Speech by Minister Hoekstra at the opening of the academic year Leiden University

Speech (translated from Dutch) by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wopke Hoekstra, at the ceremony marking the opening of the academic year of Leiden University, on 5 September 2022. The spoken word applies.

Enlarge image Hoekstra opening academisch jaar
Image: ©Kick Smeets

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour and a pleasure to be here to open the academic year at Leiden.

In my student days I walked past the Pieterskerk countless times and regularly had exams here.

So it’s great privilege for me to have the opportunity to set out my thoughts on Dutch foreign policy on this spot.

As you came in you no doubt saw the enormous globe at the back of this hall. From here I’m looking straight at it.

This magnificent work by the British artist Luke Jerram is suspended from the vault of the church by a virtually invisible thread.

Sturdy fastenings hold everything in place in delicate equilibrium.

I would have to think long and hard to come up with a better metaphor to illustrate why we need the international order.

A world that would immediately fall apart if the anchors that maintain its balance were to become detached.

This world – the one here in the Pieterskerk – is firmly fixed to the ceiling.

But our own world, to be frank, is a source of great concern for me.

Concern about the anchors that risk becoming detached, throwing the world even further out of balance.

Nowhere is that more evident than in our own continent. With its blatantly illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Russia has dragged us back to a time of war.

In the east of our continent, Ukrainians are now fighting for their freedom.

Almost seven million people have now fled their country.

The horrifying images from Bucha and Irpin demonstrate the reality of the Russian occupation they are fleeing from.

Bodies lying in the street, bombed-out houses, a world literally blown apart.

I saw a great deal of that damage at first hand when I was in Ukraine with my German counterpart.

The wanton destruction, the violence meted out on an entirely innocent population, the fear.

But also the hope.

Everyone I spoke to there with said the same thing.
We will not give up. We will carry on fighting. We will win. And soon, when the dust has settled, we will rebuild our country.

Their determination fills me with admiration.

They are fighting for the independence of their country, and for values that are our values too: freedom, self-determination, human rights and the rule of law.

And they are fighting for security on this continent.

The threat extends beyond Ukraine alone: Putin is an imperialist who will not stop of his own accord.

He is challenging us to accept Russia’s violent annexation of a neighbouring country.

We will never do that.

Because if it can be done in Ukraine, it can also be done elsewhere in Europe. And in the world.

Over a century ago, the Leiden professor Cornelis van Vollenhoven was already writing that the Netherlands had a vocation to promote the international legal order.

I agree. I would add, however, that this is not only a moral vocation, but also a strategic interest.
Our strategic interest.

The war is in many respects a wake-up call.

The reality is that we’ve been facing a geopolitical challenge for some time now.

The rise of autocratic regimes and the undermining of the international legal order have been going on for a long time.

Countries like Russia and China are doing all they can to rewrite the rules of the game and gain the upper hand.

What’s more, these geopolitical rivals stand for a fundamentally different world view, without democracy or the rule of law.

These challenges have been bearing down on us for years, yet we underinvested in defence and security.

Like many of our allies.

And we are over-reliant on others for our supply of energy and strategic raw materials, and thus vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the group of countries that we used to refer to as ‘the West’ has been growing relatively smaller year by year, in terms of both population and economic heft.

For the Netherlands, this is a dangerous combination of circumstances.

Free, prosperous and connected with every corner of the earth, we have a particular need for stability.

On reliable trade agreements.

On respect for international law.

What happens abroad affects us here.

Home and abroad are two sides of the same coin.

That has always been true for the Netherlands. No one knows this better than you here in Leiden.

This university was founded in the midst of war: the uprising of the Netherlands against its Spanish Habsburg overlords.

Hence its wonderful motto: Praesidium Libertatis, ‘bastion of liberty’.

A similar concept of freedom is contained in our foreign policy.

Both our history and our place on the world stage dictate that we put stability, freedom, self-determination and respect for international law at the heart of our policy.

We often describe the body of rules and treaties that make up international law as values, but for a country like the Netherlands they coincide with our interests, with realpolitik.

If we do nothing, I am convinced that stability and the balance of power in the world will only come under further pressure.

In order better to protect our interests we will therefore have to fully embrace geopolitics, with assertive diplomacy and an active foreign policy.

This calls for engagement at three different levels at the same time: national, continental and global.

At national level, by better preparing our country for the new juncture we’re at.

At continental level, by substantially reinforcing Europe’s geopolitical clout. Together with our European allies, we will have to better protect our interests on our continent and beyond.

At global level, by forging closer ties with the Netherlands’ allies and seeking partners all over the world.

First, the national level.

Because the job starts in our own country.

I already referred to the consequences of the war in Ukraine, and how much is at stake for Europe and the Netherlands.

The war has now disappeared from most front pages, but high energy prices have hit households hard across Europe.

War fatigue is always a lurking danger in this kind of situation.

And you can depend on it that Putin will do his best to encourage it.

And yet there is no alternative to staying the course.

In the knowledge that there is no guarantee whatsoever that this war will be over anytime soon.

The Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan went on for nine years. The Russian occupation of Eastern Europe lasted for decades.

This is a conflict in which our existential interests are at stake.

Their protection demands long-term and resolute commitment.

This was the case in the Cold War, and it is the case again now.

The situation in which Europe finds itself demands patience, resolve and sacrifices.

Those sacrifices are worth making, for the sake of the security and stability of our continent.

That means that no one must be left sitting in the cold.

That we will have to share the burden of soaring energy bills.

