The Effectiveness of Dutch Foreign Policy

Launching a three-part series entitled “An Inside View: The Effectiveness of Dutch Foreign Policy”, The Hague Institute for Global Justice convened six former Political Directors, who served various governments at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to reflect on the contemporary challenges facing Dutch engagement in Europe and the wider world. Their task was to propose refinements that could be made to enhance the efficacy of Netherlands foreign policy.

Joining the panelists was a distinguished audience of current and former practitioners, representing the diplomatic community, business and civil society. The series will continue on 24 October – UN Day – where the discussion will be amongst former Dutch Permanent Representatives to the United Nations. The Inside Viewevents will conclude on 11 December with a session featuring five consecutive Ministers of Foreign Affairs.

On 10 September, the presentations by the former Political Directors began by introductions from The Hague Institute’s President, Dr. Abiodun Williams and his co-moderator Ambassador-in-Residence, Boudewijn van Eenennaam, on the rationale for convening the three panels. | Listen to the event audio

The Netherlands, Dr. Williams, noted has long been ‘one of the great internationalist countries’, a reputation evinced by the many international institutions now based in The Hague. Nevertheless, Williams and Van Eenennaam acknowledged a ‘certain disquiet’ that has recently marked the Dutch foreign policy community expressed by a recentEconomist article on Dutch attitudes towards the EU, which spoke of ‘a founding member’s apostasy.’ Against this backdrop, Williams argued that ‘the time is ripe for an evaluation of the principles and purpose of Dutch foreign policy and to reflect on the role The Netherlands seeks in Europe and the world’.

The Loss of Domestic Consensus

Answering this call, presentations from the panelists began with consideration of an issue fundamental to the effective operation of a nation’s foreign policy, but which is all too often taken for granted: the domestic dimension. This was the subject introduced byAmbassador Herman Schaper who began by framing the challenge starkly: ‘at this moment,’ he said, ‘the greatest obstacle standing in the way of a more effective Dutch foreign policy is the disagreement here in The Netherlands itself, at home, about what this policy should be.’

Schaper contended that the broad consensus, which has dominated Dutch foreign policy-making in the post-war era, began to break down in the 2000s, first with the rejection of the European Constitution in the referendum on 2005 and in the following years, through the findings of the Davids Commission, the subsequent fall of the Balkenende government and, more recently, the abandonment of the 0.7% commitment to international development spending. These changes across the gamut of international engagement – European unity, security and defense and development cooperation – reflected, observed Schaper, a Dutch foreign policy that had ‘in recent years become less predictable, more hesitant and more dependent on domestic considerations, ad hoc events and media-driven hype.’

Presenting a path forward to build a new consensus, Schaper emphasized the leadership required on the part of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also noted that ‘the position of the Foreign Ministry has, in the last 60 years, never been so weak as it is now.’ Fiscal austerity measures will lead to a reduction in the Ministry’s budget of 25% compared to the budget of 2011. Evidently, the Ministry has an image problem. It is seen, according to the Advisory Commission on Modernizing Diplomacy, as ‘standing with its back towards the rest of the government and society as a whole.’ To transcend this aloof reputation, the Ministry will have to do more to serve as hub for a network of relevant actors, including businesses, NGOs and other government departments and expand its public diplomacy. Practical measures of achieving reform could include underlining the important domestic role the Ministry ought to be undertaking; recruiting civil servants from outside the diplomatic corps into the Foreign Service (and vice versa) and emphasize the recruitment of specialists over generalists. ‘Only in this way,’ argued Schaper, ‘will the Ministry be accepted as a valuable participant in the networks which are increasingly becoming a feature of the world of messy multilateralism.’

Values, Interest and Ethical Frameworks

Ambassador Hugo Siblesz, speaking in a personal capacity, began his remarks by asserting that foreign policy objectives were normally phrased in terms of values or interests, with diplomats juxtaposing courses of action as ethical or interest-based. The Netherlands, argued Siblesz, had a particular tradition of presenting objectives in values terms. Siblesz’s contention was that framing policies in this way, even where a core interest is at stake, has substantive implications which can sometimes be counter-productive.


Two policy objectives for which The Netherlands is well-known – freedom of the seas and peaceful settlements of disputes – are cases in which there is a certain logic to presenting interests as values. In both cases, where economic advantage aligns with an avowed normative view, there is little downside to such a conceptualization. There are, however, cases which are less clear-cut. The Dutch preference for multilateralism, claimed as if from ‘the moral high ground’ is equally a function of capacities. In reality, working through multilateral organizations can itself give rise to a clash of values, as is reflected in the continuing preference to base any action in Syria on the authority of the UN Security Council, despite the inertia in that body giving rise to continued abuses of human rights.

In other instances where The Netherlands has stressed its values, especially with regard to human rights and development cooperation, foreign policy-makers may have found themselves gaining more traction if they had framed their cases in terms of interests, for example, with regard to the 0.7% aid spending goal, in terms of ‘the benefits of seeing developing countries participate fully in the world economy.’ Framing the goal in this term also implies responsibilities held by recipient countries, something that both politicians and the public may have been more likely to countenance.

