Speech by Verhagen at the CDA Conference on ‘The Future of Transatlantic Relations’

Speech by foreign minister Maxime Verhagen at the CDA Conference on ‘The Future of Transatlantic Relations’, The Hague, 27 January 2010

“The Netherlands, Europe and Transatlantic Relations”

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by saying that I greatly regret having to speak to you from a screen today. I would have preferred to be with you in person, but that wasn’t feasible. Ahead of the London conference on Afghanistan tomorrow I am attending a meeting today on Yemen, with a special focus on counterterrorism. It was a meeting I could not afford to miss. I hope that you will understand, and that a ‘big-screen Maxime’ will suffice.

The transatlantic relationship is a favourite topic of debate, as we have seen in recent weeks and again today within our own party. What is the Netherlands’ stance towards the United States? Some view it in terms of an unquestioning loyalty; an automatic response. A reflex, even.

I believe it’s more complicated than that. The Netherlands thinks for itself. It assesses every partnership and every request for support on its merits. That includes its partnership with and support for the United States. Yes, we work willingly and frequently with the US around the world. We work for economic growth, security, and welfare. Sometimes we don’t agree with one another, and then we express our criticism clearly. Take Guantánamo Bay, or the International Criminal Court: it is quite clear that the Netherlands has its own position on these issues and that we are trying to win over the Americans to our point of view. At the same time, there are also many, many areas in which the Netherlands and the United States agree entirely. This is no coincidence. Ours is an alliance based on shared values, and those values give us shared interests throughout the world. It is an alliance that is good for the Netherlands. And that is what I want to talk to you about today.

The global balance of power is changing fast. We are moving towards a system with various global and regional powers operating side by side. The relationship between the United States and China will be central to this arrangement. In Copenhagen we got a foretaste of this new dynamic. This new multipolar order, led by the G2, will largely determine the shape of the future. That means the Netherlands’ future, too. There is no escaping the fact: the Netherlands is shrinking in importance. As the new players take their places at the centre of the table, our country has no choice but to move over and make room.

In the 21st century it will be a major challenge to cling on to what we in the West hold most dear. Emerging powers think differently than we do about fundamental principles like freedom, democracy and human rights. They don’t share our understanding of ‘responsible sovereignty’. Yet these powers, and China especially, are demanding a bigger role. And it is logical that they should have it. After all, we will be badly in need of their input when it comes to solving global problems like the financial and economic crisis and climate change. We need them on board. In fact, we need them to take their share of responsibility and show leadership. Increasingly, the international stage will be dominated by the newcomers. The result may be that the international order evolves in a direction we dislike. That is not in the Netherlands’ interest. On the contrary, as an open trading nation we rely on strong international institutions setting ground rules that all players are willing to abide by.

It is in precisely such an uncertain world – one in which new powers with different traditions occupy an increasingly important position – that it makes sense to my mind to seek out partners that aspire to the same values as we do. Not to the exclusion of others. Of course not. In the future, both the Netherlands and the European Union will have to invest far more than they have in the past in their relations with the countries that will shape tomorrow’s world: China, India, Brazil, Russia. The world is bigger than our traditional circle of partners. We need to adapt Dutch foreign policy accordingly.

But that is not to say that we should neglect our old friends and allies – let alone turn our backs on them. Shared values are also the root of shared interests. For the Netherlands, the community of values known as the European Union is of paramount importance. In addition, the US remains a strategic ally of both the Netherlands and the EU. Why? Because we have a clear interest in the United States’ playing a leading role globally. We share the same world view. We stand side by side in promoting freedom and democracy. We are all working for worldwide economic growth, security and justice. We are all striving for open markets and free trade. We’re trying to create innovative solutions that bring us closer to a sustainable future. And we have shared the same values since 1609: just last year, the Netherlands marked 400 years of New York-Dutch relations with a major series of commemorative events.

I would stress at this point, incidentally, that there is no need whatsoever for us to choose between Europe and the US. I have been saying the same thing ever since I became foreign minister: the question of whether one is Europe- or Atlantic-oriented is obsolete. It is not even a theoretical discussion any more. How can the transatlantic alliance take precedence over the Netherlands’ involvement with Europe? The Netherlands is Europe! The Netherlands can’t do without the EU. A strong EU is clearly in the Netherlands’ best interest: how else are we to exert our influence in the world? I’ve seen nothing to support reports that Europhiles at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were heartened by the Davids Commission’s report on Iraq because it meant the ‘Atlantic reflex’ would finally be broken. We don’t have such short-sighted people at the Ministry, I can assure you. It isn’t a matter of one or the other. It has always been – and under my leadership will remain – one and the other.

The European Union is not yet the geopolitical force it has the potential to be, given its economic weight and moral reach as a community of values. It is in our interest to ensure that the EU joins China and the United States as a major player on the international stage. We must aim to turn the G2 into the G3. Achieving this will help balance the relationship between the two great powers. And we ourselves will find it easier to put our own stamp on global developments.

But this requires that EU member states commit to stronger ­­– joint – external action. The Lisbon Treaty is in place. Now we must make sure that it starts working for us. We must ensure that the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, can indeed be the face of the EU in the wider world. That they can indeed speak for all member states with one voice. And that the EU’s new diplomatic service, the European External Action Service, is a success. To achieve all this, member states must exercise restraint and get behind the banner of the EU, instead of always wanting to see their own flags flying. It might sound as if by doing this we risk becoming invisible, but the opposite is true: by speaking with one voice we will increase our relative weight. In Copenhagen we saw that the US and China are not going to sit and wait until the EU member states have finished their deliberations. By debating endlessly, we are missing the boat. The EU needs to be far more coherent in communicating with the world. Only then will we be taken seriously. Take energy, for example. If we want to have any impact in Moscow or Beijing, we will need to stand behind a common policy. That is something we need to work on. Coherence also implies, to my mind, that we must ultimately aim towards a single European seat in the Security Council and towards systematic European representation in the G20.

