Thanksgiving speech by Verhagen at Fulbright Alumni Association

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you tonight on the occasion of Thanksgiving. I am very much looking forward to the evening’s events, especially the carving of the turkey. Like most men, I like to claim that I'm a master at carving meat – my wife would probably disagree and I must admit she is dead right – so it's a good thing she won’t have to witness my skills tonight.

First, I would like to thank the Netherlands Fulbright Alumni Association for inviting me. Thanksgiving was celebrated in the United States as early as the sixteenth century: historians have recorded Thanksgiving ceremonies that date back to before the Pilgrims of Plymouth celebration in 1621. And in 1863, of course, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday.

In the Netherlands, we don’t have this tradition. That’s a pity, because I see great value in gathering with our loved ones and expressing thanks for all our material and spiritual possessions. Prosperity and well-being should never be taken for granted, which is why it makes sense to take the time to reflect on the world and our position in it. I applaud the Fulbright Alumni Association for bringing the tradition of Thanksgiving to the Netherlands and I am delighted to be able to join in.

I would like to bring some food for thought to the table tonight. I’ll offer some initial ideas on the Netherlands’ – and Europe’s – relationship with the United States, and then I’ll zoom in on our future partnership with the new American administration under President Obama. I’ll set out what I believe are the main challenges we will face in 2009 and beyond, and I’ll throw in some thoughts as to how we can realistically meet those challenges. I hope all that will stimulate your appetite! But first, I’d like to make one or two remarks on the importance of the Fulbright programme.

(Fulbright and the importance of people-to-people contacts)

When Senator James William Fulbright devised the Fulbright Programme in 1947, he said that it ‘aimed to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason and a little more compassion into world affairs.’ Sixty years on, there is a Fulbright Programme in 144 countries worldwide and over a quarter of a million students have taken part. Fulbright is one of the most prestigious awards programmes in the world – in fact, Fulbright has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other academic programme. So it seems I’m speaking to a smart and highly motivated audience tonight!

Senator Fulbright’s remarks are as relevant today as they were sixty years ago. ‘Nations still have not learned to live in peace and friendship’ as Fulbright hoped. There is still a lack of mutual understanding between the peoples of the world. It is true that you can now connect with almost everyone, in every corner of the world, with a few clicks of a mouse. The World Wide Web has greatly facilitated communication and given us unlimited access to information. Travel is much easier now and when we switch on the TV, the whole world seems to be within reach. But in my view, this does not offer the same insight into one another’s motivations and ways of thinking as real life contact with foreign friends. The Fulbright Programme was established to foster mutual understanding between the peoples of the US and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge and skills. It still has a very important function in this day and age.

Take yourselves as examples. I am sure you would agree that your stay in the United States has enhanced your understanding, and I dare say your appreciation, of American society. People-to-people contacts have that effect, especially if they are prolonged and if they take place in a socially stimulating environment, such as a university campus. This kind of exposure to different surroundings does not simply change your mindset; it often changes your whole life. Yes, you have to work hard. And yes, you have to prove your worth. But in return you gain an extremely valuable experience that better prepares you to deal with other people and environments in your professional life. Dutch society as a whole reaps the benefits of these exchanges – the effect is much broader than you might think. This is about more than simply investing in your own personal development.

As far as I am concerned, Fulbright is an extremely successful instrument for promoting mutual understanding while simultaneously advancing academic careers. I would not hesitate to call it an instrument of diplomacy! I certainly hope that we can maintain the number of scholarships, which currently stands at 68 a year – 31 of which are financed by the Dutch and US governments – or, even better, expand it. Private funding is most welcome, of course. I know there will be some important fund raising opportunities in 2009, at the Night of the Stars in the Hague in February and at the Peter Stuyvesant Ball in New York in November. But that doesn’t exempt governments from picking up their share of the tab when it comes to funding ‘excellence’ - it definitely pays off in the long run.

(Transatlantic cooperation: distributing the burdens)

Ladies and gentlemen,

The relationship between the Netherlands and the United States has always been strong. Historically, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights have bound us together. Next year, we will commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the first Dutch sailors landing on the island of Manhattan. I’m pretty sure most of you have read Russell Shorto’s account of Dutch settlers in the New World, The Island at the Centre of the World. If you haven’t, well, that’s my book tip for the holidays!

