Speech by Verhagen at Radboud University

My standpoint is that partnerships are the way of the future. ‘Cooperation, not isolation’ must be our motto. No one country can manage the cross-border challenges facing us on its own, however powerful it may be. I’m talking about issues like climate change, international terrorism, nuclear disarmament and shortages of necessities like energy, water and food. All these challenges demand collective action. And international cooperation.

Good afternoon!

Thank you for coming. I’m looking forward to an interesting afternoon and a lively debate. To that end, I’d like to propose the following set-up. I’m going to start things off by discussing the way I’ve conducted our foreign policy over the past few years. I’ll begin by sketching out the larger context of our changing world, and then lay out a number of proposals on how I think we should deal with that changing world. Then the floor will be yours.

Need for an active foreign policy

A month ago the free newspaper Metro printed a letter from one of its readers. It’s not long, so I’ll read it out.

Maxime Verhagen shows why populism has won such a huge following. Mr Verhagen says we should maintain our international orientation. But the people, who, after all, should have the final say in a democracy, want us to straighten things out in our own country before turning our focus back to the EU, development cooperation and peace missions. Parties like the Freedom Party (PVV) arise out of dissatisfaction with the present course. Stubbornly sticking to that course only breeds more dissatisfaction, and thus greater support for the populists.

Signed Edward Gebuis, from Leiden. Can I ask for a show of hands? Who here agrees with the letter? Who agrees that we need to fix things at home before looking beyond our borders?

My position is actually the very opposite of what the author of this letter claims it to be: I believe that we can only get things straightened out in our own country if we stay active internationally. If we succeed in creating favourable conditions for ourselves in the world. Conditions that boost our standard of living and benefit the Dutch business community: let’s not forget that 70% of Dutch GNP is earned abroad, through international trade and investments. Conditions that increase our security. Conditions that improve our environment and our health. And conditions that enhance our free way of life. All these things – economic prosperity, security, the environment, health, freedom – are part of a broadly defined Dutch interest, and they are largely determined by events beyond our borders. We can only influence those events if we stay internationally active as a government. This message will be a recurring theme in my speech this afternoon. Defending wider Dutch interests – and this includes the everyday problems of working men and women – requires an internationalist outlook.

Changing world

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world is changing, and if we didn’t know that already, China is there to remind us. We have moved beyond the bipolar mindset of the Cold War. We have moved beyond ‘the end of history’: the period after the fall of the Wall when, for a brief moment, we optimistically assumed that the entire world would come to resemble the West and adopt all our freedoms, from the market economy to human rights. We are now heading towards a multipolar world order, in which various regional powers operate in parallel and where the tone is largely set by the Big Two: the United States and China. The balance of power is shifting, in a markedly eastern direction. When you enter the workforce not long from now, three of the five largest economies in the world will be in Asia: China, India and Japan. This will create opportunities, particularly for an open and internationally oriented country like the Netherlands. But it will also create uncertainty. Because we’re not just talking about economic power blocks: the new powers are also demanding a greater political and military role. And this, too, can be a source of opportunity. China, for example, is currently taking part in international operations to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. But if we’re honest with ourselves, these developments don’t make us entirely comfortable. Because their gain is our loss. If the global seating plan is rearranged, we’ll be crowded over to the edge – we can’t all sit in the middle. But is that necessarily a bad thing? This is not a rhetorical question. Who is bothered by the fact that China is getting a greater say in the world, at the expense of the West? Who thinks that the growing influence of Asia, and emerging powers elsewhere in the world, can also have a negative impact on our country, and not just because they’re poised to outstrip us economically?

My position is that we have to be aware of both the risks and the opportunities presented by new partnerships with emerging powers. We are talking about more authoritarian regimes that take less of an interest in matters that are close to our hearts. Matters like freedom, democracy and human rights. Over the past few years, it has become commonplace in the international sphere for certain parties to deride the universality of human rights. All of a sudden, human rights are made out to be a Western invention that does not apply to other parts of the world. I can get quite worked up about this position, which I take strong issue with. Human rights apply to all people, in all places, at all times. It is one of the reasons I decided, upon taking office, to make human rights one of the cornerstones of my foreign policy. It is also one of the reasons I think the European Union should stand up for human rights in the world. The EU is, among other things, a community of values, and a robust commitment to human rights is one way it should set itself apart from the crowd. This is the great appeal of Europe in other parts of the world, where rights are regularly trampled underfoot. We need to capitalise on this sentiment! This is certainly not the time to be dismantling these values from the inside out. This is also why I’m so strict about applying the accession criteria: only countries that have clearly demonstrated that they understand, embrace and apply the values that form the basis of European integration should be allowed in.

