Behind the scenes at the Dutch embassy in Washington DC: ‘It’s a smaller version of The Hague’
The Netherlands has about 150 diplomatic missions around the world, from large to small. This time we take a look behind the scenes at one of its biggest embassies outside the borders of the Kingdom: the one in Washington DC, the capital of the United States.
With around 100 employees, the embassy in Washington is one of the Netherlands’ most important diplomatic missions. And because the Netherlands and the US have such close ties in so many areas, it’s important that our presence in that country’s capital is as broad as possible. Besides the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, virtually every other Dutch ministry is represented in Washington too.
André van Wiggen, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
To help maintain those close ties between the Netherlands and the US, it’s essential to have staff on the spot with strong political antennae. After all, the better our two countries understand each other, the more advantageous it is for everyone, from individuals to businesses. Not far from the office of the ambassador, Birgitta Tazelaar, is the political affairs section where André van Wiggen and his team work to keep colleagues in The Hague abreast of political developments in the US and vice versa. He explains, ‘We’re a big section that includes several diplomats from BZ. We also have a congressional liaison officer who serves as a link to the US Congress.’ Each member of staff plays an important role, says André. ‘Our job is to report back to the Netherlands on what happens here, as well as to make the situation in The Hague comprehensible for policymakers in the US. We do that for a range of issues: for instance, what the war in Ukraine means for the US, as well as things like economic security and climate-related challenges.’
The political affairs section works on these topics in close collaboration with the other ministries represented at the embassy. André comments, ‘Sometimes I say we’re a smaller version of The Hague here. One example is global healthcare, an area where we work closely with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. The Ministry of Justice and Security and the Dutch police both have an attaché here too, and we meet with them regularly due to the interfaces between their work and ours.’ And that’s what makes working at an embassy so challenging, he says. ‘Together with all the other ministries, you’re in the US as the standard bearer of the Netherlands. That’s a big job.’
Sebo Hofkamp, Ministry of Defence
The Ministry of Defence is a key sparring partner for the political staff at the embassy. Attaché Sebo Hofkamp heads a team of 18 people there. Another 220 military personnel from all branches of the armed forces represent Defence at locations across the US, which is logical given the Netherlands’ military interests in the country. ‘To start with, the US is the Netherlands’ strongest military ally,’ Sebo explains. ‘Dutch units come here for training and to study and we buy a lot of equipment from the US.'
As the Defence attaché, Sebo liaises intensively with colleagues from the political affairs section. ‘We’re in touch with them on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day. It’s like this: we’re in contact with the Pentagon, the US ministry of defence. And our political colleagues interact with the State Department, which is the US foreign ministry and therefore BZ’s counterpart. These two organisations are inextricably intertwined. For instance, look at recent discussions on whether to deliver F16s to Ukraine – a conversation the US also has a voice in. Ultimately, that’s a political choice. So we really do need each other.’
Sebo feels privileged to work at the embassy, he says. ‘Anybody who opts to work abroad, in the US in my case, is to some extent looking for adventure. With the dynamic situation of all those ministries working together and the nature of the work itself, each day brings something different.’
Lieske Streefkerk-Arts, Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management
One floor down from the political affairs section is the office of Lieske Streefkerk-Arts, who represents the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management in Washington. She and her colleagues work on issues that are seen as compelling in both the Netherlands and the US. ‘Topics such as climate change adaptation and water, mobility and transportation and the circular economy are top priorities here, just as they are in the Netherlands,’ she says. ‘On behalf of our ministry, we work with the Americans on developing policy and exchanging knowledge. And that’s good for Dutch business.’
‘Cycling is another example,’ she continues. ‘Our infrastructure in the Netherlands is perfect for cycling, and people here are eager to learn about it. We facilitate that by taking people from various US regions to the Netherlands on study visits. We’ve been working with some of them for years. In Austin, Texas for example, there’s a bike path that looks exactly like one you’d see in the Netherlands.’
Lieske speaks to colleagues at the embassy frequently in the course of her day-to-day work, she says. ‘A lot of themes are priority areas for more than one ministry. The Netherlands’ climate-related ambitions, for example: this is obviously a major topic for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, but there’s also a lot of overlap with our main issues. And being here together in the same building and knowing exactly who’s doing what means we can quickly bring each other up to speed and work on things together.’
Taake Manning, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy / Innovation Counsellor
Not far away is Taake Manning. On behalf of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy’s Innovation Network, he works to secure the Netherlands’ future earning power. ‘The idea for the Innovation Network arose from the Marshall Plan, after World War II,’ he says. ‘Not only did the Netherlands need to literally reconstruct buildings, we also needed knowledge of technological developments to stimulate the economy. That’s why my predecessors were sent to the US all those years ago.’
Circumstances are much different today, he says. ‘The Netherlands has a lot of influence around the world when it comes to innovation in the broadest sense of the word, and that has put us on an equal footing with the US in this area. Using our entire network – which consists of the embassy here in Washington and offices in Boston, San Francisco and Toronto, Canada – we do our best to maintain the Netherlands’ standing when it comes to innovation, and even improve it where we can.’ Many ambitious colleagues work hard on this every day, he says. ‘The regions where we’re active are enormous hotbeds of innovation, technology and science. Boston, for example, with all its prestigious universities, has a huge concentration of talent, capital and infrastructure. So we’re trying to build our network there. Ensuring that we stay at the front of the pack: that’s what it’s all about.’
Lisette Hurkmans-Berkers, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Washington embassy’s focus naturally also includes Dutch nationals living and holidaying in the US. A consular desk is available five days a week to serve them. Lisette Hurkmans-Berkers is the embassy’s operational manager, which means she also heads the consular section. ‘When people think of consular affairs they mainly think of passport and visa applications,’ she explains. ‘Those are increasingly processed by external parties in cooperation with our consular headquarters in The Hague, however. In that respect, the nature of our consular work has changed.’
But the consular section is as busy as ever, says Lisette. ‘Consular staff are mainly here to help Dutch nationals who get into difficulties. They range from tourists who run into various kinds of problems to people who have been jailed here. We want and have to make sure we’re here when people need us.’
Consular work is about people, Lisette adds. ‘The travel document application process may happen online, but we still see those people in our office. Applying for a document can be a nerve-wracking experience, for example when someone’s in a hurry to catch a flight. So it’s important to give them the right information and to deal with their applications carefully.’