Speech by Minister Stef Blok at the Heritage Foundation webinar

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok at the Heritage Foundation webinar, Tuesday 15 September 2020.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m delighted to be speaking to you today. I’d like to thank the Heritage Foundation for allowing me the opportunity.

I’m speaking to you from far away, of course, but thankfully in the knowledge that distance is only a relative concept.

Even though there is an immense ocean between our continents, this video connection shows once more that such distances are easily bridged.

I’d like to share my thoughts with you on the relationship between the US, the Netherlands and Europe.

I’ll get right to the point: 

‘Preserving a successful transatlantic community is a vital U.S. interest.’

This statement is not my own. Although I would certainly subscribe to it.

Perhaps it rings a bell.

That’s because it comes from the report co-authored by you, Nile Gardiner.

‘How and Why American Conservatives Must Fight for the Future of the Transatlantic Community’.

A fascinating report. And I’m not just saying that because its title reflects my own view of the world and its future.

I’m saying it because the report reflects the unique, strong, and durable relationship we have. Your country and mine. And in a broader sense: your country and Europe. 

A relationship in which it’s not a problem if we disagree from time to time. Because when all is said and done, we always manage to find common ground. Because we’ve known each other for so long and been through so much together. We are friends who share the same values.

That relationship is acknowledged in the report, which says:

‘Conservatives believe in inalienable individual rights. […] This belief draws on a common legacy from within the transatlantic community, a heritage that helped forge America’s conceptions of itself.’

And that long-standing relationship is described superbly in this report. Some of its conclusions I agree with; others I don’t at all. And that’s fine. Because I endorse its main message one hundred per cent.

We have been friends from the beginning, and at this crucial time we need each other badly once again. 

I’m not the kind of person who wants to get bogged down in the past. That’s not my nature. But I am aware of how our legacy, our heritage, influences our decisions today, and how we can learn from it and use it to our advantage. 

And I’m not just talking about our common legacy, although I will come back to that later. 

I’m also referring to lessons learned on a personal level. The legacy of experiences that you build up and carry with you in your life.

I have a background in quantifiable results, as a former manager at the Dutch bank ABN AMRO and from my time as housing minister.

Whether it was a business strategy or measures for the housing market, the goals were always specific, and the results measurable and explainable.

That background has shaped my approach as Minister of Foreign Affairs. In international affairs it is crucial to make clear what the benefits are. And that can be difficult, as it is not always immediately evident what is going well, but the shortcomings are often crystal clear. 

And that brings me to a number of examples that will be on your radar too:

Russia is increasingly violating rules and norms as it tries to expand its influence in the direction of Europe. And it is trying to sow discord in the EU and NATO by playing power games and interfering in democratic processes. The shocking poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is the latest example of Russian violations of international norms.

And then there is China, which portrays itself as a champion of multilateralism and international cooperation, but doesn’t always see these things from the same perspective as you and I.

It may want global governance – but not in its backyard.

China was happy to become a member of the World Trade Organization, but since then it has opened up its markets only to a limited degree.

But the key issues do not revolve around individual countries or issues. The heart of the matter is the challenges we both face at the moment. The multilateral system and the rules-based international order are under pressure, and that has consequences.

It leads to stagnation and frustration.

The world has become less safe. This is a direct result of violations of disarmament agreements. And in this new world, ‘might’ is increasingly ‘right’.

What may be the worst of all is that horrific crimes about which we once said ‘never again’ suddenly seem possible again.

Because countries are flouting the rules. And as a result, for instance, the use of poison gas is no longer a universal taboo.

So we share the same frustrations:

About the fact that international trade rules are no longer working properly, or cannot be enforced.

About a lack of transparency in international public health cooperation.

About the unfair distribution of leadership positions at international organisations.

If something isn’t working properly, there seems to be only one solution nowadays: pull the plug on it.

But I am convinced that that is not the path we should be taking.

Withdrawing puts you on the outside looking in. With no say on how to solve the problems we all face. In terms of quantifiable results: the yield is zero.

So international cooperation benefits us all, including the US, even if at first glance you might not think so.

That is not just a catchphrase. Studies have proven it. With quantifiable results.  

For example, the Rand Corporation’s 2018 research report on the costs and benefits of multilateral organisations for the United States. Allow me to mention the report’s five conclusions:

the post-war order offers significant value to U.S. interests and objectives; specifically in quantifiable and return-on-investment terms;

the order contributes to outcomes with measurable value and appears to have a strongly positive cost-benefit calculus;

the post-war order represents a leading U.S. competitive advantage;

if the United States wants to continue to lead globally, some form of order is vital; and

a functioning multilateral order will be essential to deal with emerging security and economic issues. 

These conclusions are underpinned by figures.

The annual costs of the United States’ global role are estimated at 116 to 216 billion dollars. This includes contributions to international organisations, the diplomatic budget and foreign assistance. The economic benefits are significant. Post-war tariff reductions led to a 2 to 5 per cent difference in GDP growth rate, and more than 300,000 extra jobs.

And the report cites more figures: in the post-war era, global per capita GDP has increased from 2,000 to over 10,000 dollars. But in the US it grew from 15,000 to over 50,000 dollars. This jump can be attributed to many factors, but it would never have happened without the institutions, rules and norms that make up our world order.

And then there is US participation in security alliances, which generates 490 billion dollars a year in GDP.

The report also discusses how a weakened multilateral order could, in a crisis, come at a price that would vastly overshadow the cost of the US contribution to international organisations, such as UN dues and IMF contributions.

I could go on.

These figures show that it is worth every dime to maintain and reform the system we have built since World War Two.

We need that system.

That is not a conservative opinion. Nor a liberal one.

