"THE NETHERLANDS is always right, but never relevant." Apparently, friends of the Netherlands in Europe, who shall remain nameless, expressed this view. However, it coincides with an impression many Dutch people have of their own country - although they would rather not hear it from the lips of outsiders.
The Dutch are the first to admit that they can be stubborn. In fact, we are secretly proud of this trait. And with good reason, it seems. According to General de Gaulle, this meant that the Netherlands was a country you had to take seriously. Both within the European Union and beyond, it is good to stand up for strongly held convictions, but not at the expense of flexibility.
There is no denying that we are sometimes so convinced that we are right that we are not prepared to agree to a compromise, even when our partners assure us it is compatible with our position. It is almost as if, rather than actually coming out on top, the Dutch prefer to emerge from a conflict as moral victors. The Calvinistic Dutch - and in the Netherlands this category includes many non-Protestants - find it difficult to take credit for an outcome they consider substandard, or to get results in a game that holds no charm for them.
Whether clichés about a country are misleading or accurate, they are always persistent. In recent decades, especially in diplomacy and foreign policy, the Netherlands has perhaps too often been the preacher rather than the merchant, the town crier rather than the builder of bridges, and the soloist rather than a member of the orchestra. The problem does not lie in the positions taken by the Netherlands. These are generally reasonable and justifiable. However, sometimes they only remain so if we are prepared to subordinate the purity of our own position to the possibility of reaching a compromise that our partners can also live with. A degree of shrewdness is needed in addition to a concern for substance. If you go into talks without a "bottom line", i.e. a minimal acceptable outcome, you risk ending up empty-handed. More often than not, clichés derive their force from exaggeration. The reality is that the Netherlands gets its own way around the negotiating table in Brussels more often than the cliché might suggest. The Tampere European Council in October 1999 is a case in point. Decisions were taken and intentions expressed in the area of justice and home affairs, including asylum policy. Anyone comparing the decisions reached with the original Dutch wish list - which featured 10 key points - would soon discover that virtually all these points were adopted. The same can be said of the Berlin European Council in 1999, where the Netherlands won a relative reduction in national contributions to the EU.
So, although we would do well to be a little more modest when it comes to asserting that we are in the right, we can take pride in the business acumen that enables Dutch negotiators to achieve results. We will need that business acumen, for example, if we are to get a fairer allocation formula for member states' net contributions to the European Union. Even our partners concede that the Netherlands currently pays too much. But this does not mean that there is a ready-made alternative acceptable to all member states. It will have to be negotiated.
Those wondering whether the Netherlands is relevant should also give consideration to how much influence the country can bring to bear. According to rankings published in Newsweek, the Netherlands is the 10th most powerful country in the world. Power is, admittedly, notoriously difficult to define, and perhaps Newsweek was too selective in the criteria it applied. But it cannot be denied that the Netherlands is a bigger player on the world stage than you would expect from a country that is so small in terms of square kilometres.
We also do well in other areas. Former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson indicated that the Netherlands had an excellent track record as regards the "usability" of its military personnel, ranking the Netherlands third behind the US and Canada. In recent years, the Netherlands has made comparatively major contributions to peace operations in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Furthermore, as regards development cooperation, the Netherlands occupies the top spot among the 21 OECD countries in the commitment-to-development index of the Centre for Global Development in Washington.
In Brussels, too, the picture is satisfactory. In the mid-1990s, Belgian researchers Jan Beyers and Guido Dierickx carried out a study among national civil servants. It revealed that Dutch civil servants were considered to perform well above average in terms of effectiveness during negotiations. Dutch negotiators have a firm grasp of the facts, which gives them a reputation for reliability. Negotiators from other countries, said Beyers and Dierickx, appreciate being able to call on Dutch knowledge and creativity.
As a "pocket-sized medium power", the Netherlands therefore carries enough of a punch to exercise significant influence. By the same token, the Netherlands is small enough to have a strong interest in anchoring political power regarding rules and agreements. This is not to say by any means that devotion to international law is only found among smaller countries. But if it comes down to a no-holds-barred contest, smaller countries succumb more quickly than larger ones.
There is therefore no antithesis in Dutch foreign policy between the furtherance of Dutch interests and the strengthening of the international legal order. For centuries, the preacher and the merchant have complemented each other very well, although after 1945 the criticism sometimes levelled at the Netherlands was that it suffered from a moral superiority complex. Critics were referring here to the attitude that strengthening the international legal order was somehow an exclusive - God-given - Dutch vocation, rather than a sensible way of upholding the interests, both material and otherwise, of an open society. For some time now the Dutch have had a more down-to-earth view of themselves. We stand by our principles, but acknowledge that they are linked to our interests. Being honest about this makes it easier to conduct a dialogue with other countries. A country that openly admits that its security is served by an international legal order based on rules and agreements, and that its prosperity is served by the lifting of trade barriers, can hardly be accused of hypocrisy, after all.
The Netherlands has adapted in good time. The world is being transformed by globalisation, and the Netherlands is responding to this change. The time-honoured traditions of Dutch policy, "peace, profits, and principles" in the pithy phrase of former defence minister Joris Voorhoeve, have lost none of their validity. On the contrary, they are more relevant than ever. The Netherlands is a streamlined and manoeuvrable ship that can navigate the waters of international affairs with relative ease without having to change course.
Let us make use of this. It has nothing to do with letting go of one's principles, but everything to do with how one defends them. In a world where national borders offer less and less protection, where the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses a real threat, and where terrorists want to destroy civilised, free societies, the Netherlands has to cooperate ever more closely with its partners in the area of intelligence and counter-terrorism. At the same time, we must conduct an intensive intercultural and interreligious dialogue with the Arab-Islamic world to increase mutual respect and understanding. In a dialogue of this kind there will, as far as I am concerned, be sufficient scope for critical questions about, for example, the position of women.
The Netherlands opts for an approach in which the distinction between "us" and "them" or "our interests" and "wider interests" is not a mutually exclusive one.
Our efforts in the area of development cooperation are intended to afford other areas of the world access to peace and prosperity. Our human rights policy aims to increase access to fundamental freedoms and democratic values, so that they become genuine global public goods. We pursue these aims with the passion for which we are known, not because the Dutch know something that others do not, but because we realise that the impact of poverty and civil war, human trafficking and the plunder of raw materials, environmental degradation and water problems, is also felt by us in a globalising world.
When challenges and threats disregard national borders, we must likewise provide an international response. This is also why development cooperation, human rights policy, and security policy are more interconnected than ever before. Some might call this an idealistic vision of foreign policy. I would call it the realpolitik of the 21st century. As we know, diplomacy is the art of exploring the boundaries of the possible. In the 21st century, we are called upon not just to explore these boundaries, but also to push them back. The world is placing ever-stricter requirements on us. We will therefore have to elevate diplomacy to the art of making things possible. The Dutch are just as good at this as other countries, and secretly our European friends admit as much.
Originally published in De Gids, the oldest literary magazine in the Netherlands.
28. Jun 2004 at 0:00 | Bernard Bot