Changing world, constant values: foreign policy in the twenty-first century

Speech by Verhagen at the Opening of the Academic Year, University of Leiden

Professor Van der Heijden, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by apologising for my absence. Much though I would have liked to deliver this speech in person, the schedule of a minister, especially a minister of foreign affairs, is dictated by the burning issues of the day: in this case, the crisis in Georgia, which has prompted an emergency meeting of the European Council. As Secretary-General Ed Kronenburg has already said, I am sorry that my duties prevent me from attending today. I am, however, grateful that modern technology affords us this compromise solution.

Over the summer, when I was considering possible ideas for this speech, my thoughts inevitably drifted back to my own time at Leiden: the introductory period, the tense excitement of any new undertaking, the big move from Maastricht and the new world that awaited me. I threw myself into this new life with abandon.

Last year I helped my daughter move to Leiden, to embark on her own studies here. At first I found myself marvelling at how little had changed. But that’s nonsense, of course. In fact, over the last thirty years, there is almost nothing that hasn’t changed. The university itself, the student body, the townscape that forms the backdrop to student life – everything is different. In the space of a single generation Leiden University has become far more international, just like the rest of the Netherlands, in fact. When I started here, the university trained students to enter the Dutch job market. With a few exceptions, my generation was expected to embark on careers within the Netherlands. Foreign students or professors were a rarity in those days. There was no International Office then: there was simply no need for one. International exchanges were infrequent. Today, of course, the picture is very different. In the 2006/2007 academic year, over 650 Leiden students spent some time abroad. In addition, foreign students are a much more visible presence these days: in 2007, approximately 10% of the student body came from abroad, about 1,750 people out of a total of 17,000.1 And this number is rising.

Students today have greater opportunities than in my day. It is perfectly possible that you will spend some part of your working life abroad. There is a good chance you will end up getting a job with a foreign or international corporation, even if you stay in the Netherlands. You’ve grown up in a world without borders, and your future prospects reflect that. Yet at the same time, competition has become more fierce. When the time comes to apply for jobs, you will be competing not only against one another, but also against recent graduates from abroad, from the rest of Europe, the US, India and China. Globalisation has brought the world closer to home.

1. Globalisation

As a trading nation with a long history, the Netherlands has always had an international orientation. In past centuries, large groups of immigrants made this country their home, and large groups of Dutch people sought their fortunes beyond our nation’s borders. In this sense, globalisation is nothing new to the Netherlands. What is new, however, is the speed, inevitability and totality of the process as we now know it. Never before has commerce been so intensive in its practice and global in its scope. Never before have so many people and so much money crisscrossed the world with such speed or in such numbers. And never before has it been so easy to move the production process to places with cheaper labour, spurred on by shareholders who are always on the lookout for any way to lower costs and increase profit margins. Helping this entire process along has been the radical transformation of communication technology known as the IT revolution.

Globalisation has brought about an unprecedented increase in material prosperity. In 50 years, per capita income in Western Europe and North America has risen fourfold. As a trading nation the Netherlands has profited disproportionately from this growth: in 2007 foreign trade accounted for 82% of our GDP. In Asia the rise in the standard of living was a little longer in coming, but per capita income is growing at more than five per cent a year. At that pace it will double every 14 years! China has the biggest growth figures, followed at some distance by India. This means that the material prosperity of over two billion people has improved dramatically over the last 20 years. If we look around the world, only Africa seems persistently unable to tap into the international economic network and reap the benefits.

A better standard of living has not necessarily made the West any happier, however. In his book De Onvoltooide Globalisering (Unfinished globalisation), the Leuven-based economist Paul de Grauwe explains why that is. Human beings are quick to acclimatise themselves to improved conditions, and we adjust our expectations accordingly. Yet Professor de Grauwe argues that an increase in material prosperity is only possible after a breakdown of familiar activities and existing jobs. Globalisation forces people to be flexible and embrace change, social as well as economic. ‘Globalisation forces us to adjust to a variety of changes, some good, others less so,’ writes De Grauwe. ‘This gives rise to a tension between the material prosperity brought by globalisation and the social disruption it causes.’2

2. Our society

De Grauwe’s theories build on what Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’. The creative process produces prosperity, which we obviously welcome with open arms. The journalist Syp Wynia understood this when he remarked that the Dutch never complain about low prices for increasingly well-made products from Asia.3

Yet that prosperity comes at the expense of familiar patterns and certainties that have been cherished for generations. This is the part of the theory, the ‘destruction’, that people are markedly less enthusiastic about. The world is changing, we are losing our grip on what is near and dear to us, and that makes us insecure and anxious.

