Lessons from Belgium’s Favorite American Ambassador
Since taking office in 2009, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman has caught the eye of the bilingual Belgian medias, garnering praise in the Belgian press and logging over one hundred appearances on Belgian television. He has championed a renewed friendship between Belgium and the United States, following nearly a decade of frosty relations between the two countries. In a few short years, Ambassador Gutman has rebuilt a key partnership between his “two favorite democracies” that was on the brink of disaster under both countries’ previous administrations.
There was a time not too long ago, in 2007, when there was talk within the Belgian parliament of closing the Port of Antwerp to American vessels. The parliament also floated the idea of closing Belgian airspace to U.S. military flights. There was even a question of whether then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could be subjected to criminal prosecution in Belgium on charges related to the war in Iraq. At the height of the tensions, the U.S. threatened to move NATO headquarters out of Brussels if the rhetoric did not abate.
The unfriendly policies put forth by Belgian leaders were, at least in part, driven by the discontent of their constituents. A 2007 Gallup Poll found that eight percent of Belgians approved of American leadership, while 65 percent said that they viewed American leadership unfavorably. Belgian disapproval of American leadership was even extended to everyday Americans living and travelling in the country. “Americans wouldn’t wear the Red Sox tees in public; some would hide their guidebooks for fear of calling attention to themselves as American tourists,” Gutman recalls.
In 2009, with the inauguration of President Obama, public approval of the U.S. in Belgium, as elsewhere in the world, skyrocketed. Since then, due in large part to the efforts of Ambassador Gutman and his staff, the Belgian opinion of Americans has continued to trend upwards. In addition to maintaining close ties with Belgian government and business leaders, Gutman takes a grassroots approach to diplomacy. “We acknowledged that you could talk about rebuilding the partnership with ministers and barons, but you had to rebuild it with the people,” Gutman recounts. This started with daily language lessons – French and Flemish on alternate weekdays – so that the Ambassador could communicate in the vernacular. It was then that, armed with a basic knowledge of the national languages, he introduced himself to the Belgian people through his campaign of appearances in the national medias. He met with small business owners, community leaders, and private citizens in Belgium to bridge the wide impasse that existed between the two allies in the decade prior to his arrival.
He recalls that, upon arriving in 2009, “We vowed to visit all of the people – to visit all of the 589 official cities, towns and communes in Belgium.” This was the beginning of his ‘Partnership Tour’ to restore a friendship with the Belgian people that dates back to another U.S. Ambassador’s appeals on behalf of Belgian prisoners during the German occupation of Belgium in World War I, and the efforts of Herbert Hoover to bring relief to the Belgian people during that war. Gutman will be the first U.S. Ambassador – and perhaps the first diplomatic envoy ever – to visit each of Belgium’s 589 municipalities. He will celebrate the completion of his tour next month. The party has a guest list like no other in Belgium – the Embassy plans to invite the Prime Minister, the nine provincial governors, and the 589 bourgmestres, burgemeesters, and Bürgermeisters that govern Belgium’s municipalities. “Rebuild a partnership, and they will come,” Gutman told Columbia students during a recent address on U.S.-European Relations.
Gutman’s tactics seem to be paying dividends. Gutman is the second-longest serving U.S. Ambassador to Belgium in the last 35 years. He became the first U.S. Ambassador to address the Belgian Parliament. His 2010 appeal to the Belgian people secured additional troops and funding for the surge in Afghanistan. The local Fulbright Commission’s You Tube Channel, to which he and his Embassy contribute heavily, now leads the world in views. In 2012, a Gallup poll found 45 percent of Belgians favorable toward American leaders and only 22 percent unfavorable. The Obama administration approval rating is higher in Belgium than in many parts of the United States.
“I tell Belgians in my speeches that we must all fight – Belgians, Americans, expats, businesses, tourists, the chocolate shops and the waffle vendors, journalists, the ports, the politicians and all others – we must all fight never to go back to yesterday,” Gutman says, referring to the “frosty” relations of the early 2000s. He continues, “I explain that no single president, no single administration, and no single ambassador define America: America is 310 million citizens dedicated to the same values shared by 11 million Belgians – freedom, democracy, respect for our fellow men and women and for the brotherhood of citizens, love of family, pride in work, curiosity about tomorrow and much more.”
Gutman hopes that this renewed friendship between Belgium and the U.S. will last long after his term as ambassador. After three and a half years in Belgium, he and his wife Michelle Loewinger will soon return to private life in the United States. There are no plans yet for what they will do next, but Gutman hopes that he will again work at the intersection of U.S.-European relations. “Wherever we are, we will always carry a piece of Belgium in our hearts,” he told a crowd of Belgians and international expats that had gathered to watch the U.S. election returns in real time last month.
Gutman’s work opens a new chapter in the Belgian-American friendship, one of fraternity and cooperation, one of mutual respect and understanding, and one where, as an American, you can proudly wear your Red Sox shirt.
You’ll have Ambassador Gutman to thank when you meet a few of the local Yankees fans.
Matthew Finney is a sophomore in Calhoun College