WASHINGTON - What do Belgium and the U.S. state of Arkansas have in common? The answer is a fondness for bicycling, according to Belgian Ambassador to Washington Dirk Wouters.
In a recent interview, Wouters cited the Southern state’s ambitious bid to host an international cycling event next year as an example of the “dynamic” energy he has witnessed almost everywhere he has traveled in the United States.
“It comes with business. That’s the interesting part about it,” Wouters said, explaining that the cycling pitch includes plans to market bicycles, jerseys, beer, tourism and a range of other products and services.
“There’s also a lot of symbolism involved,” he added, noting that biking is part of the Belgian DNA. “It’s a rather simple sport — two wheels, accessible to everyone.” Given Belgium’s size, “you can cover the whole country from one end to the other all by bike. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Impressed by Pittsburgh
Wouters said he experienced the same entrepreneurial energy on a visit to Pittsburgh, a Northeastern city that once based its prosperity on the steel industry but has had to reinvent itself in recent decades as its old steel mills became unprofitable and closed.
Pittsburgh’s luster could have faded with the steel mills, he said, “but it didn’t.”
“You can still see the old city and these wonderful steel bridges, and the old industry, but at the same time, they have developed so many new activities,” Wouters said. Describing the city’s Carnegie Mellon University as “a powerhouse,” he said, “On robotics, they’re world leaders, as simple as that.”
Turning to his own country, the ambassador argued that Belgium should be seen as much more than its capital, Brussels, which is recognized internationally as host to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. “That would be as if you say the United States is Washington. Doesn’t make sense, right?”
Wouters stressed that while Belgium is small geographically – about the size of the American state of Maryland – it’s the ninth-largest source of foreign investment into the United States, “ahead of China, Mexico, South Korea, India, you name it.”
“Fourteen or 15 of our biggest companies have invested in the South and Southeastern parts of the United States,” Wouters said, citing Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina as among the top destinations of Belgian investment. “And of course New York state and Texas.”
Energy and more
Energy accounted for the “first and biggest” part of Belgium’s trade relationship with Texas, he said, driven by the heavy oil tanker traffic between Houston and the Belgian port of Antwerp, a major transit point for goods heading deeper into Europe.
But, he said, “the time that Texas did only oil and gas is long past!” The relationship today increasingly involves health and life sciences, cybersecurity and renewable energy, among other things.
Wouters has also noticed something else about Texas: “There, they say first they’re Texan before they say they’re American.”
Similarly, Wouters has learned in his travels that “each state has its own microcosms, its characteristics and specificities.” And several of the larger states pack an economic clout comparable to those of major countries, he said, suggesting that if Texas, New York state and California were to become independent nations, the G-20 group of major economic powers would have to be reconfigured.
Vying for investment
But the ambassador said he has also seen qualities that are shared by all regions of the United States, including a widespread commitment to free trade and a competition to attract foreign investment that at times can reach a “nuclear level.”
That drive is understandable, he said. “If a governor can say, ‘I don’t have unemployment in my state. This year I created several thousand new jobs. We have comparative advantage compared to other states in certain sectors,’ that’s very powerful.
“And governors can make a difference. I’ve seen that,” Wouters said.