Wynia says he never hears people express concern about globalisation, dismissing it as an abstract theme for expensive congresses that never produce any results. This supposed fear of globalisation is, in his view, nothing more than a vague ploy on the part of politicians. I’m almost tempted to say: if only... The risks of unemployment, environmental degradation, climate change, terrorism, rampant speculation, and the loss of identity are all too present in contemporary Dutch society. These are all adverse side effects of globalisation, and they understandably make us feel disoriented. Our parents were sure their children would be better off than themselves. This is sadly no longer the case for the parents of today. They have grave doubts about their children’s future.

It is politicians’ job to devise a response to the negative effects of globalisation. We need to seize the opportunities presented by globalisation while rising to its challenges. That is our mission! There is no point in pretending that we can turn back time. The intensity of globalisation is a fact of life over which we have little control. Some politicians seem to suggest we can step back from the world around us and live our lives in splendid isolation. These politicians have failed to grasp Schumpeter’s theory. They think they can reap the benefits of the creative process without having to bear the burden of change. That is an illusion. If we are to maintain our prosperity, we will have to learn how to adapt to the changes. The world will never go back to the way it was. That doesn’t mean that we should cast out all the good things we have now – I’ll return to this point in a moment. What it does mean is that we have to prepare for a different future and to respond to change intelligently, if we are to safeguard our position and our prosperity. New times make new demands on us. That is the only honest answer a politician can give, and if he is worth his salt, he will act to ensure that the Netherlands is strong enough to meet those new demands. The idea that if we all just retreat behind the dikes, everything will stay the same, is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to share my views on the best ways of serving the Netherlands’ international interests. To start with, I would like to say a bit more about the nature of these new times I just mentioned, to sketch out the context in which our foreign policy takes shape. Then I will explain how that policy is made, and why we make the decisions we do.

3. Foreign policy

The end of history, which Francis Fukuyama predicted in 1992 after the fall of the Berlin Wall,4 has failed to materialise. For a brief moment there was a mood of unbridled optimism. It was expected that the former Soviet republics and the former satellite states would transform themselves into fully fledged, Western-style democracies, with open economies. To some extent these expectations have come to pass: Germany is now united, and most of the former Eastern bloc states have joined the EU, in two enlargement rounds that have done much to redress decades of historical injustice.

However, the conclusion that the end of totalitarianism was at hand and that an age of universal brotherhood was dawning, proved to be dangerously premature. Despite the increased economic interdependence brought on by globalisation, the democratic transformation is far from complete. As the American political commentator Robert Kagan has said, ‘Ideologically, it is a time not of convergence but of divergence.’5 That is the paradox of the age: economically, we are closer than ever before; ideologically, we are still far apart.

I would even go so far as to say that there is a growing moral deficit in the world. I do not use such language idly. These days, we hear more and more about shortages: energy shortages, food shortage, water shortages and so on. The legitimacy of universal values, like justice, equality, solidarity, humanity and liberty, has been called into question by many countries. Some governments apparently do not agree that human rights apply to everyone, at all times and in all places, even though all 192 members of the United Nations have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is an increasingly large (and increasingly loud) countermovement that maintains that human rights are a Western invention. The influential Singaporean opinion-former Kishore Mahbubani has dismissed the emphasis on human rights as ‘ideological triumphalism’.6 I couldn’t disagree more: there is nothing triumphalist about promoting human rights worldwide. It is nothing less than a moral duty to people whose governments prevent them from living their lives in dignity. You rarely see those people slapping away a helping hand from the West. It is their leaders – men like Robert Mugabe – who condemn Western ‘meddling’ in their countries’ internal affairs.

I became Minister of Foreign Affairs to help fight this kind of injustice. To me, human rights are an essential part of foreign policy. Mahbubani says we need to move on from a discussion of values to a discussion of interests, as if these things were mutually exclusive. As I see it, values and interests go hand in hand! It is impossible to imagine a world where the Netherlands would have undergone the same development – a high standard of living, economic and political stability – without embracing and promoting those values. We need to stand up for the cornerstones of our political system: freedom, democracy and human rights. That is what I meant when I said that we shouldn’t cast out all the good things we’ve attained. Indeed, I am deeply committed to defending them.