When I first started out in politics, people often made a distinction between being a ‘European’ or an ‘Atlanticist’. In those days, these were mutually exclusive labels. You were either pro-NATO or pro-Europe. Fortunately, that is all in the past. Today, there is no need to choose between the United States and Europe. Today, the United States and Europe have to stand side by side to help fix the world’s problems. I strongly believe that the US and Europe should serve as a decisive force for good in the world, for we share the same values, and thus, ultimately, we share the same interests. Together, we can get things moving. That’s why transatlantic cooperation remains a cornerstone of Dutch foreign policy.

Amid all the excitement of the US presidential elections, expectation levels have skyrocketed. The ‘change’ President-Elect Barack Obama advocated throughout his campaign has been met with great enthusiasm, not only in the United States but all across the world. I too was impressed by the brilliant campaign he ran, the powerful speeches he made, and the way he managed to engage and unite people across states, across racial lines and across social strata. The night of Obama’s election will go down as a defining moment in history; there can be no doubt about that.

But now that the balloons and flags have been cleared away, we need to look ahead and be realistic, and understand that the ‘change’ so many have embraced cannot possibly come from the United States alone. It seems there is a tendency among people in the Netherlands – many of my fellow politicians included – to sit back and wait for others to bring salvation. These days it seems that few can resist leaning on Obama’s broad shoulders.

I think it is time for a reality check. The challenges Obama faces are enormous, and he will need all the help he can get in order to meet them. Thomas Friedman’s post-election column in the New York Times was designed to sober us up a little. He said, quote: ‘To all those Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, Russians, Iranians, Chinese, Indians, Africans and Latin Americans who are emailing their American friends about their joy at having “America back” now that Obama is in, I just have one thing to say: Show me the money!’ And he continues: ‘Don’t just show me the love. Don’t just give me the smiles. Your love is fickle and it will last about as long as the first Obama airstrike against an Al Qaeda position in Pakistan. No, no, no, show me the money. Show me that you are ready to be Obama stakeholders, not free-riders – stakeholders in what will be expensive and difficult initiatives by the Obama administration to keep the world stable and free at a time when we have fewer resources’ – unquote.

That was quite a long quote, but, ladies and gentlemen, I couldn’t have put it in more convincing terms. Friedman is absolutely right, in two respects. First, Obama may have the most global appeal of any president the US has ever elected, but he remains an American president, who will, first and foremost, protect America’s interests in the world. Obama is likely to make some foreign policy decisions that will strike the wrong chord elsewhere in the world. For many, this will be reason enough to push him off his pedestal. Sooner or later, the honeymoon will come to an end. The second important point Friedman makes is that others will have to do their fair share. And that means Europe too! This became very clear to me when I spoke to Obama’s foreign policy advisers in Washington in June. When the US starts moving in directions that Europe has long considered desirable, Europe will be asked to put its money where its mouth is and take responsibility on its own side of the Atlantic. The United States will expect us to do so, and we must be ready to heed that call. Not to please the US per se, but to serve our own interests. We cannot simply expect the US to take care of what is also our business. If European states do not contribute proportionally to causes we jointly support, the US will soon lose interest in us. NATO will become irrelevant to the Americans if support from their allies is all talk and no action. In this context, I have repeatedly argued for an increase in European defence spending and military cooperation, and for a stronger European Security and Defence Policy. If Europe wants to remain a global actor, it needs to be able to bring hard power to the table. In Afghanistan and elsewhere.

(The challenges we face, the opportunities we should seize)

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the beginning at least, Obama’s presidency will not be easy. As I have said, the US faces enormous challenges. So do we, and so does the rest of the world. To mention only a few: combating climate change and maintaining energy supply security. Fighting international terrorism. Eradicating poverty and disease. Preventing the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction – and specifically the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. And then, of course, there is the financial crisis, which is affecting economies around the world. The decline of the US economy is certain to focus Obama’s attention on domestic issues.

These are serious challenges. But with Obama’s election comes the prospect of working together to resolve the world’s most pressing issues. The President-Elect has indicated that he will seek more international cooperation, and he is more likely than his predecessor to follow a multilateral course. That is an opportunity that should not be missed. I believe that the US and Europe must aim to strengthen the international order together and to do so as a matter of priority. The world needs a credible international system that is based on laws and rules, and in which all states participate, including the emerging powers that often feel underrepresented in the current system. If all states behaved like responsible stakeholders, the world would be a better and safer place. This may not be the reality we live in, but it should always remain the ideal to which we aspire. The reform of the United Nations, including the Security Council, and changes in the management of the international financial institutions should be high on our ‘to do’ list. Without such reforms, the international system risks further damage to its legitimacy. States will turn their backs on it and instead try to protect their interests unilaterally. If that happens, we will all lose. Together the United States and Europe can mobilise the critical mass necessary to make the United Nations system more effective.

