The Constants of Dutch Foreign Policy

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The Constants of Dutch Foreign Policy

Peace, Profits and Principles is the catchy alliterative title of a book on Dutch foreign policy by Joris Voorhoeve, one-time parliamentary leader of the VVD (1986-90). Under these three headings he sought to analyse the major traditions of this foreign policy, which he defined as 'maritime commercialism' 'neutralist abstentionism' and 'internationalist idealism'. Others have objected to the concept of traditions in this respect, even arguing that the Dutch have insufficient historic sense for traditions. Such authors prefer to speak of tendencies, themes, or constants, and some of them have amended or enlarged Voorhoeve's list. On closer inspection, however, the themes mentioned by other authors remain closely related to the clusters of attitudes mentioned by Voorhoeve. There is also little disagreement concerning the origins of such tendencies or traditions.

Both the size and geographical location of the country have left their imprint on the country's external relations. The Dutch domestic market being quite small but ideally located to serve as a gateway to the European hinterland, the Netherlands came to rely on maritime trade. This has brought an Atlantic perspective to its foreign policy, sometimes bordering on anti-continentalism. Already in the seventeenth century, Pieter de la Court, a Leyden merchant and political scientist, advocated creating a wide swathe of water to the cast of the province of Holland, to separate it from the European continent. As late as the 1950s the Dutch Foreign Office proclaimed: ' The Netherlands cannot exist without Europe, but it is a continental European nation neither in its history, nor in its character.' Despite altercations with the British first, and despite irritation over American pressure to decolonise later, the Netherlands has continued to rely on these two extra-continental powers. This reliance is due partly to the importance of maritime trade, but also to the desire to have a countervailing power to the dominant state on the continent, be it German or French.

The significance of trade for the Dutch economy has also led to another of Voorhoeve's traditions, 'neutralist abstentionism', a set of preferences described by others as 'economic pacifism'; it is a reluctance to accept changes in the status quo, or downright conservatism. The Dutch colonial empire could not be defended adequately, and was therefore best protected by a neutralist policy. The flow of commerce was best served by an opportunistic abstention from European power politics. Any disturbance of the balance of power could be detrimental to trade, and was therefore deplored. The Netherlands has been described as a 'satisfied nation', quite happy with things as they are in the world. After 1945 the failure of neutralism as a security strategy was recognised by Dutch politicians and the public alike, and the joining of the Atlantic Alliance has been interpreted as an unequivocal abandonment of the neutralist tradition. Other observers, however, maintain that NATO membership constitutes less of a break with tradition than it may seem at first sight. Now that the international status quo was no longer guaranteed by a Pax Britannica, the Dutch supported a Pax Americana. Both the old and the new situation in which the Dutch found themselves allowed them an afzijdigheid in afhankelijkheid (aloofness in dependence): membership in a Western bloc, dominated by one superpower has permitted a continuation of traditional Dutch neutrality within a new framework and has relieved them of the need to develop an ambitious foreign policy of their own. It was the perception of a renewed emphasis on neutralism in the 1970s that led Walter Laqueur to his diagnosis of 'Hollanditis' as a second 'Dutch disease'.

The third constant in Dutch foreign policy, 'internationalist idealism' in the words of Voorhoeve, is often attributed to the Calvinist church minister in every Dutchman, rather than to the merchant in him. Especially when this idealism transforms the Dutch government into a Dutch uncle, wagging an admonishing finger at other nations, the relation with Galvinist moralism is too obvious to miss. The same can be said of another manifestation of internationalist idealism, the emphasis on international law. Article 90 of the Constitution even charges the government with the promotion of 'the development of the international rule of law'. Such legalism is not entirely alien to Galvinist culture. Often, however, minister and merchant went hand in hand. Dutch attempts to codify international relations are sometimes perceived as symptoms of Dutch conservatism, of its clinging to the status quo. Moreover, ever since Grotius, the content of international law has rarely failed to serve the Dutch interest in free trade and open sea passages. The Dutch interest in neutralist abstention from power politics is easily disguised as moralism.

