Lunch with the Ambassador of Belgium

On Wednesday the 18th of January, 20 members of the Royal Holloway Diplomatic Society had the honour of meeting H.E. Mr. Verbeke, Ambassador of Belgium, at his residence in London for a lunch-time debate. After being served drinks in the reception room, everyone was served a wonderful three-course lunch in the dining hall, while His Excellency Mr. Verbeke gave a talk about his views on global politics. Some really interesting points were raised and the students were then able to ask questions. In the presentation, the Ambassador pointed out the common misconception that the EU and the US are losing power and relevance in the international system to the advantage of China, which is moving towards becoming the global hegemon. Mr. Verbeke, however, argued that this is not as big of a threat as is being portrayed to the public; in fact, although China is experiencing a rise in economic growth, it is still very far from reaching Western standards. The gap between Chinese and Western GDP is still very wide, and the governance remains old-fashioned. His Excellency also raised the point that the countries which should be the subject of strategists’ and politicians’ focus, are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The Ambassador also addressed the current weaknesses of our democracies. In fact, our leaders still have not found an efficient system that can bind together efficacy and democratic principles. Dialogues between European states are long and often do not reach agreements. Instead there is often a tendency towards postponing decisions to the next meeting. Our leaders’ priority seems to be their national elections, so they increasingly adopt populist approaches and make short-term rather than long-term policy decisions (thus excluding topics such as environmental threats, for example). The Ambassador concluded his presentation by reminding the students of some important recent changes in the behaviour of sovereign state actors. In the first place, multilateralism, once so praised, seems to be losing priority in relation to bilateral relations. Bilateral relations are in fact easier, as the two states know better what to expect from the counterpart, and the decision-making process is more efficient. Secondly, we live in a world that is generally quite secure, as there are not many political threats. The threats of our world are now rather of an economic nature. Finally, non-state actors are gaining a more and more relevant role.

The Ambassador’s speech was followed by a Q/A session. A member of the Diplomatic Society, notably from Pakistan himself, asked why His Excellency perceived Pakistan as a threat to international security. His Excellency explained that the problematic in Pakistan was not Islam, but its weak, unstable and old-fashioned governmental system. Moreover, he argued that this only adds to the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power, which alone represents a criteria for why it should be regarded with more suspicion. Mr Verbeke was also asked whether it would lead to more efficiency if states went back to acting without international organizations. In response, His Excellency replied that international organizations offer a good platform for communication. The problem, however, is that they are not able to enforce efficient coordination techniques, because they essentially are “bad managers”.

All in all, it was a successful, interesting and thought-provoking event, where His Excellency the Ambassador of Belgium raised some extremely interesting points that some of us had never thought about before. Last but absolutely not least, the members of the RHUL Diplomatic Society had a chance to stay in a fascinating building, enjoy excellent food and taste great wine, surrounded by none other than the kings of Belgium, portrayed on the paintings decorating the salon.

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