And that we will have to offer people who get into difficulties a helping hand.

We will also continue to invest.

In defence, in diplomacy, in knowledge, in trade relations, in critical infrastructure.

With a population of only 17 million, we have the world’s 17th largest economy.

This is an impressive feat, but there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will remain the case.

Defending and further shoring up our interests requires upkeep, money and dedication.

Each and every day.

This brings me to the second, continental prong of our foreign policy: a geopolitical Europe.

Our continent must become more resilient, and shoulder a greater responsibility for its economic security and defence.

The European Union possesses unprecedented economic clout.

We are the biggest trading bloc in the world, and in the sphere of trade we literally set the global standards.

Yet at the same time, so far we’ve not been able to translate that economic might into geopolitical muscle.

Fortunately the EU is now taking the first steps towards adding an anti-coercion instrument to its toolbox.

This means the EU will take countermeasures if a member state is the target of economic pressure by outside powers.

This is an important defensive step. We should build on this foundation.

The current crisis has forced us in Europe to face some hard facts.

It has revealed our dependence for our energy supply on the whims of a dictator.

The COVID-19 crisis highlighted our vulnerability in another way, in the field of medical devices.

We can’t let this happen to us a third time.

So let’s reduce our strategic dependence on countries like Russia and China.

And avoid allowing other countries to use this kind of leverage against us again.

Aside from energy, I’m thinking here primarily of microchips.

Almost every aspect of our lives is made possible by this technology.

From the smartwatch on your wrist to the laptop on your desk and the car many of us use to drive to work.

The foundations of our continent’s economy rest to an ever increasing extent on the chipmaking industry.

So it’s crucial that we better secure the supply of the raw materials that this industry requires.

An even more fundamental concern than protecting our economy is guaranteeing our security.

To do this more effectively, we are stepping up military cooperation within NATO, and between NATO and the EU.

It is vital that we invest in European defence, and at the same time it is crucial that we work side-by-side with the US.

In NATO and beyond.

The Ukraine crisis has illustrated this yet again.

In recent months the conversation has, rightly, often focused on traditional territorial defence.

There has been less discussion of the invisible front on which more is happening: cyber.

The security services are clear: members of the public, businesses and government organisations in Europe are the target of large-scale cyber attacks, often originating from China, Russia and Iran.

The potential consequences are enormous.

Networks can be paralysed, the supply of electricity can be interrupted, distribution systems can be disrupted.

Of course we are defending ourselves against this threat, certainly in the Netherlands.

But the threat is growing, especially outside the traditional security domain.

So the EU has only one option: to itself become a world-class cyber power, in close cooperation with NATO.

With all the means necessary to deter and repel attackers.

My third and final point concerns our stance towards the rest of the world.

By ‘our stance’ I mean that of the Netherlands, our partners in the European Union, the US of course, and countries like Canada, Japan, Australia and South Korea.

Fortunately we do not stand alone.

The Ukraine crisis serves as a reminder of the immense importance of our transatlantic relationship.

We depend on this relationship amid the geopolitical power struggle that is currently raging.

But the reality is – and I say this with regret – that many countries are less and less likely to share our world view.

At the UN General Assembly, 141 countries condemned Russia’s invasion.

Good news, you might say.

But look more closely and the picture is decidedly less rosy.

Almost half the world’s population live in countries that do not condemn Russia.

What’s more, most countries do not support the sanctions imposed on Russia.

Often because in the end they see this as a primarily regional, European conflict.

Because our moral appeal based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law does not resonate sufficiently.

And, primarily and more fundamentally, because they think the West pays too little attention to their interests.

They feel that our geopolitical rivals, China and Russia, listen to them and serve their interests better.

This therefore demands a stronger, more assertive diplomatic stance.

Paying greater heed to the interests of our interlocutors.

With a willingness to conclude trade agreements. With a sharper focus on economic developments elsewhere.

And cooperating more actively on cyber threats, climate change and security.

We also need to base the dialogue far more explicitly on a common denominator that links us.

Even the countries that, unfortunately, do not particularly share our take on democracy and the rule of law still often subscribe to the core elements of stability.

Of sovereignty.

Of our mutual interest in international law.

That offers an opportunity to cultivate closer ties and strengthen the system of international agreements and law.

In the end it is a question of far more intensive contacts.  

‘What you give attention to will grow,’ so the saying goes.

We will have to adopt this approach in all regions and in all areas where we have interests.

With more intensive dialogue and cooperation, with both old and new partners in Africa, Asia and South America.

Because just like the large globe you see in this church, the real world needs anchors to maintain its equilibrium.

Our world is shifting and tilting.

So we will reinforce old anchors, and cast new anchors.

With national resolve, readiness to take action as Europe, and global assertiveness.

Now, before I finish I’d like to say a few words specifically to the students in the audience.

Listening to all this, if you keep up with the news, you may think that the list of challenges facing the Netherlands and the wider world is a long one.

But don’t be intimidated by it.

Every generation has major challenges to face anew.

And every generation has found the answers to the major questions of its time.

It will be no different for you.

And as for your years here in Leiden, I’d advise you to try out new things.

Meet new people.

Make the most of it.

And it’s OK if you sometimes fail.

That’s to be expected.

It happened to me time and again.

You learn from the experience, dust yourself down, and carry on.

I hope your time will here in Leiden will be an enjoyable, successful and happy one.

And that one day you will look back at your university days with the same pleasure and gratitude as I do.

Thank you.