iplomacy is sometimes about moving mountains—often because of the deeply entrenched positions taken by negotiating parties. To bridge the gaps between opposing views, diplomats have to climb steep mountains of prejudices, misunderstandings, and bad blood. This statecraft requires skills, determination, as well as endurance to withstand the peaks of emotions as well as the lows of human behavior.
To be effective, however, in diplomacy or for that matter anything else, one needs to possess or develop empathy. According to Martin Griffiths, first Executive Director of the European Institute of Peace: “Diplomatic work, information gathering or intelligence work is all about empathy at its core…empathy is connecting with the core of humanity … the defining common ingredient which unites all of us, way beyond culture, colour and ideology.”
His Excellency Ambassador Dirk Wouters, representing the Kingdom of Belgium in the United States, is a seasoned diplomat with a forty-year career, who has the skills not only to move mountains but also to climb one. “Believe it or not, on Monday, February 6, 2017, at 8:30 am, I have reached the summit of the highest mountain in Africa (almost 6,000 meters). It is also the highest single mountain in the world and one of the seven legendary mountain peaks,” Ambassador Wouters wrote to his friends and family upon completing a personal mission he vowed to his friend at the funeral of the friend’s wife.
Ambassador Wouters has both the inspiration as well ambition to serve. “I belong to a generation that strongly believed in causes and ideals,” he told the Diplomatic Courier during a relaxed conversation in his office at the Belgian Embassy in Washington. He is an affable diplomat who is fond of the cultural institutions and art galleries in Washington. Both in person as well as through his writings, his sincerity, the focus and pride in representing Belgium, as well as the desire to make the world a better place comes through. For instance, Ambassador Wouters wrote in the World Bank blog—The power of art: A call to action on the Early Years—"Belgium has a history of outstanding contribution in the field of visual arts and this tradition is very much alive today. What better place for arts as when they call our attention to the challenges of our days?”
According to the official biography, he was the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the European Union from 2011 to 2016. Ambassador Wouters was one of the main architects of the successful Belgian EU-Presidency and key foreign policy decisions on Afghanistan and Libya. While emphasizing the importance of the negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, Ambassador Wouters said that the “cost of giving up (the discussions) is much higher.”
On Brexit, Ambassador Wouters feels that one of the reasons for this situation is that the United Kingdom always has been a unique and exceptional member of the European Union. “It has not always been a member of the EU; it joined 21 years after the EU’s formation. The UK has also negotiated the greatest number of exceptions for itself to the common law of the EU,” he says. Furthermore, Ambassador Wouters thinks that it might take a generation to recover from the damage caused by Brexit.
While discussing his work in New York as Belgium’s representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Wouters described how he was inspired to pick up long distance running. This was prompted by a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine that poked fun at people who didn’t run.
Ambassador Wouters exudes energy as well as enthusiasm during the conversation. It is indicative of the vigor and focus he gives to the task at hand. While discussing his Mount Kilimanjaro expedition, he described the different climate zones he saw in rapid succession (almost every 1000 meters) on one mountain. He saw “rich agricultural lands and plantations below (coffee, tea, corn, banana), followed by the tropical rain forest (where it rains in the summer) … then a semi-desert, and finally the desolate polar desert. At the top there are several beautiful glaciers and also three volcano craters. One of those craters erupted 15 million years ago to create unforgettable landscapes… and the strange thing is that you find those landscapes on one and the same mountain without having to travel 10,000 kilometers.”
A discussion with Ambassador Wouters is always very enlightening after all he is the skilled diplomat who has been at the mountain top and seen the promises and fruits of diplomacy.