Speech by the Prime Minister at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Speech by the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 19 May 2012.

Ambassador Levin, Ms King, ladies and gentlemen,

First of all: it’s good to be back in Chicago. I’ve been here once before, for an ice cream conference held in 2002 by Unilever, my employer at the time. Since then a lot has changed in Chicago and in my career. But two things have remained the same: the curse of the Billy Goat and my love of ice cream. When I first came here I could never have imagined that, one day, I would have the honour of addressing the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. So thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to the discussion we’ll have shortly. But first a few words of introduction.

When I was preparing for today, I recalled something Margaret Thatcher, one of my all-time favourite politicians, once said. ‘Europe will never be like America’, she said. ‘Europe is a product of history. America is a product of philosophy.’ It’s a great quote, one of many that the Iron Lady has to her name. But speaking as a former student of history, I’ve never entirely agreed with her on this point. Of course there are real contrasts between Europe and the United States: economic, political, social and cultural. But it is history, our historical ties, that make our differences minor compared with what we have in common.

Take, for instance, your historical ties with my country, the Netherlands. Here are a few facts. The Pilgrim Fathers found refuge in the Dutch town of Leiden before setting sail for the New World in 1620. New York was originally founded as New Amsterdam, a Dutch trading post. The Netherlands was the first country, 230 years ago, to establish diplomatic relations with the United States. And you can even trace a direct line between the American Declaration of Independence and our own Act of Abjuration. That’s the document that marked the birth of the Dutch Republic, in which the Dutch provinces rejected their Spanish overlord, King Philip II, in 1581. It was the first time a people had ‘deposed’ a monarch in such a way. In that sense ‘our’ King Philip was ‘your’ King George. Of course, there are many more historical connections like this and they also involve other European countries.

But it was only in the twentieth century that those historical ties grew into a unique form of transatlantic solidarity. The First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War that followed, brought America and Europe ever closer together: from a political, military and economic point of view. Right up to the present day. It was and remains an alliance based on a number of fundamental shared values: democracy, freedom, the rule of law and a belief in free market principles. No wonder President Obama speaks of Europe as ‘the cornerstone of our engagement with the world’. I can assure you that for Europe, and certainly for the Dutch government, the reverse is equally true.

But even an alliance built on such strong foundations has to be maintained. We must never take the transatlantic relationship for granted. And that’s the key message I bring with me to Chicago. That it’s vital that the US and Europe continue working on their relationship, to keep it up to date. Because we need you, and you need us. Because in our dealings with other countries we are better off working together than by ourselves. But also because the world around us is changing continuously and changing circumstances demand action. The debt crisis in Europe, America’s economic prospects, the rise of the BRICs, the Arab Spring, the alarming situations in countries like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and, of course, Syria: these developments all impact on each other and on the transatlantic relationship.

This week’s NATO summit in this beautiful city will explore some of these topics. But the transatlantic relationship goes beyond safety and security. There is at least one other dimension that deserves our constant attention. I’m talking, of course, about the economy. These two dimensions reinforce each other. It’s a two-way street. The more we can increase safety and security in the world, the better America and Europe can promote their shared international economic interests – and the more people in other countries will gain access to global markets. So NATO’s strategic military alliance and our transatlantic economic cooperation are directly connected. I’d like to say a few words about each dimension.

First, the economy. Because in spite of all the economic problems we need to solve in our own countries and our own region, we should never forget the importance of the economic relations that exist between America and Europe. Or how dynamic those relations are. Let’s look at the facts: the US and Europe jointly account for about half of global GDP. That’s enormous. The mutual flow of goods and services is worth 2.7 billion dollars every day. This equals 15 million jobs on both sides of the ocean. What’s more, direct investment by America in Europe, and direct investment by Europe in America, greatly outweigh their investment in any other region in the world.

The figures for my own country are no less impressive. The US is the biggest foreign investor in the Netherlands. But, more surprising perhaps, the Netherlands – a country whose economy ranks number 16 in the world, which covers an area only a tenth of California, and which has fewer inhabitants than Florida ¬– is the third biggest investor in the US. Or to put it differently, about 625,000 American jobs are created by Dutch investment in the US and US exports to the Netherlands. That’s more or less the population of Washington, DC.

I could go on. There are many more figures which tell the same story. But I think the point is clear. The question now is: how can we expand our relationship? How can we – by working even closer together – create more high-value jobs and make ourselves more competitive in international markets? These are the questions we should keep in mind as we make our way through the current crisis and beyond. And I’m pleased to say that the American government thinks the same way. When I visited President Obama last November, we quickly agreed that only three topics really mattered: jobs, jobs and more jobs.