Until recently, it was hard to believe that in the twenty-first century, two states on the continent of Europe could take up arms against each other from one day to the next. The events of the last several weeks have forced us to revise this view. The situation in Georgia shows that the old reflexes of power politics and spheres of influence are still alive and well. The crisis in Georgia has made clear just how great the disconnect is between old-fashioned power politics, as practised by Russia, and a responsible international system based on law and rules. This emerging situation requires a well-considered response, and that is what we will be discussing this afternoon in Brussels.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In this complex modern world, how can the Netherlands maintain its high standard of living and ensure its security? What tools do we have at our disposal? Are international organisations the way forward, or should we rely on power and alliances? What does the EU have to offer? These questions outline the fundamental challenges facing Dutch foreign policy, challenges that have become all the more pressing in recent weeks.

But let’s start with the basics. The Dutch constitution specifies that foreign policy has two objectives: defending and protecting our own interests – which I take to mean our prosperity and our security – and promoting the development of the international legal order.

These two objectives are complementary. The Netherlands, which is so dependent on foreign trade, has a direct interest in a stable international legal order. This is why we are prepared to deploy our military abroad, in places like Afghanistan. It is also the reason we send aid to developing countries and promote human rights around the world. We are inspired not only by altruistic motives and a sense of solidarity, but also enlightened self-interest: these actions benefit our own prosperity and our own security. Ours is a realistic policy guided by a moral orientation.

To make the world a safer and more equitable place, we need an international order. Over the past 60 years the Netherlands has invested a great deal in multilateral frameworks: after a century and a half of neutrality, the lessons of the Second World War convinced us that we needed that international order for our own protection. That multilateral system, based on legal principles that apply to all people and all nations, is designed to impose order and to prevent or resolve conflict and chaos. It is in our interest that the leading players on the world stage commit themselves to that system and its rules. A world where everyone acted like a responsible stakeholder and worked within international frameworks, would be a better place for all, especially a country like the Netherlands, considering our vulnerability. Accordingly, our policy aims to bind as many countries as possible to the international structure.

However, that international structure is under tremendous pressure; we would be remiss to overlook that. The Americans find the management of the United Nations inadequate. The Asians find it ‘absurd’ that the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF still have to be an American and a European, respectively – and that the 3.5 billion representatives of the world’s fastest growing economies are by definition excluded from those positions.7 India and Brazil no longer accept being denied a permanent seat on the Security Council, which still reflects the balance of power in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. I could go on like this. These are all justifiable criticisms that undermine the legitimacy of our international order, which is widely seen as insufficiently representative. Consequently, countries turn their back on the international system, because they can’t identify with it. This in turn saps overall effectiveness and credibility, since the system is only as strong as the states that comprise it.

When states renounce the system and try to withdraw from agreements they have made, the world becomes less safe and more unstable. Stability depends on order and rules. Because instability is not in the interest of the Netherlands, we must mend the flaws in the international structure. The international structure must be maintained: imperfect though it is, it’s the only platform we have. We must cherish it because it has done us a great deal of good; we must cherish it because there is no acceptable alternative. With the passage of time, the advent of globalisation and the tensions between countries, regions and religions, between North and South and between rich and poor, multilateralism has only become more relevant. The problems facing us today can only be solved with the participation of all stakeholders, i.e. all the countries of the world. This is why it is so important that every stakeholder remain committed to the system. First and foremost, Dutch foreign policy centres on using the international framework to influence the actions of other countries. It is a strategy of cooption, effecting change through cooperation.

To be frank, I’m not necessarily optimistic about the results of those efforts. Take the situation in Iran. That country has blithely ignored numerous Security Council resolutions and continued to enhance its nuclear capacity, despite the many international efforts to persuade Tehran to change its mind. There is also the problem of the Russian and Chinese right of veto in the Security Council, which makes it fiendishly difficult to address problems in places like Darfur and Zimbabwe. In the words of Robert Kagan, ‘To ask one dictatorship to aid in the undermining of another dictatorship is asking a great deal.’8 There is much truth in this observation.

Because I am a realist as well as an idealist, I believe that our focus should be broader than multilateral institutions like the UN alone. We will always do our best to strengthen the international, multilateral system, but we must also look elsewhere.

Ladies and gentlemen,

William of Orange, who gave this university to Leiden, adopted the motto saevis tranquillus in undis: calm in the midst of troubled waters. I take inspiration from that motto: in a changing world, we hold fast to our values.

