Belgian soft power. Focus on public diplomacy

                                                 “In the 21st century, success in the international arena will belong to                                                           those that know how to successfully identify, use and deploy soft power,                                                  and maintain it via public diplomacy and the use of digital tools.”  –                                                          Arturo Sarukhan (Mexican diplomat, Professor at the Annenberg                                                         Center  for Public Diplomacy at USC).


Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Ukraine H.E. Luc Jacobs photo: Pieter-Jan De Pue

The Embassy of Belgium in Ukraine may be not the biggest one, but definitely is one of the most recognized. A big share of such popularity is one of the results of the activities of Mr. Luc Jacobs – The Ambassador. Chief of the Embassy is well known person not only in the diplomatic, politics and business circles, but is very familiar to people of art, music, and cinema. Mr. Luc Jacobs is well known to youth as well, thanks to his support of number of modern popular events, one of the latest, Kyiv – International Short Film Festival, had a big success. Behind  all this activity there is a real power and wide perspectives of diplomacy and cooperation. This experience of applying a soft power Mr. Ambassador kindly agreed to share with us.

(Mr. Luc Jacobs) Public diplomacy is not an easy subject to talk about, because there is not one single definition of public diplomacy. What do we mean exactly by public diplomacy? Do you have one strict definition of public diplomacy?

(Denis Iatsyshyn) Truly to say I have many definitions of public diplomacy which I found in the Internet. But in my own opinion public diplomacy is a mixture of many definitions in one: it boils down to public diplomacy being all about soft power and not about coercive action.

(L.J.) That sounds to me like a good general definition.

(D) But what is the opinion of an experienced diplomat about public diplomacy?

(L.J.) For example, in our Ministry only relatively recently we were encouraged to engage more in public diplomacy. We think public diplomacy is the way to put your country on the map in our respective countries of accreditation, with a positive message about Belgium, to inform the local decision makers, opinion leaders and the people about Belgium, about what Belgium stands for in its relation to their country, about what Belgium stands for as a member of the European Union, United Nations, OSCE, the Council of Europe, or of the ‘international community’ at large. Belgian diplomacy is indeed very much embedded in multilateral diplomacy, at the European and at the international level. The main aim is to inform the public on “who we are”, on what we stand for and to create a positive and favorable environment for the country.

(D) What is more important in the 21th century – public diplomacy or economic diplomacy?

(L.J.) Economic diplomacy is a harder type of diplomacy, because you really defend economic interest of the country. But I think public diplomacy is a tool that underpins classic political diplomacy and that is serving economic diplomacy as well. Because you create goodwill, a better understanding and a positive perception of the country. For me public diplomacy is about branding the country as trustful, as reliable and a as high quality partner. So public diplomacy is the type of diplomacy that can support other types of diplomacy and I would say specifically economic diplomacy, as far as our bilateral diplomacy is concerned. Public and economic diplomacy go hand in hand. Speaking about Belgian economic diplomacy, there is an interesting historical note to make about Belgium and Ukraine, that has become an attractive theme for our public diplomacy in Ukraine. In the second half of the 19th century Belgium became the second industrial power in Europe after the UK. As a matter of fact, the industrial revolution that took place in the UK was exported to the Belgium. In the south of Belgium we then had coal mines and iron ore, so everything needed to build a metallurgy sector. Inland waterways and seaports allowed easy access and exports. So Belgium became the first industrialized country in continental Europe. We were also the first on the European continent to have railway. The first railway line was constructed between Brussels and Mechelen in 1835. The first Belgian kings Leopold I and Leopold II were strong promoters of the industrialization process in Belgium and of the economic expansion of the Kingdom all over the world. Belgian industrialists heavily invested in Latin America, Africa, China, tsarist Russia and Ukraine. Belgian engineers build railway and tramway networks there. And so it happened that at the beginning of the 20 century, Belgium was the main investor in the Donbass region. This was not unique for the Donbass, it was part of a Belgian economic expansion all over the world. But seen from a Ukrainian-Belgian angle it gets a special meaning. The Donbass was in those days a “near abroad’ for Belgium as thousands of Belgians worked and lived in what was called then “Belgium’s 10th province”, only a three day comfortable train journey away from Brussels.

(D) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Belgium is very active in different spheres, but public diplomacy is a key element of Belgian foreign policy. What does the ministry do in this kind of activity?

