A Tasteless Joke Aside, Belgians Enthusiastically Welcome Obama
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS -- A picture printed in the progressive Belgian newspaper De Morgen, doctored to make Barack and Michelle Obama look like apes, has proved an embarrassment on the eve of the U.S. president’s visit to Brussels. The image, which was part of a satirical feature, was shown as if it had been submitted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and was meant to denounce the rise of xenophobia in Russia. In Belgium – a country which holds dearly to the freedom of its press and where irony and satire are often used liberally – public opinion paid only little attention to the anti-Putin joke. However, the resulting controversy left De Morgen with no choice but to publish an official apology. While international outrage about the picture has helped to sensitize Belgian public opinion, and has rightfully denounced the images as a dangerous trivialization of racism, the editorial misjudgement of one newspaper can by no means serve to judge an entire society. Comments made for instance by the Netherlands-based Nigerian author Chika Unigwe, who tweeted that “Belgium as a society enables acts of racism to thrive with impunity,” risk creating misperceptions. And this incident cannot serve as a basis by which to assess the state Belgium-U.S. relations. As a matter of fact, relations between the two countries enjoy a strong tradition. The United States were one of the first countries to recognize Belgium’s independence in 1832. The Belgian port city of Antwerp was a gateway of hope for millions of Europeans who sailed to the United States after 1800 in search of a better future. Americans and Belgians fought side-by-side in World War I and World War II, in Korea, in the first Gulf War, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and in Libya. And through their bilateral cooperation, or via multilateral institutions such as NATO, the UN, and the OSCE, Belgium and the United States have relentlessly worked to support freedom, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. In terms of economics and trade, the relationship between Belgium and the United States is also remarkably strong. The United States is the number one trading partner for Belgium outside the European Union and is Belgium’s fifth-largest export destination. For the United States, Belgium is the 12th largest export destination and a country with which the United States maintained a trade surplus in 2012. Moreover, about 3000 Belgian companies have invested in the U.S. market, employing about 150,000 people in 41 different states. Belgium is now the 10th biggest foreign investor in the United States, at a level four times higher than Brazil, and five times higher than China. While in Brussels, Obama will visit NATO and the EU institutions, meet the Belgian government and lay a wreath at Flanders Field. Since his election in 2009, he has traditionally enjoyed strong support among Belgian leaders and the population. The level of excitement for his first trip to the country as president has proved to be remarkable. For instance, Belgian national television will be broadcasting his visit live for the entire day. Tasteless jokes should not be allowed to dampen that enthusiasm and detract from what will be a landmark visit. Bruno Lété is a senior program officer for foreign and security policy with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.