The EU cannot simply be a debating society. In the future, member states will also need to deliver, even militarily, even if that means investing in and deploying defence capabilities. Only then can we implement a true European Security and Defence Policy. Only then can the EU become a real force. Increasingly, we will have to go through Brussels to get to Washington. But that is no bad thing. Because this is the only way the EU will remain a strategically interesting partner for the US. Because a strong Europe is in the interest of the United States, too. If we are unable to maintain our place in the global power league, the US will lose interest in our continent. They will seek out new players and the game will be played elsewhere. And if the outcome is not to our liking, there won’t be much we can do about it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

President Obama has now been in office for a year. The initial euphoria seems to be turning to disillusionment. His domestic approval ratings are falling steadily. Not that I attach much importance to such ratings. If I did, I would be gloomy about the future of our own party, which I most certainly am not. But the fact that Senator Ted Kennedy’s old seat went to the Republicans last week says a lot. The party’s over. At international level, too, enthusiasm seems to be waning for a president who only last December was collecting the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m not surprised by this change in mood. The problems facing America – the problems facing the world – are enormous. And the level of expectation surrounding President Obama was sky high. If you set the bar that high, it becomes extremely difficult to satisfy everyone, let alone to do so in the space of a year. I have always said how much I admire Obama’s agenda. I especially welcome the way he has reached out to the world. But he is going to need all the help he can get. He can’t do it alone. In today’s world, no one can. We will need to deliver, too. To help. To work with the US towards a better world. Because what Obama wants to achieve, in Afghanistan for example, is also in our interest. Is that a transatlantic reflex?

Of course not. That is standing up for shared values. It is showing solidarity with Afghan women and girls, and working to help them regain a life of dignity and respect for their rights. It is fostering security and stability so that terrorists are prevented from building up networks. Networks that could one day be used to attack us. It is taking our responsibility as an ally seriously; not abandoning our partners, but affirming that we’re in this together. It is working with our partners for a better world. Not because it is a reflex, but because we believe it is right. And because if we participate in the world around us, people listen to what we have to say. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, I can tell you: if you’re standing on the sidelines, fine speeches won’t get you very far. Being on the sidelines is not in the interest of the Netherlands and its people.

In Afghanistan the international community is working under the NATO flag (though in fact the coalition is broader) for global security. That includes our security. And we are working in an integrated way, which in my view is the only way to work. In a recent article, journalist Ben Knapen called the mission a ‘hotchpotch’. 1 Well I say, what’s wrong with a healthy and nutritious stew? Yes, it requires different ingredients to be blended together. But can anyone think of a more effective recipe?

There are also other places in the world where we need the Americans to maintain their involvement. To take the driving seat, even. Take the Middle East. It’s hard to imagine Israel and the Palestinians reaching a deal without American involvement. We shouldn’t expect anything from the new superpower in this regard, however. China’s foreign policy is dictated far more by economic motives. It will not willingly get involved in someone else’s fight.

And then there are those places closer to home, where together Europe and the United States can make a difference: the Balkans, for example. Bosnia continues to stagnate and Kosovo remains fragile. But above all, the way the US shapes its relations with Russia is of vital importance to Europe. Time and again, Russia has shown that it does not appreciate Western interference in what it sees as its ‘sphere of influence’: Ukraine and the Caucasus, for example. It is in Europe’s interest that the countries of this region grow into open societies, where the rule of law prevails and with which good economic ties can be established. These are the kinds of societies we want on Europe’s doorstep – not hotbeds of instability. We don’t want confrontation with Russia, but nor should we bow to Russia’s claim on these countries. We must stay in close contact with the US on this issue. We must stress to the Americans the importance of maintaining its ‘reset’ policy of trying to engage positively with Russia. And of giving Europe a little help – a lot of help, in fact – in facilitating reforms in the countries that border on Russia, so that they are facing in our direction as they develop. This approach will truly serve European – and Dutch – interests. But once again, we will need US help.

We often tend to reduce the transatlantic relationship to security issues and military cooperation. That is a mistake, but not one you have made today. You have had detailed discussions on economic opportunities, climate and energy, and people-to-people contacts. I’m glad to see it, too, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes the same approach towards our friends on the other side of the pond. We envisage a broad partnership. One that – particularly at bilateral level – presents countless opportunities. In 2010, our consulates and our embassy in Washington will be focused on economic diplomacy aimed at sustainable economic recovery. I see a number of clear opportunities for the Netherlands here: in clean technologies, water management, climate adaptation, and in the creative sector, in architecture and design. We should seize with both hands the opportunities that exist for Dutch companies in the American market. So that our societies can forge an even closer bond than they already share.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama spoke about what is needed to bring peace to the world. He spoke of agreements between nations. The importance of strong institutions. Respect for human rights. Investment in development. But as he made clear, we need something more: ‘the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share’. 2 I attach the same importance to that ambition: to be guided by a moral compass, and to make the world a better place by offering the prospect of human dignity for all. I believe that together the United States and Europe can be a decisive power for good in the world. And I am committed to helping bring this about. This is not the result of a reflex, but of reflection. Because it will benefit both the Netherlands and the world.

Thank you.

1 Ben Knapen, ‘Hutspot in Afghanistan’, NRC Handelsblad, 20 January 2010
2 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-acceptance-nobel-peace-prize