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Building a future: Diplomat Wayne Bush on NATO's new Brussels home

11:37 21/01/2018
Overseeing the smooth running of NATO’s headquarters – with a headcount of 4,200 people – is akin to running a small town, says Wayne Bush

When Wayne Bush happens to mention he’s been trekking to see mountain gorillas in Uganda with former US president Jimmy Carter, his other career highs – of which there are many – temporarily fade from view. You and Jimmy Carter, you say? “Yes, we went gorilla trekking together on Thanksgiving. We had turkey in a tent in the Rwenzori mountains.” It’s probably one of the more unusual encounters of a career that’s taken Bush (no, he’s not related to the political dynasty of the same name) around the globe with the US Foreign Service and landed him at NATO’s sprawling HQ in Evere, where, as assistant secretary general for executive management, he’s responsible for human resources, budgets, IT, and the entire support operation including logistics, translation and interpretation.

If that’s not enough to keep him busy, Bush is also in charge of coordinating their move to a new state-of-the-art headquarters across the road next year, which he calls “one of the most important public works projects in Europe today”. He talks to ING’s head of expatriates, Dave Deruytter, about peace in Europe, cider-making, and Brussels being the place he’s lived longer than any other.

What was the career path that took you to NATO?

I’m a journalist by training. I watched the 1968 Democratic convention in the US – the year Robert Kennedy had been a candidate – and it was very dramatic television. From that moment I wanted to be a TV reporter. At journalism school I took a graduate seminar in the history of foreign relations and wrote my thesis on the American perceptions of Ho Chi Minh. My professor said I ought to take the foreign service exam.

I didn’t even know what it was. By the time I graduated I’d received an invitation to join the US Foreign Service. From that point on I served in many countries, mainly in Africa and Europe, and a couple of times in Washington DC. While in DC I had responsibilities that took me to the Middle East and to the former Soviet Union.

We moved 13 times in 30 years. We lived in Paris, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco, even the Seychelles, and we just enjoyed it tremendously. But we’d never stayed anywhere longer than four years. Now we’re here in Brussels we’ve been able to stay in one place for a long time – August was our 10th anniversary. It’s something that was totally unexpected but that we have really enjoyed. I never actually worked as a journalist, which is one of my only regrets. Maybe I still could in the future.

How did you end up at NATO HQ?

We came to Belgium as part of the American Embassy. I was deputy ambassador, and later chargé d’affaires. I really loved it. This was at the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration. Even though relations were tense at times, because of what was happening in the world, we focused on 175 years of Belgian-American relations, the long-term strength of it.

After a couple of years I had the opportunity to work – on loan from the State Department – for the NATO secretary general, as part of the international staff. I was head of the Office of Resources, which facilitates the discussions among the now 29 member nations on how to resource NATO’s military capabilities, operations and command structure.

NATO’s ability to bring together the military forces of its member nations in a coherent way, to participate in conflict resolution, is unique. I later retired from the US Foreign Service and worked directly for NATO, then this position became available. I was interested in being involved in the transition to the new building. That HQ is really, I think, one of the most important public works projects in Europe today. It is also tremendously important for our alliance.

Why is NATO moving to a new building?

NATO came here in the 1960s. Belgium quickly built our current headquarters and made them available so we could move from Paris, but it was always considered to be temporary. The permanent headquarters was going to be near Heysel, but it was decided not to proceed with that so we stayed here, and it served us very well for many years.

But when NATO was first formed it was a dozen nations and today it’s 29. More and more we are interacting with a broad range of partners and taking a comprehensive approach to conflict resolution, and that means we have to interact with many nations that have delegations to NATO, our partners (including non-members), and many other international organisations, especially the EU, but also the UN and others.

Considering how increasingly complex NATO’s work has become, you realise we were ripe for a new HQ, one that could adequately house all 29 delegations, that could provide the latest information technology and connectivity, and that would facilitate the consultative process. It also has fantastic capacity for us to reach out to the outside world through the media facilities. The use of that building will help make NATO betterunderstood in the world.

The move is actually helping to drive a whole range of changes. On my wall is a list of 28 projects associated with it, so it’s not just a move across the street: it represents a fundamental change in the way NATO goes about its daily business.

Can you share something about its design?

The interlacing fingers design is a symbol for the alliance. When you fly over it, it also looks like a nice big shield, so it’s symbolic in a few ways. It’s a very modern and ecologically friendly building. For instance, we have green roofs that capture rainwater and reuse it, we have geothermal heating and cooling so we can make use of the earth’s own activity, and cogeneration, which produces both electricity and heat.

What are some of your career highlights?

I loved every place we ever served, but two places stood out, which were Uganda and Morocco. When we arrived in Uganda, in 1994, President Museveni had already consolidated the various armed groups and had brought peace to most of the country, and Uganda was embarking on its democratic and economic transformation. It was just after the Rwandan genocide and it was a region in conflict. We felt we were there at the beginning of something really important. There was a lot of exciting work for a diplomat.

We arrived in Morocco just after the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca – it was quite a shock at the time because it was the closest Arab neighbour of the US, and Morocco had been seen as a bulwark against some of the terrorism other countries were experiencing. So we launched a concerted effort to reinforce the US relationship with Morocco, for example by supporting the negotiation of a free trade agreement. We also had really active public outreach and, despite all the adverse views at the time, we built – according to public opinion surveys – greater understanding and appreciation of the US. So it was really challenging and rewarding.

Now, here at NATO, I like to say – as the previous secretary general did – that I work for the most successful peace movement in the history of the world because NATO is, in part, responsible for the fact that there has been peace in Europe and the North Atlantic region now for 70 years.

If you look at what Europe was like at the end of World War Two, it was devastated. Now it’s hard to imagine it was ever in that state. Over two generations, everything we see on a daily basis has been built up, or rebuilt. NATO played such an important role in maintaining that peace and security and stability, without which nothing else could exist.

My real passion is human and economic development and I believe that what we do here every day is absolutely fundamental to all of that. I consider it a great honour to be part of it.

Tell us about family and free time

I met my British wife, Anna-Marie, in Paris, where she was a graduate student at the Sorbonne. She’s an equestrian and loves show jumping. I like to ride horses, but only recreationally, and I like to ski and sail. Since coming to Belgium I’ve become a certified offshore skipper. I help my wife in the garden an awful lot, and I make cider on the weekends as a hobby. Belgium is one of the biggest European exporters of pears and apples and a few years ago the market took a downturn. They were ploughing fruit into the ground and I thought ‘what can I do with some of that?!’ As your children grow up you lose some of that rhythm you have when they have set vacations. Now we like it when our kids come home to visit. Both our sons are doctors in the UK and they love coming home for holidays.

What advice would you give to a newcomer to Belgium?

I think newcomers here can be lulled into complacency because Belgium is such a comfortable, welcoming and easy place to live. It’s possible to not appreciate that there’s a really incredible country here with a lot of different cultural influences. It’s important to make an effort to peel back those layers of the onion. I would encourage people to learn at least one of the languages so you can speak to your neighbours, get to know people, and understand what’s happening locally, socially, culturally or politically when you listen to the news.

So, how did you end up hiking with Jimmy Carter?

When we were living in Uganda he came as part of his guinea worm disease eradication effort. I said to him, ‘you know it’s a wonderful place for a vacation, you ought to come back’. And he did. And so we went gorilla trekking together.

Photo: Bart Dewaele. This article first appeared in ING Expat Time magazine.

Written by Paula Dear