consider the whole chessboard and the totality of potential moves. A metaphor for how we can encounter each other in peace and in and conflict.
Director, Altamont’s Global Initiative
This blog is the collective voice of every person involved in the Global Initiative. Just as the globe hosts billions of disparate voices, we hope this space will embody and embrace the same diversity.