That’s why the Netherlands attaches such importance to the joint High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth. The figures I just mentioned make it clear that even a small improvement in transatlantic economic cooperation can have a big positive impact. Greater economic integration, more free trade and the removal of trade barriers can provide an enormous stimulus to our economies. A deep and comprehensive free trade agreement would boost the national incomes of the United States and Europe by many billions of dollars and euros per year. Of course you can’t set up a free trade zone overnight. But there are strong arguments for working step by step towards that goal. And the Netherlands is keen to take those steps.

Improving economic cooperation is also important from another perspective. Both the US and Europe stand to gain by promoting the strong and stable development of the emerging economies in Asia and South America. And we know from experience that  you need more than just good growth figures. A strong economy is built on a strong society. A society in which people have sufficient confidence in the future to invest in themselves by means of education. To buy houses and consumer goods. To save, to start a business, to take part in society. In that sense democratic principles, the free market, human rights and the rule of law have a direct bearing on a country’s prosperity and the welfare of its people.

America and Europe can play a more effective role here by acting together, from a position of strength. Together we are better placed to guide other countries towards stable socioeconomic development. Together we can also do more to shape the development and growth of global trade along free market lines. That sounds idealistic, but we can do it by staying realistic and taking one step at a time. So I’m not calling for the overzealous promotion of democracy and high moral standards. What I am saying is that we should encourage, recognise and also reward steps in the right direction. Like the current US government and the European Union are doing in Myanmar, to give you just one example.

So we need to step up our economic cooperation and we need to join forces in our dealings with third countries. That, in a nutshell, is how I think we should move forward, now that Europe is no longer America’s geopolitical focus of attention. To be fair, our new position does take a bit of getting used to. But I also see it as proof that, in American eyes, the European Union has attained a certain maturity, despite our problems with the euro. And with maturity comes responsibility. There is no reason why Europe should shy away from that. Now Europe is fixing what needs to be fixed in its monetary system and also looks beyond this crisis for new opportunities for growth and jobs. As you may have noticed: that is a work in progress.

Of course, the shift in emphasis in US foreign policy also has a direct influence on developments within NATO, which we’ll be talking about this week. And let me be frank: it’s understandable that the division of costs is being called into question. The outspoken farewell speech delivered by former Defence Secretary Gates in Brussels did not pass unnoticed in Europe. As you know, three quarters of the NATO bill is paid by the United States and a quarter by Europe. At the same time, because of the crisis, defence budgets everywhere are being tightened – also in the US. And we’re facing new kinds of threats, like cyberterrorism, which conventional military means aren’t equipped to deal with. So we’re being squeezed on two fronts: financial and strategic.

Against this backdrop, I’m pleased that NATO and this NATO summit are aiming towards innovation and smart solutions on both fronts. The Netherlands, for example, is a strong advocate of ‘smart defence’. And we aim to be one of the lead nations in this field. By working together even closer, by sharing information better and sooner, we can increase the return on our NATO investment in terms of people and resources. In short, we can get greater value for the same money. The Netherlands has positive experiences  with smart defence that perhaps can be put to use in developing the concept. For instance, since the mid-nineties there has been a Dutch-German army corps and for some time now the Dutch navy has been working closely together with its Belgian counterpart.

As regards the specific role we play in NATO, the Netherlands has a reputation for being a reliable and active partner. And we intend to keep it that way. Within NATO, but also elsewhere. For instance, we were recently delighted to say ‘yes’ when asked to host the next Nuclear Security Summit – an initiative of President Obama which has our firm backing.

At the same time, it’s true that the defence budget has been cut back in my country too for a number of years now. But that has not stopped us, for instance, playing an important role in Afghanistan. Up to the end of 2010 we had a strong military presence of 2,000 personnel in Uruzgan. Now we are helping the Afghans by conducting a police training mission in Kunduz. And looking beyond 2014, it is clear that the need for international involvement will remain. As before, the Netherlands stands ready to make a contribution. A contribution that takes full account of the responsibility and independence of the Afghans themselves. And one in which the ‘Dutch trademark’ will again be recognisable. Because the Netherlands always opts for an integrated approach, in which all elements interconnect. Security and justice, development and enterprise, freedom and responsibility.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, in about 20 minutes we’ve gone from the ice cream business, via history and the economy, to international peace and security. That sounds like a complicated journey, but in the end my message centres on two ideas: dialogue and cooperation. That is what made the transatlantic relationship strong in the past, and that is what can help us move forward in the future. We do have similar interests and a similar cultural background, but I’m not saying that Margaret Thatcher was talking nonsense. She was right that Europe and America will never be perfectly alike. But they are perfectly complementary. Which is even better.

Thank you.