It’s common sense, backed up by research.

And in that system, we need each other. Europe and America. The Netherlands and America.

Because we share the same democratic values. Our heritage.

Because we have similar views on what fair trade means.

And especially because our shared values and views are facing stiff competition on the world stage.

It is our open model versus the closed model that some other countries have. Which allows them to profit from our open economies while limiting access to their own markets.

Our democratic model, which cherishes values like freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, also contrasts with autocratic systems. These autocratic systems, which do not embrace the same values, are being presented as an alternative to ours.

For many years, we could take our way of life and our values for granted. No longer. So now we need to join forces. So that future generations can continue to say, this is our heritage, this is what we stand for and what binds us together.

Our strength lies in unity. And this, too, is more than a catchphrase.

You can measure the value of our combined strength in numbers.

Together, the European Union and the United States account for almost half of global GDP.

Our lively transatlantic trade amounts to no less than 1.3 trillion dollars a year.

The US has three times as much investment in the EU as in all of Asia. And EU investment in the US is eight times higher than our combined investments in India and China.

Not to mention our combined 800 million people, who share the same values.

The Netherlands may only be a dot on the world map, but we’re among the top five investors in the US. More than 800 Dutch companies do business in your country. Our trade and investments generate 825,000 US jobs. And if it’s up to us, this will grow to be one million jobs. Moreover, the Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter – second only to the US.

Today, the coronavirus crisis is showing precisely how advantageous our relationship is for us both.

We are helping each other ensure the safety of our peoples. For example, many American and Dutch cruise ship tourists were safely brought ashore and taken home, when these luxury liners turned into floating prisons.

We are helping each other limit the damage to our economies. And miracle of miracles, we’ve succeeded in keeping the disruption to our trade flows to a minimum.

And we are helping each other ensure a better future. By searching for solutions to this pandemic, which is still afflicting us.

For example, we’re working together on developing vaccines. The US government and Johnson & Johnson have jointly invested a billion dollars in vaccine development. Almost half of this money is going to Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Jansen, which is based in Leiden, the Netherlands.

We’ve been friends from the beginning, and now we’re helping each other at this crucial ‘zero hour’.

This moment is crucial, because corona is proving a catalyst in some key trends.

Because we are seeing an explosive increase in disinformation.

Because facemasks are being used as tools of public diplomacy.

And because our dependence on other countries for strategic goods is becoming painfully clear.

So now is the time to engage jointly in dialogue with like-minded countries to preserve our open economies. And now is the time to work together to safeguard our interests and defend our positions.

The more we work together, the sooner our closely linked economies will recover from this crisis. The more we work together, the more we can set the tone for health standards and consumer safety. So we can shape a world we believe in and benefit from.

A coordinated response will be much more effective in imposing and enforcing strict rules.

But this calls for leadership. From the US and from a united Europe. Together, as equal partners. This is the only way we can safeguard our economic and other interests.

And differences of opinion come with the territory. Sometimes we have major disagreements and emotions run high. As long as we keep our shared interests and values in mind, we should be able to overcome our differences.

For example, the Netherlands does not support US extraterritorial sanctions that affect European companies. Sanctions like these divide transatlantic partners instead of uniting them. And countries like Russia only benefit from them.

But trade is not our only shared interest; we also have a common future when it comes to security.

We, the US and the Netherlands, are prepared to defend ourselves together with our 28 other NATO Allies, as a united force. After all, a secure Europe is a vital American interest. Because Europe is an island of stability in an unstable world.

When it comes to security, unity pays dividends.

We demonstrated this when we jointly sent Russia a forceful political message in 2014. When we jointly imposed sanctions against Russian entities in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Experience has also made clear that divisions between us are not helpful. Every time we pull back from international commitments, Russia and China take a step forward. Every withdrawal from an international agreement moves us further away from the free, fair, and democratic world we want. Leaving international organisations gives Russia, China and others more opportunities to expand their influence and manoeuvring room and increase their control over those organisations. It also gives them a chance to promote their preferred narrative, that of a divided West.

So in this respect too, we need to act in a united way to ensure a stronger world order. Based on the treaty structure we built after World War Two – so as to ensure that a third world war, which would bring total destruction, would never take place.

In this connection, I’d like to compliment the US on the first round of talks you just had with Russia on the New START Treaty. We fully support the American call to involve China in the process as well. I recently discussed this with the Chinese. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The same lesson applies here that I mentioned earlier: if the US pulls back, other countries will push forward. That makes the world’s foundations even shakier.

It’s clear to me that our analyses of today’s global problems overlap considerably.

However, sharing a well thought-out analysis will not in itself solve our problems. Unity in action will. As equal partners. We need to act in concert and enhance our strategic resilience. That’s the only way for us to hold onto our economic head start.

We also have to be tough in tackling unfair competition and government subsidies, and enforce a level economic playing field.

We have to stand firm for democracy and human rights in the world.

And we have to preserve what we’ve worked together to build.

When countries try to undermine international partnerships from within, we need to work from within to make organisations like the UN stronger.

Reforms are hard, but they are possible. We saw this last year, when, at an Extraordinary Congress of the Universal Postal Union, we managed to reach a compromise on the system of remuneration rates. The rates are still lopsided, but they can only be fixed by working from within. Together with the US.

After all, you can only make changes from within, not from the bleachers.

A baseball player who quits his team because he doesn’t like the way his teammates are playing is just going to sit there helplessly, grinding his teeth.

And if he decides to start a new league, his chances of success are going to be slim, since hardly anyone is likely to join him.

I agree with Babe Ruth: ‘The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime.’

That is my message to you today:

Let’s play ball. From both sides of the Atlantic. Together.

Thank you.