(L.J.) We have a communication department at the ministry that is feeding us with information, advice and tools. The ministry developed a new website that promotes Belgium, it is called ‘Focus on Belgium” (, this website is dedicated to striking news about Belgium in the economic field, in the cultural field in life style, society, sport, science etc. This is a concrete example of a focused approach in public diplomacy. We also have a department that looks after our economic interests abroad and promotes the image of an innovative and successful Belgian entrepreneurship. For example, when major investments take place or when new export successes are being registered, we promote it on our website or Facebook pages. And indeed, every Belgian embassy and diplomat is encouraged to create accounts in the social media and promote the country by all means and channels available.

(D) Do you have some top-priority list of countries?

(L.J.) No, we do not have a fixed priority list, but we adapt to the needs and opportunities as they arise. For example the Olympic Games in Brazil. Brazil is a very important economic partner for Belgium and the fact that the Olympic Games take place in Brazil also mean that we can make use of specific actions, instruments and financial tools in order to promote our country in Brazil. A lot of sport infrastructure had to be built in Brazil. Many Belgian companies were interested to participate in these tenders. In order to be successful in this tenders you have to be known and the quality of your services and products has to be recognized. So we concentrate all available means of public diplomacy to Brazil in order to promote our economic interest there. By the way, the same combination of public and economic diplomacy was at work in Ukraine in the run up to EURO 2012. Speaking about soccer: what a fantastic opportunity it is for us that the Red Devils, our national soccer team, is now first in the Fifa world rankings. It has become also one of our promotional tools. When it is about putting Belgium on the map, we not only have our chocolates, beer, diamonds, but we also have our soccer team as an attractive eye-catcher. We already used its potential during the World Soccer Cup in Brazil. And now comes EURO 2016 in Paris: every opportunity that can be used must be used! If you are a bit creative, you can play with these tools and maximize the impact of your public events.

(D) What kind of events (projects) does your Ministry support?

(L.J.) Well, when we continue thinking about complementarity of public and economic diplomacy, I would also like to mention our high level trade missions as an instrument of public diplomacy. We organize 2 high level trade missions per year to promising export markets. This missions are presided over by Princess Astrid, sister of King Philip. We had such a trade mission in Ukraine in 2010 headed by (then) Prince Philip. These are effective instruments of economic diplomacy with a very high profile that open doors for our companies. Other instruments are participation with a Belgian pavilion in world expos, the organization of prestigious cultural events, fashion shows, exhibitions, film screenings, conferences…

(D) Do you agree with a statement that “public diplomacy is the demonstration of a national power”?

(L.J.) Let us go back to our earlier definition of public diplomacy. I agree that public diplomacy helps to increase the power and influence of the country but its impact is not necessarily in proportion to that power. It is not because you are powerful that your public diplomacy will be convincing. It is often said that Belgium, a medium sized country, is boxing ‘above its weight’ as co-founder of the European Union or given its solid track record in the United Nations. Credibility and reliability are indeed also important factors and of course, your target public has to be receptive to your message.

(D) Does public diplomacy or economic diplomacy depend on the amount of the budget that is spent on it?

Of course, without money, you cannot make any policy work. You need money for example to make promotional films, brochures, organize missions abroad, invite people to events, set up exhibitions, create websites and other communication tools, etc. We cannot be naive and think that we can do all without money, but if money is necessary, it is not sufficient. With enthusiasm, creativity and will you can do a lot more than only with money.

It is important to have a vision and a plan and to exploit to the maximum the local context and opportunities. For the year 2016, we focus in Ukraine on the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. In 2014 Belgium launched a large-scale commemoration program and embassies are encouraged to do their part. For Ukraine, we developed, with the support of our Ministry and in cooperation with numerous Ukrainian partners, a dense program of exhibitions, conferences, film screenings and concert tours,

But in Ukraine, I am happy to say, we can also work in a more pragmatic way, linking up with initiatives taken by Ukrainians themselves. Ukrainians often ask the Embassy to support their events. Then we evaluate and see whether and how we can respond. Of course, there has to be a link with Belgium and visibility for our country.