I consider the trial of Radovan Karadžić at the ICTY one of the highlights of recent years. I am sure that the Netherlands’ refusal to just give in and hand Serbia a Stabilisation and Association Agreement on a plate was instrumental in Karadžić’s arrest and extradition to The Hague. And relations between the EU and Serbia will continue to be problematic until Ratko Mladić is also handed over. As far as Turkey is concerned, progress is being made, but the country still has a long way to go before it meets the accession criteria.

It is only to be expected that emerging powers are demanding – and receiving – more political influence. The world’s international institutions have not yet adjusted to this new reality. I think we need to accelerate the reform process within these institutions; otherwise they will become irrelevant as the century wears on. This applies not only to the Security Council, but also to international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. It’s unreasonable to bar Asians from the top jobs at these bodies just because we decided 60 years ago that one would always be led by an American and the other by a European. This thinking is utterly outmoded.

The Netherlands believes that all parties – large countries, emerging powers – should operate via the customary international channels and commit themselves to an international order based on laws and rules. This system provides protection for countries like ours. But these customary channels do have an obligation to keep up with the times. Otherwise we’ll be seeing more pictures like these in the papers. Here we see the presidents of Iran, Turkey and Brazil after announcing their nuclear deal. And what does the caption say? ‘Western leaders not invited to the party.’ This is not in our interest. It’s good that Turkey and Brazil were able to achieve results in Tehran; I’m all in favour of their efforts, but I think it’s safe to say that, during the negotiations, Dutch security interests were not at the forefront of their thoughts. These interests demand that we go a good deal further than what has been agreed in the current deal. What I want are iron-clad guarantees that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon and that the country is complying with existing international norms. And I want those guarantees to come from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and not from President Lula or Prime Minister Erdoğan, however fond I may be of them. Despite the pledges from Ahmadinejad – pledges we’ve heard before, I might add – I think the Security Council is perfectly justified in discussing the possibility of tightening sanctions against Iran. Let’s not forget that Iran is not even close to complying with previous Security Council resolutions and that it still refuses to grant the IAEA access to its nuclear programme. This means that it remains a threat to international peace and security.

Partnerships in the 21st century

Ladies and gentlemen,

So the world is changing. This creates opportunities, but it also fosters uncertainty. In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion Dominique Moïsi writes that the prevailing emotion in Asia is hope, while in the West, it’s fear. This is a telling observation. It looks like some of us see them as the winners of globalisation and ourselves as the losers. This goes some way to explaining our sombre outlook and also the desire to return to the familiar and the comfortable. But retreating behind the dikes will not help. On the contrary, we need to venture out, forge new partnerships, seize opportunities where we find them and take part in the world around us. I said it earlier: to safeguard the Netherlands’ interests, we need to look beyond the dikes. It has become impossible to separate domestic issues from international ones.

What must be done to steer our country through the 21st century, so as to ensure our security and prosperity? Let’s see a show of hands.

A strong Europe: who thinks that the Netherlands stands to benefit?

A solid transatlantic relationship? Any takers?

And finally, a greater investment in relationships with emerging powers, like China, India, Brazil, and also Russia. Who’s in favour of that?

My standpoint is that partnerships are the way of the future. ‘Cooperation, not isolation’ must be our motto. No one country can manage the cross-border challenges facing us on its own, however powerful it may be. I’m talking about issues like climate change, international terrorism, nuclear disarmament and shortages of necessities like energy, water and food. All these challenges demand collective action. And international cooperation.

They also demand an integrated approach. Development cooperation and security policy are no longer independent policy areas. Climate change and energy supply security are intimately linked. Yet we still often see these issues as belonging to separate policy fields, and this compartmentalised thinking is reflected by our conduct in the world, in defence of fragmented interests. This kind of thinking undermines our broader national interest. We fail to achieve maximum effect from our efforts and our euros. We can do better. This is why, in the next government, I’d be like to see a single Minister of International Affairs who can take the lead on this front. The appointment of a single minister would make it easier to see interconnected issues in their full context and to operate with greater coherence on the international stage. It would also give a necessary impetus to the way we formulate our development programme and spend our aid money. A single minister who would be able to shape our foreign policy (including development cooperation) could be the way forward.