In conclusion, Siblesz affirmed that ‘calling interests by their name would produce a broader acceptance of the policy domestically. Calling them by a different name sometimes has the effect of obscuring the policy objectives, the only upside being that it may make one feel good (or better), at least for a while. At the same time, it may make the policy less effective vis à vis one’s counterparts.’

Ambassador Peter van Walsum dedicated his remarks to a discussion of the ethical dilemmas with which governments are confronted concerning the use of force. Accepting the illegality of the use of force in the absence of Security Council authorization, Van Walsum nevertheless stressed that study was best dedicated to the ethical frameworks through which governments like The Netherlands ought to consider such decisions, especially given the likelihood – based on recent experience – that action in the Security Council on the most controversial international issues will prove impossible.

Van Walsum used as a frame of reference Max Weber’s celebrated distinction between the KantianGesinnungsethik (the ethic of conviction) and the consequentialistVerantwortungsethik (the ethic of responsibility). Only in combination, contented Weber, could these two ethics produce the human being capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.’ Most often, explained, Van Walsum ‘the ethic of conviction makes the first move, but then the ethic of responsibility must take charge without delay because on its own the ethic of conviction is an accident-prone creature.’

Applying this framework to the Fall of Srebrenica, Van Walsum argued that the operational decisions taken by Dutchbat ‘pale into significance compared to the responsibility of well-intentioned Dutch politicians (in both government and parliament) and journalists who… generated the immense political press that made the Netherlands settle for the unsound concept of ‘safe areas.’ For Van Walsum, this decision represented the prioritization of conviction over responsibility, the fateful consequences of which should serve as a lesson to those crafting future foreign policy.

Relations with the US and EU

The final two panellists, Ambassador Joris Vos and Ambassador Pieter de Gooijer concentrated, respectively on Dutch relations with the United States and European Union. Vos is a former Ambassador in Washington. Referring to the concept of the US as the “indispensable nation.” Vos provided an overview of the shared history and values between The Netherlands and the US which typically form the basis, in the minds of the Dutch public and policy-makers alike, of the relationship between the two countries. Arguing that the US remained a vital ally for the Netherlands, Vos stressed that although common values were an important asset in the Dutch-US relationship, the Netherlands could ill afford to base its American ties solely on such factors. He emphasized that ‘American bilateral relations are very much based on realpolitik,’ noting that ‘when the chips are down, American attitudes are determined by direct American interest only.’

Key episodes in the post-war US-Netherlands relationship lend credence to this analysis, argued Vos. When the Lubbers government found a solution to the controversy surrounding deployment of cruise missiles on Dutch soil, the Netherlands was immediately rewarded with US concessions in other fields. Similar gains accrued when the Netherlands flew inter-operable F-16s over Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Vos underlined that the US would continue to ask would-be partners ‘where’s the beef?’ The implications for policy-makers lie in current cuts to defense spending and the loss of ‘capabilities that afforded us special relevance in the common [NATO] defense structure.’ The US, posited Vos, would remain the “indispensable nation” and Dutch foreign policy-makers should therefore pay due attention to American interests.

Turning to the European case, Ambassador Pieter de Gooijer, the current Dutch Permanent Representative to the European Union, who was speaking in a personal capacity told attendees that the effectiveness of foreign policy could ‘be best increased by working more in and through the European Union and less by flagging national views and positions. De Gooijer identified a damaging contradiction in current trends: ‘[the Dutch] desire to maintain a national profile conflicts with the desire to achieve results.’


For De Gooijer, the European Union best allows the Netherlands to effect change across a raft of areas, especially given that any modern foreign policy must be comprehensive, addressing not only politico-military issues, but also matters relating to the economy, jobs, migration and the rule of law. It is indeed the EU which is working to coordinate economic and fiscal policy to avoid a repeat of the current crisis. Moreover, the EU is fulfilling its task more effectively than many give it credit for, ‘testing new models on the go.’

Disagreeing with the notion, often expressed, that EU policy is no longer foreign but domestic policy, De Gooijer emphasized that decisions relating to the crisis are still most often discussed at the Member State level, with the consequences for other EU Member States still only a secondary consideration. ‘We think,’ reflected De Gooijer ‘more in national terms than in common terms.’ This, De Gooijer expressed regret over this tendency, foreseeing negative economic consequences as well as an impediment to more effective EU external action, which European citizens increasingly value.

In remarks that echoed suggestions by other Political Directors about methods to improve the efficacy of foreign policy through practical reform, De Gooijer emphasized the importance of (i) actually having a policy (which is so often not the case); (ii) international coherence and sustained execution; (iii) allocation of appropriate resources; (iv) predictable partnerships.


At the end of an interesting discussion with the audience Ambassador Boudewijn van Eenennaam called on politicians, academics, journalists and civil society to put the effectiveness of Dutch foreign policy on the agenda, in articles and debates, and to work together to see if and how we can create a new domestic consensus to make our foreign policy more creative and effective. Our country is heavily dependent on the outside world, which is in constant change. One can check out any time, but one can never leave. We are not a small country: The Netherlands is as big as we can make it!

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