The Netherlands and the World. Past and Present

What we are going to do this afternoon is discussing Dutch foreign relations and foreign policy, both from a long-term perspective, and focusing on present-day problems and dilemma’s. Before we start, I would like to ask you what ideas you have about the international status and role of the Netherlands. What do you see? A small state? A wealthy nation? Do you see a typical liberal-democratic state, promoting democracy and human rights? Or do you see a self-interested rich capitalist state?
  First, I want to say a few words about the long-term history of Dutch foreign relations from the early days of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces in the early seventeenth century until the end of the Cold War; secondly, I will make some remarks about present-day developments and problems concerning Dutch foreign policy and foreign relations. In the meantime, I will try to pay attention to some theoretical discussions in the field of IR. In particular between Realism and Idealism. Theoretical discussions that can shed interesting light on the role of the Netherlands and the relations between the Netherlands and Russia.

So first the long-term history of Dutch foreign relations. International history of Kingdom of the Netherlands is the history of a state that was, and still is, small in geographical terms and in terms of population. Look at a world map. You’ll see that the Netherlands is a tiny state, certainly compared to most other nations. It was, nonetheless, in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century a political and military great power, that dominated the world economy.
  Since the early eighteenth century its military power has been in decline. Nonetheless, the Dutch Republic continued to be a significant trading and financial center with world-wide colonial possessions and commercial interests. And nowadays the Dutch Kingdom is still a successful, industrialized state and export oriented economy This typical combination of wealth, world-wide financial, trading and (and up till WWII) colonial interests on the one hand, and military weakness and vulnerability on the other hand, has contributed, at least in Europe, to a status quo oriented policy of neutrality and free trade.
  Some Dutch authors have called this neutrality and free trade orientation The Holland Tradition [slide], a tradition, because it – at least in their eyes – is rooted in the early history of the Republic of the United Seven Provinces, and in particular in the interests and standpoints of the trading bourgeoisie of the Province of Holland and the City of Amsterdam. As a maritime and commercial power, the Dutch Republic (and later the Kingdom) – have always been inclined to a policy of: – 1) commercialism, free trade, 2) a policy neutrality, not interested in military adventures, and not in territorial expansion, 3) a tendency towards legalism and internationalism, an advocate of the development of international law (and perhaps 4) a certain Calvinistic moralism). This is – following this idea of a Holland Tradition – up till the present day the basic orientation of Dutch foreign policy.
  This so-called Holland Tradition leads us immediately to an interesting and classial discussion within the academic discipline of International Relations. The classical debate between Idealists and Realists – the IR students must be familiar with this debate – between a more ideological and internationalist approach, and a more cynical approach, that assumes that world politics are about power and interests, and that ideals are mainly called upon to for opportunistic reasons. [slide 3]
  Have you ever thought about this question? What do you think? Is international politics a matter of power and interests, of a matter of ideologies and ideals?
  Going back to the Holland Tradition. The more cynical realist approach – of course – questions the existence of a liberal Holland Tradition. Realists argue that the Dutch Republic, in particular in the seventeenth century was a powerful state. In those days, it was constantly at war, with Spain, Britain, and France. A state with a powerful navy and a considerable army. A state that only advocated free trade when it was in the interest of the Republic; a state that was prepared to use military power against economic rivals if necessary. A state that built – with military ruthlesness – a huge colonial empire (and did not respect the principles of free trade in its spheres of colonial influence). A state that tended more towards neutrality in the eightteenth and nineteenth century, not because of idealist or noble motives, but as a result of military weakness.
  Seen from an idealist approach one could argue that the Republic of the United Provinces and later the Kingdom has always been a typical liberal and later even a democratic state, a trading nation, oriented at neutrality and free trade. A protagonist of international law, a state that was not interested in territorial expansion (but in making profit). A state that did not use its military capabilities for territorial expansion (one of the reasons why it has always remained small), but to defend itself and to fight hegemonic powers, such as Spain and France, and thereby contributed to the restoration or maintenance of a multipolar balance of power, preventing the rise of a European hegemonical power.