This motto is also a good description of Dutch foreign policy. Now more than ever, we need to forge strong alliances with countries that share our values. With geopolitical relationships in the world in flux, it is important to strengthen our ties with like-minded parties and work together to achieve shared goals. Once again, this does not mean that we have any intention of abandoning the multilateral system. With our friends in the EU and NATO we can try to reform the international system and make it stronger. In addition to that, we need to step up bilateral cooperation in economic, political and military fields, and in crucial areas like energy supply security. In the past we rarely worked with a country like Australia. It was too far way. Today we stand shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan, defending the security interests of both our countries.

Together with our allies we need to counter the growing moral deficit. Europe and the United States should be the driving force behind a better world. I have always said that it would be a serious mistake for Europe to turn away from the US, however reprehensible Guantánamo Bay, for example, may be. It is far better to point out these kinds of abuses within the bonds of friendship than from the sidelines. Europe needs the US: to address the moral deficit, to work on solving the climate issue and to help safeguard peace in the world. A strong transatlantic relationship directly benefits Dutch interests.

Next year, when NATO celebrates its 60th anniversary, I would be strongly in favour of emphatically rearticulating the alliance’s fundamental values. In these turbulent times it is essential to have an alliance that defends the values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, as stated in the NATO charter.

But we cannot be just a taker in such a relationship, simply counting on America to provide the necessary security guarantees if the need should arise. Here in the Netherlands we tend to keep our eyes fixed on the other side of the Atlantic, to see what changes we can anticipate. This tendency has been especially evident in this election year. Everyone is anxiously looking ahead to the presidential elections, but no one is asking the question: what is our role in the world? How can we contribute to change? Europe must have something to offer too, if the transatlantic relationship is to be an influential and mutually beneficial one. A while back, Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times that Europe is on its way to becoming ‘a giant Switzerland’. Switzerland is certainly a lovely place to visit, but Rachman clearly did not mean this as a compliment. He was arguing that Europe is in danger of becoming irrelevant on the world stage. Nice, but irrelevant.

This is fortunately not yet the case, and we need to do our utmost to ensure that it never is. I agree with President Sarkozy that the EU offers the best protection from the negative effects of globalisation, which I spoke about earlier. Only within the EU can we address the issues that are of the greatest concern to the Dutch; only within the EU can we ensure that we remain competitive. If the internal market functions as it should, we will see a growth in income and employment.

The EU is a necessary condition for the Netherlands to promote its interests in the world. We simply cannot do without it. The EU defines the Netherlands’ place in the world. The European Union exists to defend our values – our model – in a changing world. The voice of the Union is far louder than that of the 27 individual member states, and it is that voice that will be heard on the world stage. For that reason we need to strengthen the EU. That means: more freedom of action and a more recognisable face in the world. This is exactly what the Treaty of Lisbon gives us. We need that Treaty, to achieve our ambitions in the world. So I hope that it can be ratified in the near future. The time for talk is long past; now is the time for action. A return to the negotiating table would be an unfortunate delay.

Within Europe we also need to devise a common energy policy that is acceptable to all parties. The purpose of such a policy is to secure our future energy supplies. This implies that we need to dramatically reduce our external energy dependence. This need for greater independence should be considered in the light of Russia’s recent actions in Georgia. Obviously, Europe, including the Netherlands, has an important energy relationship with Russia. Over the past several years the Netherlands has made a concerted effort to cultivate a broad-based relationship with Russia that recognises the mutual dependence and interests of energy producers and consumers. Gazprom makes two-thirds of its profits in the EU, and thus maintaining a stable relationship is in the best interests of the Russians too. But the events of the last month show that the Russians have other interests as well. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this. In the Netherlands we need to realise that we can’t do everything at once. We cannot condemn Russia’s actions in Georgia without taking heed of this relationship of mutual dependence. This is exactly why we need to stop being so resistant to alternatives to our current external dependence. It is not only climatological concerns but also foreign policy considerations that impel us to focus on ‘indigenous’ energy sources, such as nuclear power or wind parks in the North Sea. With a view to our own future and our own security, we need to diversify. To attain our climate objectives, we have to make ourselves less susceptible to the leverage of other parties. This has become all the more pressing in the light of the past few weeks.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A more forceful role for Europe in the world means investing not in soft power alone, as we have been doing for decades, but also in hard power. In other words, a greater proportion of our common defence should be handled at European level. Political power is not credible if it is not supported by military power. European defence is not only a matter for NATO. We also must invest in our own European Security and Defence Policy, for three reasons. One: Europe must be able to undertake independent action on a military as well as on other fronts. Two: there is considerable demand for military capacity in the world, in places far beyond our borders that pose a direct threat to Dutch security, such as Afghanistan. And three: by ramping up our own capacity, we simultaneously strengthen NATO, as those very same service personnel and materiel can be deployed on behalf of the alliance too. This is important: if European partners refuse to deliver on their commitments, NATO loses its relevance for the US. This has certainly been the Dutch experience. Because we contribute to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, in one of the country’s most volatile provinces, we have an international voice that is heard and respected. Strengthening European defence capacity is good for the EU and good for NATO.