Strong Netherlands in a strong Europe

So what partners should we work with to best protect Dutch interests in the world? For me, any answer to this question must begin in Europe. The European Union is the most obvious defender of Dutch interests in the world. Not only in economic terms, though our high standard of living does owe a great deal to the internal market and the euro. The EU has also done much to contribute to our security: war between the member states has become unthinkable, and the accession of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has rectified a historic injustice. The EU is also our best bet politically speaking – if for no other reason than that 27 states can accomplish far more in the world than the Netherlands on its own. The Netherlands alone will never be able to enter into strategic relationships with the major players of the world. But the EU can.

But the European Union is not yet the geopolitical power that its economic weight and moral authority could allow it to be. For this to happen, a number of things must be done – in short order.

We need to put the Greek debt crisis behind us. We’ve had to face up to the fact that there are some flaws in the tapestry of the euro zone. There are some difficult, and expensive, times ahead for the Economic and Monetary Union, but I can’t say it often enough: it’s in our interest to remain in the EMU and to help keep the euro healthy. We earn more from a stable euro. These emergency interventions also show that the European Union can take decisive action when it needs to. When the chips are down, we can achieve unity. It’s now clear to everyone concerned that problems of this kind must be prevented at all cost in the future: by making firmer agreements on public finances and by tightening their enforcement. The wake-up call has sunk in, and the urgency of the situation is clear to all.

We also need to re-energise our economies and get them moving in a sustainable direction. We are now winding up the review of the Lisbon strategy, which will culminate next month in a new strategy, designed to take the EU forward to 2020. This review process has been dominated by the themes of sustainable growth and employment. This is the right focus in these times. Creating scope for innovation and sustainability, so that Europe can stay competitive in the world. This will benefit Dutch entrepreneurs more than most, thanks to the global character of their trade and investment activities. It will also benefit Dutch universities. Our aim is to promote a climate in which we can excel, and to stimulate the knowledge and knowhow we need at a time like this.

The European Union must also hone its powers of persuasion in the world. To achieve this, member states need to be far more united. The Treaty of Lisbon is a fact: we now have to make it work for us. The President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, must truly become the faces and voices of the EU in the world. The new European External Action Service, which is the diplomatic arm of the EU, must be a success. This will require discipline and self-control from all member states. We must recognise that a common external policy enlarges our presence in the world, and this knowledge must outweigh any personal wish to see our own flag waving in every corner of the globe. Only when we agree on a robust common policy can Europe become a significant geopolitical power on the world stage, alongside the United States and China. We should aspire to turn the G2 into the G3. Not as an end in itself, but as a way to increase our influence on international events.

If we do not do this, other actors will run the show, and we will simply have to resign ourselves to whatever happens to be the outcome, whether we like it or not. This is not my choice, though: we need to be part of the mix; indeed, we need to be involved in setting the agenda. This is why I’m fully committed to a strong Europe. This also means investing in defence capabilities, so the world can appeal to the EU in crisis situations – and the EU can deliver. We can’t expect to get a strong Europe at half the price, as the Liberal Party (VVD) suggests in its electoral programme.

Transatlantic relationship

If Europe evolves into a politically significant player, the traditional allies – Europe and the US – will be able to reinforce each other in the world. I remained convinced that together, the US and Europe can make a difference when it comes to many of the challenges facing us. That together, we can be a decisive factor for change in the world, drawing on our shared values. On an issue like climate change (though China and other Asian countries are shouldering their responsibility on that front). But in many other areas, China’s foreign policy is much less active: working to achieve a sustainable peace in the Middle East, for example. Or ensuring that Afghanistan no longer poses a terrorist threat and giving the Afghan people a chance to shape their own futures. I welcome American leadership in the world, and I believe that the Netherlands, and Europe, should make an appropriate contribution to their efforts. Not because I like having my picture taken with Hillary Clinton – as you can see, she always looks better – but because it is in the Netherlands’ interest that Europe remain a strategic partner of the United States. This means not only looking expectantly across the Atlantic for security guarantees; we have something to offer, too – within NATO and outside it.

On that note, I was disappointed that the jubilation that greeted President Obama’s inauguration, here and elsewhere, has not been transformed into active support for his foreign policy. I’ll be frank with you: the Labour Party’s position on Uruzgan was a low point for me. Look at the results. Obama has adopted our strategy. Forty-three of our ISAF partners are either increasing or maintaining their troop numbers. The Netherlands is the only country that did not assent to a request by NATO and the Americans to supply troops for a shorter, more limited mission, with a greater emphasis on training, in the province we know so well. The very place where our integrated approach, on which the current broad-based, international strategy was modelled, first proved its worth. I regard this as deeply short-sighted. I’m not concerned about my personal loss of face, contrary to what some of my critics have maintained. You do not gain influence by shouting from the sidelines. You gain influence by doing your bit and by doing it well. And I’m talking not about influence for its own sake, but about the kind of influence that enables you to fight corruption and promote good governance and human rights. The Netherlands scored extremely well in these areas, and now we’ve cavalierly put that credit on the line. And for what? For a temporary boost in the polls.