Commitment to a rules-based international system means that we must uphold the standards we expect others to uphold. Leadership is a matter of setting the right example. That’s why I hope that one of President Obama’s first actions will be to close down Guantánamo Bay. As I said in Parliament two weeks ago, closing Guantánamo does not mean that terrorists should walk free. Impunity should never be an option. We need to consider ways in which suspected terrorists can be brought to trial, a fair trial, in accordance with prevailing human rights standards.

(Financial crisis)

Ladies and gentlemen,

I don’t want the turkey to get dry, so I will conclude shortly. I would like to close by saying a few words about the current financial climate.

If the global financial crisis has shown us one thing, it is that international cooperation is absolutely essential in today’s world. Globalisation has led to economic interdependence, but this can be to our detriment as well as our benefit. When something goes wrong, we all feel it. And we need to fix it together.

The recent meeting of the G20 was a good example of the kind of reform I mentioned earlier. In Washington, emerging economies were rightly given a place at the table. I fully support better representation, both in the UN Security Council – which still reflects the post-World War Two balance of power – and in the international financial institutions. I hope the US and Europe will be able to initiate such reform; it will mean focusing on the bigger picture instead of our own narrow interests. But equally it must be clear that better representation comes at a price: it also means taking on greater responsibility. With respect to the financial crisis, for example, I hope that emerging economies will use their sovereign wealth funds to help kick some life back into the financial markets and re-energise the global economy. So far, they have been reluctant to do so. We need to reassure them that our economies represent safe and promising investment opportunities.

I believe the outcome of the G20 meeting in Washington was positive insofar as it called for a multilateral approach and rejected protectionism. These are the right signals, and I hope the President-Elect has taken careful note. Adopting protectionist measures to seal off one’s own economy remains a real risk. The G20’s Declaration underscores this in no uncertain terms: we should not turn inward at times of financial uncertainty. I hope that the emerging economies will also take this to heart and that we can successfully conclude the WTO’s Doha Round. It is crucial that we look to the future now, and put short-term interests aside.

I have made exactly the same argument when it comes to state support for suffering businesses in Europe. We should invest in our economies, yes. But not as a means of postponing the downfall of businesses that will not survive anyway. We need adaptability and innovation, and that’s what I believe we should put our money on. Meeting future demands, such as our climate objectives, should be the driver for investing state capital. We can only spend it once, so we’d better spend it wisely.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The financial crisis demanded drastic action – and drastic action is what we have taken. Interventions we could hardly have imagined just six or twelve months ago. I would close by noting that the adaptability we have shown in recent months illustrates the great virtue of democratic societies with open economies: pragmatism always triumphs over dogmatism. The British historian Simon Schama, who has lived and worked in the US for thirty years, said the same thing the other day. He was being interviewed for VPRO’s Tegenlicht about his latest book The American Future – a History and he commented that ‘it is impossible to think of the United States at a dead end. Before you know it, there’s a whole new America in the neighbourhood’. I couldn’t agree more.

To those who believe that this crisis spells the end of capitalism, or even of the West, as some fear and others seem to hope, I would say this: we will weather this storm, as we have done in the past and will do again in the future. We will fix these problems in our tried-and-tested democratic way. The press will report freely; our oversight authorities will investigate; if there has been wrongdoing, our courts will pass judgment; our parliaments will debate and call for inquiries; our citizens will weigh our actions and cast their votes at the next elections. This is the heart and soul of democracy; this is how we work. Democracy, unlike other political systems, thrives on adversity. This crisis will force us to improve our way of doing things and to emerge stronger than before. Bill Clinton once said: ‘There’s nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.’1 I believe that this holds true for the free world as a whole: when we are faced with a challenge we do not run away; challenge is what makes us stronger. Fulbright alumni of all people will recognise the truth of that.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.

1: Clinton was paraphrasing Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said: ‘There is nothing wrong with America that the faith, love of freedom, intelligence and energy of her citizens cannot cure.’