If we truly want to develop European defence capacity, we must be willing to invest more in cooperation and in military capabilities. This is the logical outcome of our desire to bolster Europe’s global political influence. I would like to make that point in connection with the future defense policy review, where we closely examine what we need and what it is going to cost us. We cannot simply go on as before; we need to shift into the next gear. These are not luxuries I’m talking about here, but rather necessary investments in our security. We need to be able to rely on armed forces that can guarantee Dutch security in today’s world – a complicated world, as I hope I have demonstrated. We must take modern-day security risks seriously, and this means taking national defence seriously.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to sum up. The shifting balance of power in the world has put increasing pressure on the post-war, Western-dominated international order. Emerging powers are demanding a bigger role on the world stage. Twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down, very different forces are at work. Our foreign policy must respond to those changes, and any response we devise must be informed by three basic principles. One: we have to continue to invest in international organisations, treaties and agreements, to integrate emerging powers into the international order. Two: we have to invest in partnerships with allies who share our values, so as to stand up together in defence of freedom, democracy and human rights. I’m talking about transatlantic cooperation with our NATO partners. Three: we have to invest in a strong European Union, which remains a significant factor on the world stage. This entails fresh efforts in the area of defence policy. These three principles should guide Dutch foreign policy.

4. The role of universities

Ladies and gentlemen,

The rest of the world is closer than ever before, and so it is up to us to ensure that we feel at home in the world, that we fulfil the demands of the time. The academic world has an important role to play here. Students need the tools that will enable them to cope in an international setting. They will have to find these tools for themselves, though it’s the university’s job to give them something else: the right drive, the right mentality, the right international orientation! Today, at the official opening of the academic year, I would like to give you this message: students must be equipped to chart their own course in today’s world – and more, to chart a course for others to follow. That is your most important task as a university, to ensure that your graduates and researchers can compete with – or even surpass – those in other countries. You must inspire them and give them what they need to excel. It is up to you to set the right example. More and more, the ‘bastion of freedom’ that Leiden University has been since 1575 will have to expand into a network of freedom. A network with a strong international branch. The world will soon be their playing field; it is your responsibility to make sure that it is now yours.

It is crucial for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to maintain good contacts with academic institutions. We depend greatly on the knowledge you have to offer. In exchange, we hope to have something to offer you: experience in the world of international relations, a look behind the scenes of our policymaking apparatus. Before I leave you this afternoon, I would like to make you a more concrete offer. My ministry would like to organise a lecture series at Leiden University this autumn on the various aspects of foreign policy. Our ambassadors and officials would like to engage in a dialogue with you. I’m sure this will produce a lively and enlightening discussion, of benefit to both you and us.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me conclude with the following. Every year, Jiao Tong University in Shanghai publishes a list of the top 100 universities in the world. Obviously, such lists can be arbitrary, but it is important to note that the 2007 edition contained only 34 European universities. And the vast majority of these were confined to the lower reaches of the list: the four European institutions in the top 25 are all in the UK. Two Dutch universities also made it onto the list, and I’m happy to say that Leiden is one of them.

After a summer full of athletic achievement – Euro 2008, the Olympics – it is now up to you to raise our standing in the academic rankings, on the list of the world’s best universities. Your accomplishments benefit our country, and with that in mind, I would like to wish you a successful academic year.

Thank you.

1: Figures are from the university’s International Office.
2: Paul de Grauwe, De onvoltooide globalisering, Amsterdam, 2001: pp. 73, 234.
3: Syp Wynia, ‘Globale dooddoener’, Elsevier, 19 June 2006.
4: Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992).
5: Robert Kagan, ‘End of Dreams, Return of History’, Policy Review, August-September 2007.
6: Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East New York, 2008.
7: Based on statements by Kishore Mahbubani in an interview with the television programme Tegenlicht, which was broadcast on 1 September.
8: Kagan, 2007.