The big story out of the Masters at Augusta National this year was the major victory that cemented Tiger Woods’ comeback story. But William De Baets had his mind more on the golf course grounds than the tournament itself.
Since his arrival in 2017, the Belgian consul general has undertaken an investigation of historical ties between his country and the 10-state region he covers. He’s supplemented his reading with a lot of miles driven across the region — partly due to a limited travel budget, but also thanks to a genuine fascination with delving into the South’s unique culture.
What he has uncovered is a catalogue of stories that use the prism of the South to show the interconnectedness of the global economy at what some might call an early point.
Mr. De Baets, however, sees history explaining the present and continuity with his earliest predecessors in representing the European country of 11 million people in the state. He explored these ideas during a wide-ranging Consular Conversation with Global Atlanta at Miller & Martin PLLC in Midtown April 18.
“I personally think that history is so fascinating because it explains a lot of what’s happening today as well,” Mr. De Baets said during the luncheon interview.
Belgium may be an old civilization, but it’s a young country that gained independence in 1830. Just a few short years later in 1834 the country had established a consulate in Savannah, with one in Charleston, S.C., following in 1835.
This made sense for a few reasons, Mr. De Baets said. Both were port cities, and Belgium needed to establish better trade links to undergird its newfound independence.
Imports were also a key consideration. The Port of Antwerp, still a massive and vital harbor today, was then a portal for “exotic” agricultural goods — those that would have come from the Southeast U.S. and the Caribbean.
The South, meanwhile, was looking to lessen its dependence on the North when it came to global trade, leading the state of Georgia and Belgium to sign a trade agreement in 1860.
The groundwork had already been laid by both diplomats and commercial pioneers.
In 1857 a Belgian physician and his son Prosper Jules Alphonse Berckmans bought an Augusta orchard called Fruitland to set up a nursery.
By 1861 Mr. Berckmans, a France-trained horticulturalist, was growing 300 varieties of peaches on the property. His extensive research and work improving the Elberta peach helped lead to the commercial sale of Georgia peaches around the country and all over the world. PJ Berckmans would later be dubbed the “father of Georgia peach culture.”
The Fruitland property was sold to investors in 1931 to create Augusta National Golf Club, where the holes are still named after some of the varieties of flowers and bushes that Berckmans’ growing techniques helped popularize across the South, such as azaleas. The family home is now the clubhouse.
“Remember that if Georgia is the ‘Peach State’ it is thanks to two Belgians,” Mr. De Baets said.
“Remember that if Georgia is the ‘Peach State’ it is thanks to two Belgians.”
Recounting such connections can lead to a a deeper understanding that the economic opportunity of globalization need not erase enduring cultural identities. And that’s the prospect that drives much fear and skepticism toward international integration today, Mr. De Baets said.
While it has its own struggles over national and cultural identity (see the debates over Brexit) the European Union provides an example of balancing the two, as fears of cultural erasure have proven largely unfounded even in a borderless environment, Mr. De Baets said.
“The opposite happened,” he said, citing the realization in many countries that unique agricultural goods or manufactured items could be exported more easily.
“People rediscovered somewhere their identity and started to share it with others, and sharing is also a means of doing business. (Business and identity are) not incompatible, but I think we have to be aware of the value of our own identity and be open to the identity of others, and show respect to the identity of others.”
That’s not always easy, as Mr. De Baets has learned traveling around the U.S. He has observed that some are “living in a kind of tunnel” with little exposure to opposing views.
“It’s a contradiction between on the one hand the easiness with which we can communicate nowadays and on the other the difficulty to communicate, to understand each other.”
That’s playing out in Europe these days too, he acknowledged, and no more so than in the European Parliament elections being carried out this month against the backdrop of the United Kingdom’s delayed exit from the EU.
For Belgium the elections this year are even more consequential. Not will Brussels be affected as the headquarters of the EU, but on the same day the country will host local and national elections — the first time ever the three have been linked.
Voting is mandatory in Belgium, and failure exercise that duty and right is punishable by a fine. In theory the same applies to Belgian citizens living overseas, but the law isn’t enforced the same way. Of the 5,000 Belgians registered at the consulate here in Atlanta, about one-fourth will cast ballots, mostly by mail. Some will come to a polling station set up at the consulate in downtown Atlanta.
Mr. De Baets still has awhile left before departing Atlanta, but he said one thing he will miss is the friendliness of the people. His historical analysis has showed that it holds true at the government level as well — and across the centuries.
One key example is the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a group of private citizens led by wealthy American businessman (and future president) Herbert Hoover, who was living in London at the time. The group organized a global supply chain that fed 9 million people daily in German-occupied Belgium through the duration of the war. It still has money left over that now funds U.S.-Belgium educational exchange.
The story is particularly important to Mr. De Baets, who served as a naval officer and later led Belgium’s crisis and disaster response center — B-FAST. The consul general also recently participated in panel discussions on the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
“It is the best military alliance history has seen,” Mr. De Baets said. “Together with the EU it has guaranteed peace on a continent that has lived almost from one war to another.”
Asked about his biggest accomplishment during his tenure, he pointed to his doubling the size of the diplomatic staff from one to two, prompting laughter from the crowd.
But in seriousness, he said raising the staffing levels will help solidify the consulate’s presence in Atlanta. Miami has been viewed as a contender before, and the foreign ministry takes lot of factors into account in considering how to optimize its diplomatic presence.
It helps that the largest number of Belgian subsidiary companies in the U.S. are located in Georgia, operating in the flooring, life sciences, chemical and other sectors.
Mr. De Baets during his time has also seen the resumption of a Delta Air Lines Inc. flight to Brussels high-profile visits from officials like Ambassador Dirk Wouters, who has come to Atlanta three times. He hopes to foster more concrete collaboration between Atlanta and Brussels. The municipalities have a largely dormant sister-city relationship that could be bolstered by a more regional focus on concrete exchanges and projects.
The consul general has also become a leading voice locally in the discussions over the U.S.’s combative trade policies, calling the EU “collateral damage” in a trade war between the U.S. and China. The local economy may be doing well, but tariffs have caused uncertainty that has sapped some investment.
“There are lot of foreign investors sitting on a heap of money not investing because they don’t know what the future will bring,” he said.
On a softer note, he also pointed to an upcoming exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design featuring Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, who uses paper and paint to make historical replicas of elaborate period garments. SCAD FASH will host the exhibition from Oct. 24 to Jan. 12, 2020. More here.
To learn more about the work of the consulate, read its latest newsletter here or email the consulate at email@example.com to subscribe to updates, which include a series of articles on the history of the Belgian diplomatic presence in the South.
Read Mr. De Baets’ first Consular Conversation: Belgium a ‘Mini-Europe,’ Well-Versed in Compromise and Contradiction