In this chapter we shall take a closer look at these three clusters of supposedly constant foreign policy preferences by examining the Dutch role in three international organisations. It is through its active involvement in a large number of international organisations that the Netherlands tries to rise above the status of a small country: in terms of territory the country ranks 117th in the world, in terms of population 40th, in terms of GNP 14th, but in terms of membership in international organisations it ranks second in the world. The three most important ones are also most suited to a discussion of the three constants in the foreign policy of the country: NATO ('peace'), the EC ('profits') and the UN ('principles').


The Dutch decision to join the Atlantic Alliance was opposed only by the Communist party, and has never been seriously questioned. The original support for NATO should be understood against the backdrop of, on the one hand, gratitude for the American effort to liberate the Netherlands in 1945 and for Marshall Plan aid for rebuilding the ruined Dutch economy, tempered only marginally by anger over American pressure to end the successful military actions against Indonesian insurgents and, on the other hand, of growing anxiety over Soviet imperialism, fuelled particularly by the Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Perhaps the Dutch embraced NATO membership because it allowed them to continue as a naval power by compensating for the loss of the colonies .

Despite later criticisms of the participation in NATO by the then dictatorial regimes of Portugal and Greece, despite opposition to American involvement in Indo-China and Latin America, and even despite misgivings over NATO's nuclear strategy, public support for NATO membership has never wavered. The percentage in favour of leaving the Alliance has never exceeded 20 per cent, and no major party has ever advocated withdrawal from NATO, not even a 'French', partial, one. Especially during the first decades of the Alliance, the Netherlands acted as a particularly staunch ally and a loyal supporter of US leadership in the Alliance.

The Dutch share in NATO's defence expenditures has always been relatively high compared with that of other smaller member states such as Belgium, Turkey, Greece, Denmark, or Norway. The Dutch were among the 15 countries that joined the USA in the Korean War (a UN mission de iure, a US mission de facto). In 1957 the Netherlands wasted no time in becoming the first European ally to accept American nuclear missiles on its territory. While other member states demanded a say in the engagement) of such weaponry ('dual key'), the Dutch would have been happy to leave this responsibility entirely to the US government. Another quarrel with the Americans about Dutch colonialism, this time about the DutchIndonesian conflict over Papua New Guinea in 19612, did little to weaken the Dutch enthusiasm for the Atlantic Alliance. The long-serving Foreign Secretary, Joseph Luns (195671) stead-fastly refused to convey the protests of the Dutch Parliament over American intervention in Vietnam to Washington. As we shall discuss in the following section, the Dutch government always objected to plans for European rather than Atlantic defence arrangements, and served almost as an American proxy in the EC. One author even struggled to find a distinction between the Dutch role of faithful ally and that of a vassal or satellite state: the submission of .the Dutch to American leadership, he suggests, was not imposed, but voluntary.

With the retirement of Luns as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1971, the Dutch role as America's small but staunch ally abruptly came to an end. Over strong objections by the USA, the Dutch government supported acceptance of the People's Republic of China as a member of the UN in 1971. Luns's successors as Foreign Secretary had fewer misgivings about decrying US overt and covert involvement in Latin America, and particularly in Vietnam. One of them, Max van der Stoel, took pride in labelling the Netherlands a 'critical ally'. In 1975 the Dutch even targeted Cuba as one of the countries on which to concentrate its development aid. Within NATO the change in Dutch policy is evidenced by an increased emphasis on arms control negotiations, and in particular on reduction of nuclear weapons. The proposed deployment in 1977-8 of the 'neutron bomb', or the 'enhanced radiation, reduced blast' weapon as it was called officially, met with strong public opposition in the Netherlands. More than 1.2 million citizens signed petitions against the neutron bomb, which probably contributed to the vote in the Dutch Parliament not to accept the proposals by the Carter administration. The episode of the neutron bomb is important, because the issue ('a bomb that kills people, but saves property') served to mobilise a

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