The future of our diplomacy

Ladies and gentlemen,

How many of you believe that the best option is to cut defence spending?

And how many think development cooperation?

Where do you stand on Dutch diplomacy? Should the Netherlands close its embassies abroad now that we have conference calls and Facebook?

On average, visitors to RTL’s interactive ‘budget cuts guide’ favour cutting the foreign affairs budget by 17%. Most of that comes at the expense of development cooperation, which in Dutch public opinion seems to have become a major target. As has defence, incidentally, where on average people are calling for a 19% cut.

I believe this would be unwise. In this fast-moving world, in which our domestic interests are so closely bound up with the world beyond our borders, we cannot afford to sacrifice foreign-affairs spending on the altar of balancing the budget. That would be shooting ourselves in the foot. Development assistance is not only a moral duty; we must also consider it in the context of our own national interest. For example, we can use development aid to tackle the mass migration that results from environmental degradation. And the Netherlands’ defence budget enables us to contribute to peace and security around the world, thanks to our well-equipped and highly motivated expeditionary forces. I believe we must continue these efforts. I believe there is a moral component, certainly: it’s about doing the right thing. But here, too, we are also serving our own interest. You may believe that idealism and realism are incompatible. Well, I beg to differ. I have based our country’s foreign policy on both. On using a moral compass to chart a realistic course. The Netherlands thrives best in a stable political climate in which trade and investment can flourish. And that is why we stand up for human rights and oppose protectionism, for example. Next month in Toronto, when the G20 meets again, we will be at the table. Not because we want to feel like big shots, or because we have our heads in the clouds, but because we want to safeguard Dutch jobs. If that’s not realism I don’t know what is.

In the 21st century, diplomacy remains a vital means of doing business out in the world. Of course, we need to refocus our efforts. And indeed we are doing just that, prompted partly by the major round of cutbacks that’s on the way. We are looking at our presence the world. We’re doing so from a geographic perspective – looking at whether our missions in the emerging powers have the resources they need and whether our missions in other parts of the world can make do with a little less – but we’re also looking at our working methods. Are they up with the times? In the old days, diplomacy was aimed purely at relations between governments. But as we all know, the playing field is now much larger. We now not only have companies doing business and building networks around the world, ordinary individuals are doing it too. There are now social networks everywhere we turn. I have no doubt that you are all a part of one or more. And in a sense, that makes you all Dutch ambassadors, too. Social diplomacy and the bonds between groups of people will only grow more important with time. I would encourage you all to expand your network of contacts and find out for yourselves what young people in other parts of the world think. Don’t just read what Western authors write about the rise of China. See it with your own eyes! Why not visit Hanhan’s website, for example, the world’s most popular blogger, with 377 million hits. Or discover how young people in Egypt blog. New media can bring once-distant worlds to your doorstep. You don’t always need to have been to a place yourself to gain valuable insights. The same goes for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which in the future will need to be much more of an open networking organisation. A place whose central focus is on sharing knowledge and information and linking people together. That is the path we are already on, but as we push forward, we will be raising the bar considerably. That said, the traditional business of diplomacy in the 21st century is far from over. Not all of the world’s governments tweet. The only way to connect with some countries is at government level. So it’s pointless for companies to go themselves. Or even to send an email. The foreign service’s physical presence and personal contacts are therefore still vitally important.

That applies not only to the services we provide to the business community but also to serving the interests of Dutch nationals abroad. After the recent air disaster in Libya, we were glad that we have an embassy in Tripoli. This made it possible to give the victims’ families the standard of service they needed, for we knew the place and how to get things done.

So today more than ever, we need a wide global network of foreign missions to properly serve and protect Dutch interests abroad. That is my answer to those of you who just voted for closing our embassies’ doors.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If I am to believe the author of that letter in the Metro, my comments today probably play right into the hands of Dutch populists. Still, I won’t be changing my message, for I simply don’t agree with Mr Gebuis. I know that an active foreign policy is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. I have spent the past three years as foreign minister trying to shape such a policy. And now I would be very interested to hear what you think of it.

Thank you.