Transatlantic Relations: A View from the Netherlands

International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Transatlantic Relations: A View from the Netherlands

THE APPOINTMENT OF THE DUTCH FOREIGN MINISTER Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as NATO's new secretary-general is seen as a reward to the Dutch for being a loyal ally to the United States and one of the major troop contributors within NATO. The same explanation could be applied to the appointments of other officials to very senior posts, including former prime minister Ruud Lubbers, who was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. What explains these diplomatic successes? Is Dutch foreign policy particularly effective? Does the Netherlands have a disproportionate influence in world affairs? On the one hand, being a loyal ally and a troop contributor undoubtedly helped to secure those senior posts. On the other hand, for more than 10 years the Dutch foreign policy elite has been in search of a new orientation. Because of the geostrategic changes of the 1990s, its focus on transatlantic relations has lost some of its relevance. Since Europe is no longer Washington's principal strategic priority, the Netherlands is trying to find a new balance in security and defence matters between traditional Atlanticism, which is embodied in NATO, and the emerging European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).

Dutch foreign policy was once characterized as based on "peace, profits and principles."(1) Some characteristics of Dutch foreign policy are deeply rooted in history. By 1650 the Netherlands had become the most formidable power in the world. It accumulated incredible wealth by foreign trade and possessed the most powerful navy to protect its commercial interests. In those days the fleet numbered over 70 warships with more than 20,000 sailors. Despite its power projection capabilities and wealth, during their golden age the Dutch did not participate in the international power struggle as such. Unlike the rulers of neighbouring states, the ruling commercial patricians or "regents" were not interested in territorial expansion or, for that matter, even integrity. Their objective was to accumulate wealth. Moreover, their commercial interests prompted them to stay away from other nations' political quarrels.

In addition, during the 16th and 17th centuries the country was a heterogeneous group of cities and provinces, without strong leadership. Consequently, the Dutch were neither willing nor able to get involved in the struggle for power. Moreover, because of their fragmented political system, they had no choice but to seek consensus among regents, cities and provinces. Thus Dutch aversion to power politics and the Dutch preoccupation with consensus building are centuries old.


Scholars disagree about which factors form consistencies in Dutch foreign policy.(2) Nevertheless, most policy choices find their roots in recurring approaches or traditions in Dutch foreign policy. The first is a strong legal approach. This goes back to Hugo Grotius, who in the 17th century was one of the founders of international law. Dutch interest in international law has remained constant over the subsequent centuries. As a trading nation the Netherlands has always attached great value to a strong international legal order as an instrument to create stability. Being a medium-sized power, it lacked sufficient military force to defend its interests. This tradition explains why successive governments promoted The Hague as the world capital of international law. At present, numerous international organizations have headquarters in The Hague, including the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

Until the beginning of the Second World War it was thought that the national interest was best served by a policy of strict neutrality. Thus hope was voiced that the country could stay out of major power competitions and could avoid becoming involved in wars. This served the Dutch well, because they managed to stay out of the devastating First World War. …

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