A recent example: in March the Ukraine Crisis Media Center informed me that they had made an exhibition on “Belgian investments in the Donbass in the late 19th and early 20the century”. They asked me if I could be present at the official opening. Truly to say, I was very happy to hear that. And now we organize together a tour of this exhibition in 7 cities in the Donbass. In the same way, I was asked to support two saxophone festivals that Ukrainian music professionals will organize in November, one in Odessa, the other in Vinnytsia. You must know that Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone was born in the Belgian city of Dinant on November 6th. So also the saxophone can be turned into a tool of the Belgian public diplomacy.

This saxophone festival will be included in the second edition of the “A Touch of Belgium” program that we launched last year to put aspects of Belgian lifestyle in the limelight. The highlight of this series of events will be a classical concert to celebrate Belgian “King’s Day” (15 November) as we did last year. It will take place in the National Philharmonic and will feature the renowned Belgian modern chamber music ensemble ‘Het Collectief’.

(D) What is the role of public diplomacy for the Belgian embassy in Ukraine?

(L.J.) Putting Belgium on the map, telling a positive story about Belgium “in and with Ukraine”, as a tool for creating goodwill, for networking and for laying the ground for a successful relationship with Ukraine. It is about the keeping Belgium on the radar of the Ukrainians and to make it ‘stand out in the crowd’.

(D) You are one of the most active ambassadors in Ukraine. I can’t even calculate how many projects you have organized and how many events were supported by you. One of the projects is, as you mentioned, the commemoration of WWI. Can you tell something more about this project?

(L.J.) Since 2014 a lot of events have been organized in Belgium dedicated to the commemoration of WWI. It is very important for us because Belgium was very much affected by this war. As you know Belgium was occupied for 4 years, except for a small corner of its territory behind a river, flooded on purpose, in the west of Flanders. This war remains deeply engraved in collective memory of the Belgians, because of the heavy loss of life, hunger, deportation, destruction and plunder. The Belgian embassies abroad are encouraged to organize commemorative events in the countries where they are accredited. So also in Ukraine. And here we have this unique page of shared history in that a Belgian expeditionary force of 400 men equipped with armored cars was deployed by King Albert I to the Galician front in aid to the Russian tsar. Historic facts that offer much potential to link Belgium and Ukraine in the framework of this commemoration. I should to say we were hesitating at first, because this is about war and Ukraine – unfortunately – knows once again the daily reality of war and occupation on part of its territory. But then again, this is not about the glorification of war, it is about how war affects the lives of common people, military and civilians. It is about remembrance of human sacrifice and suffering, also in Ukraine, where we know WWI took many lives, with worse still to come. And, of course, this project is also about rediscovering a shared European past.

In this sense, we were from the start supported by our Ukrainian friends. There are many parallels to draw, Ukraine, as well as Belgium, have been the battlefield of Europe. Now, the story of this Belgian armored car division at the Galician front seemed somewhat forgotten but was rediscovered in Belgium through new books and documentaries. One of this books is “King Albert’s Heroes” by August Thiry, who gave a conference in Kyiv last month. We have two traveling exhibitions, one on the Belgian army unit in Ukraine and the other on WWI saw from the Belgian viewpoint. They started in Kyiv, are now in Ternopil and will be traveling through the country. We also have the film ”Cafard”, which is a fictional account based on the historic facts about the Belgian armored car unit in Ukraine and about their odyssey – after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 – through Russia, Siberia, China, the Pacific and the US, back to their homeland. This is enough information to make this tool interesting not only for historians but also for the general public or for tourists visiting the various places in Ukraine where these Belgians were 100 years ago: Zbaraz, Ternopil, Ozerna, the Carpathians, Kyiv… In Kyiv, where the Belgians found refuge in the Saint Michaels Monastery in the winter of 1917-1918, we unveiled in February last a commemorative plaque placed against the outer wall of the monastery in honor of one the veterans of this unit, Marcel Thiry, who was a poet and a novelist. His novel “Passage to Kyiv” was translated into the Ukrainian language last year.

 (D) To round up, what are according to you the challenges of public diplomacy?

(L.J.) The challenges of public diplomacy are: to remain credible, honest, positive and constructive. Public diplomacy should not be mistaken for propaganda. Propaganda for me is dishonest because it is about deceit, distorting facts and generating negative energy. Public diplomacy must be a bridge-building tool, not a divisive one.

by Denys Yatsyshin for