  Anyways, neutrality was certainly a leading principle in most of the nineteenth and the first half of twentieth century. In military terms, the Netherlands had indeed become a small power. The days of the powerful Republic (the Golden Age) were long gone. The years between 1815- and 1830 were remarkable, because for a brief period the Netherlands and Belgium were united (which by the way stimulated Dutch international ambitions). But the revolutionary year 1830 meant the end of the Dutch-Belgian Kingdom. After a following decade of confusion, the Netherlands returned to a strict policy of neutrality and later on also free trade, as in informal junior partner of Great Britain.
  Since the 1870s, after the unification of Germany, Dutch neutrality changed. It became balancing act between the great powers, in particular between England and Germany, maintaining good relations with both sides, under the assumption that Germany and England were both of considerable economic and political importance for the Netherlands and also assuming that Dutch sovereignty (both in Europe and Asia) was based upon good relations with these two Great Powers. This position on the fault-line of two spheres of influence (an Anglo-Saxon and a Continental-European) and the balancing act that characterized Dutch foreign policy at the time, would be typical for the role and position of the Netherlands during the twentieth century.
  During WWI the Netherlands remained neutral. After the war the Netherlands became more active, not in the least because it became a member of the League of Nations. But in the 1930s the Netherlands returned to a policy of strict neutrality and resumed its balancing act, trying to please both London and Berlin.
  During the WWII the Netherlands, however, was not able to defend its neutrality. Not only the Kingdom was occupied, but in 1942 also the Dutch Indies (a remarkable moment because the Netherlands would never be able to regain full control over its colonial possessions in South East Asia). The first years after the end of WWII were years of transition and confusion, dominated by the decolonization of Indonesia and the German Question. By the end of the 1940s a new phase started: the Netherlands, having lost most of its colonial empire, became part of the emerging international Cold War structure, in 1949 it joined NATO, and a year later it began participating in the process of European integration.
  By the way, in some respects Dutch politicians still had to internalize the consequences of the post war world and superpower dominance; for years, there was some resentment, not in the least against the US because of the loss of the Dutch Indies and the American role during the years of decolonization.
  Anyway, during the 1950s a process of modernization took place, which meant the end of Dutch neutrality, accepting American hegemony, joining the process of European integration as one of the Six Founding Fathers of the ECSC and the EEC, from the mid-1950s particularly interested in the establishment of a West European common market. And within the UN the Netherlands tried to build a reputation (in particular in the sixties and seventies) as a progressive UN member: one of the leading nations when it came to the percentage of the GDP the Dutch were willing to donate as aid to the developing third world countries. A country perhaps more than others interested in humanitarian issues, such as human rights.
  So, during the sixties, seventies and even eighties, the Dutch strategic orientation seemed to be consistent and clear: 1) within NATO, accepting, and to a certain extent benefiting from, US political and military hegemony, but without getting involved in Great Power conflicts; 2) within the EEC aiming at the development of common market and preventing French and German great power domination; 3) and within the UN, building a reputation as a progressive member state. [slide]
 This policy seemed a clear break with the prewar tradition of neutrality and free trade. Looking back, one could conclude that – to a certain extent – the prewar policy of neutrality and free trade was continued; member of NATO, that was supposed to guarantee stability on the European continent. Perhaps, the Netherlands were still performing a kind of balancing act, like in the late 19th century: economically part of Western Europe, and politically/militarily, part of the Anglo-Saxon world. And free trade was still an important goal: European integration’s main result should be the establishment of an open, common market, with low external trade barriers.
  Again, it is an interesting question how to analyze or explain this orientation. Is this the typical and logical attitude of an open economy, liberal political order (as a more idealist approach would conclude) or the product of well understood political and economic interests (as realists would argue). Power and interests are of course important. In the case of the Netherlands, this typical combination of global economic interests and limited military means and political leverage. But perhaps ideals, ideology and political culture played a role as well, to a certain extent coloured or determined the exact interpretation of interests. By the way, even a more Marxist approach would be relevant to understand the history of Dutch foreign relations: pointing out the Netherlands’ colonial history, and its geographical position in the traditional core of the capitalist world economy.

