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.

: 17/03/2009