Since the eighties, and above all since the end of the Cold War this strategy, of Atlantic unity, European economic integration, is falling apart; the end of the Soviet Union (and the Soviet threat), the decreasing relevance of the US-European alliance, the changing relations in world politics and the world economy since the end of the Cold War, the enlargement of the European Union, have undermined the basic assumptions of Dutch postwar foreign policy.
  It is interesting to see that the first period after the end of the Cold War, let’s say from the early 1990s to the beginning of the 21st century is characterized by a certain liberal-internationalist optimism. [slide] Like in many other Western states, there was optimism, not in the least over the new perspectives for trade and investment in the former Soviet world. After some hesitations, the Dutch government endorsed the enlargement of NATO and later of the European Union as steps towards a more liberal and stable Europe. The Dutch also supported the establishment of a Monetary Union and the introduction of the euro, as former Prime Minister Wim Kok acknowledged, a quantum jump, a decision based upon optimism, thrust in the functioning of the financial markets, and the assumption that the EU leaders had to make use of the historic momentum to complete the EU Common Market with a common currency.
  There were high expectations of a further globalization of the world economy. And there was also optimism over the possibilities to export liberal democracy and free market capitalism to the non-western world. Now the Cold War was over, defence budgets could be reduced and the Dutch armed forces were transformed into an expeditionary army in order to contribute to so-called peace missions or humanitarian interventions. Dutch development aid, still some 0.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, was supposed to support ‘developing nations’ on their way to prosperity and freedom. In spite of the dramatic experiences at the safe area of Srebrenica, the Netherlands continued to participate in humanitarian missions and fully supported the American ‘War on Terror’ that was started after the terrorist attacks of nine-eleven 2001. The Netherlands contributed to the stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  But from the first years of the 21st century, the political climate in the Netherlands, and also discussions about foreign policy, began to change, like they began to change in other western states as well. The days of Western optimism seemed to be over. This transpired from developments in both in world politics and in the Netherlands themselves. By the start of the 21st century, the Netherlands saw the rise of right-wing populist parties, first led by Pim Fortuyn, later by Geert Wilders (you probably know them), while the traditional parties began to lose more and more ground. And in world politics, the Western states seemed to lose their dominant position, because of the rise of new powers (in particular the so-called BRICS) and because of growing internal economic and financial problems (in particular, the banking and euro crises that started some ten years ago). The world seemed to become more ‘multipolar’. [slide]
  These developments affected Dutch public opinion and foreign policy making. The Dutch attitude towards Europe and the European Union became more surly, more negative. Dutch politicians and commentators concluded that the days of European idealism were over. The process of European integration, they argued, was more or less completed. And Brussels, or the EU bureaucracy, had become too powerful. Dutch European integration policy became more a matter of short-term, material goals, for instance concerning the financial contributions to the EU. The less, the better. The Netherlands were becoming more skeptical concerning the enlargement of the EU, and the status of new member states. In 2005, in a referendum the Dutch electorate rejected a new ‘EU constitution’. For many Dutch politicians, European integration was not an ideal or a prospect anymore, but a problem. Some of them, like our present Prime Minister Mark Rutte, even called for reducing the powers of what is referred to as ‘Brussels’.
  Although the Netherlands continued to participate in military missions, preferably led by NATO or NATO states, there was growing concern over the legitimacy and certainly the effectiveness of such peace missions and humanitarian interventions. In 2010, a Committee that had been appointed by the government to investigate the Dutch role concerning the invasion and occupation of Iraq (the Commissie-Davids) concluded that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been a violation of international law. Therefore, Dutch participation in the stabilization mission ISAF had also been – to a certain extent – ‘illegal’. The conclusions of this committee embarrassed the Dutch government. They showed (not the only indication) that Dutch opinion- and policymakers began to question the wisdom and effectiveness of western military interventions, and also question the ability of the western states to ‘make the world safe for democracy’. The rise of new non-western powers, in particular the so-called BRIC-states, seemed to undermine the legitimacy of western views concerning democracy and human rights, as well.
  There was also growing concern over the still considerable amount of money that the Netherlands spent on development aid. More and more politicians and advisors, in particular ‘free market’ economists, concluded that development aid was counterproductive. The right-wing parties, above all the new populist parties, argued that the Dutch government should abolish development aid and invest this money in the Dutch economy and Dutch society itself. As a result of this, in the past six years the budgets for development aid have been reduced significantly. Moreover, development aid should be spent in such a way that Dutch business could also profit.
  Nowadays Dutch foreign policy is more and more discussed and justified in terms of Dutch  self-interest. No great ideals, long-term strategic goals, humanitarian responsibilities anymore. Former Foreign Minister, the conservative politician Uri Rosenthal, was very explicit in this respect: diplomacy, he stated several times, was in the first place, economic diplomacy meant to defend the Dutch economic interests. Now one could argue that Rosenthal was a typical free market oriented conservative. But remarkably, his social-democratic successors Frans Timmermans en Bert Koenders, also several times publicly underlined the prime importance of economic diplomacy.
  Now,  it was not surprising that a foreign minister stressed the importance of the Dutch national interest. What was new was the emphasis on economic interests. In the past, foreign ministers, such as Joseph Luns, had also emphasized the relevance of national interests as a guiding principle for policy-making. But Luns had a much more political view on national interests. Foreign policy was also a matter of maximizing Dutch influence, of contributing to balances of power that were favorable the Netherlands, both between East and West, and within Western Europe, of strategic alliances.
  Dutch politicians and diplomats still sometimes point out the relevance of ideals, such as human rights. But a certain ambiguity has tempered our humanitarian and liberal commitments. We do not believe anymore in the mobilizing effects of European integration and European ideals, we have become more doubtful over Europe’s ability to defend and further humanitarian values (not in the least in view of the present-day refugee crisis) We have also lost faith in the workings of development aid. And we see the contours of a more multipolar world, in which western values are becoming less dominant. Against this background, Dutch politicians have become more pragmatic, assuming that defending Dutch economic interests is the main goal of Dutch foreign policy. I’ll come back to this observation later on.
  The problem, however, of such a short-term and pragmatic policy is the lack of vision and the absence of long-term strategic goals. In the past years, the world seems to be changing rapidly. The confrontation between Russia and European states, BREXIT, the election of Donald Trump, Trump’s opinions concerning NATO and defence, increase feelings of insecurity and alarm. Just thinking in terms of short-term economic interests is not enough to find adequate answers to these new challenges.

What I would like to do in the second part of this meeting is the following. Let’s pretend that you’re working at the Dutch Foreign Ministry. What would you say, or write, concerning some major problems the Netherlands, and the Dutch government are facing. I suggest we discuss five crucial issues: (slide)

  • The Dutch standpoint concerning defence, not least in view of the recent tensions with Russia.
  • The future of US-European relations and NATO, after Trump’s election.
  • European integration, in particular after BREXIT. Which one of the European Commission’s five scenario’s? (Carrying On, Only Market, Federal ambitions, Coalition Willing, Focusing).
  • Democracy and Human Rights, for instance the civil war in Syria.
  • Development Aid. Abolishing? Or increasing in view of the humanitarian disaster, that is unfolding in North East Africa?