Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, at the Sydney Institute

Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, at the Sydney Institute, 20 January 2009

Australia, the Netherlands and the world: joining forces to make the world a better, safer place

Ladies and gentlemen,


Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be here and I would like to thank you all for coming. A special word of thanks to Gerard Henderson, Executive Director of the Sydney Institute, for hosting today’s event and for all his help in the preparations. I realise that you should all be out enjoying your summer holidays, so I am all the more pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you here today.

In the Netherlands, over New Year, many Dutch people got their ice skates out. With weeks of sub-zero temperatures, we were delighted - for the first time in over a decade - to get reacquainted with our national pastime of skating on the country’s network of lakes and canals.

Meanwhile, down under, here you are celebrating summer. Surfing instead of skating. Suntanned instead of frostbitten. It’s clear our countries are ten thousand miles apart.

(Australia and the Netherlands: common ground)

And yet, despite the distance between us, Australia and the Netherlands have a great deal in common. Our shared history dates back over four hundred years. Dutch seafarers first landed on Australian soil in 1606. Abel Tasman charted large sections of the coast in 1644, and his maps later helped Captain Cook reach Sydney harbour. Three centuries later, after the Second World War, many Dutch immigrants made their way to Australia. Prospects in war-ridden Europe were poor, while Australia was a land of opportunity. Today it is estimated that some four hundred thousand Australians have Dutch blood running through their veins. Maybe that explains the popularity of Dutch musician André Rieu – who happens to be from my home town. Our people also share a love of sport: we often compete against each other in swimming and field hockey. In fact, I saw the Australian and Dutch national hockey teams practising together in Perth. They’ll play each other four times and I hope that we can get our revenge after losing the bronze medal to you at the Olympics! Our joint celebration of four hundred years of bilateral relations in 2006 contributed greatly to strengthening the bond between us.

The distance between Sydney and Canberra just about equals that of my country north to south. Nonetheless, our two countries’ population size and GDP are close. According to the IMF, Australia has the fifteenth largest economy in the world, while that of the Netherlands is ranked sixteenth. We both have open economies and are strong supporters of free trade – and our people have benefited greatly from this open, international orientation. We also share the same values: our countries cherish freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. We are both going through a process of redefining the role of our armed forces. We understand each other. We work well together.

Let me mention just a few examples: Australian and Dutch troops were in Al Muthana province in Iraq. And in Afghanistan, our troops have been working shoulder to shoulder in difficult circumstances to improve the security situation and to offer a brighter future to the Afghan people. Within the United Nations, both countries strongly advocate the principle of the Responsibility to Protect – urging states to take responsibility for the protection of their own civilians. Both our countries have contributed to the Global Centre for R2P, which is located in New York and co-chaired by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. The Netherlands strongly supports Australia’s bid for a seat at the Security Council in 2013. And we also welcome another Australian-led initiative: the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. I feel that the international mood is swinging back to the idea of a nuclearfree world. I truly hope this Commission can help move us towards that goal and make the 2010 review conference of the NPT a success. Australia and Japan have our full support in leading this effort, and the Netherlands stands ready to assist in any way possible. I am happy that Dutch former foreign minister Hans van den Broek will be on the Commission’s Advisory Board.

So while we may be a long way apart geographically, I would say that our interests and priorities are closely aligned. Our way of thinking and our operating methods are surprisingly similar. I have travelled to Australia to underline the importance the Netherlands attaches to its friendship with Australia and to see how we can further strengthen our partnership.

(Today’s challenges)

I believe that in this day and age, one should invest in friends. The world is in a state of flux: geopolitical realities are shifting at a time when nations need to come together to address a number of great challenges: climate change, poverty and exclusion, terrorism and the global financial crisis – to name but a few. In such uncertain times, it is good to know who you can count on. That’s why I have come to Australia and one of the main reasons why I had extensive discussions with my dear colleague Stephen Smith in Perth yesterday. Given the problems we face, a joint course of action is essential. The painful, universal effects of the global financial crisis have clearly brought this home to us. We cannot meet today’s challenges in isolation – if solutions are to be effective, we need to be able to rely on each other. This afternoon I would like to discuss ways in which we – Australia and the Netherlands – can join forces to make the world a better and safer place.

(The need for an effective international order)

Traditionally, the Netherlands has always invested heavily in multilateral frameworks. Like Australia, we were a founding state of the United Nations. The lessons of the Second World War convinced us that we needed a strong international order to make the world a safer and more equitable place – for our own protection as much as anything else. The UN system and the Bretton Woods institutions are based on legal principles that apply to all people and all nations. They are designed to impose order and to prevent or resolve conflict. It is to our advantage that all actors, especially the leading players, commit themselves to that system and its rules. A world in which everyone acts as a responsible stakeholder and works within international frameworks will be a better place for all. Accordingly, Dutch foreign policy aims to bind as many countries as possible to the international structure. We focus on using the international framework to influence the actions of other countries. It is a strategy of co-option, of effecting change through cooperation.

However, these days, the international system is under tremendous pressure. It has lost its appeal in many countries, because it is perceived as being insufficiently representative. New economic powers are demanding a greater role on the global stage. That is inevitable, and entirely understandable. These countries, some of which are Australia’s close neighbours, must be accommodated. Take, for example, the requirement that the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF still have to be an American and a European, respectively. That is untenable, as it excludes the 3.5 billion representatives of the world’s fastest growing economies. The global order, while retaining its principles, must be reshaped to incorporate and constructively engage a host of rising powers. That is a challenge we cannot shy away from.

But equally, it must be clear that better representation comes at a price: it must be accompanied by taking on greater responsibility. I expect that the emerging economies will do so, but as this is not yet the case, we must continuously encourage them. Therefore, while the need for a responsive international system may be greater than ever before, the prospect of seeing such concerted action in the near future is less promising.

That is all the more true given the fact that many countries have called into question the legitimacy of universal values like justice, equality, humane treatment, solidarity and liberty. Some governments apparently do not agree that human rights apply to all people, in all places and at all times, even though all 192 members of the United Nations have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago. There is now an increasingly large (and increasingly vocal) countermovement which maintains that human rights are a Western invention. The influential Singaporean opinion-leader Kishore Mahbubani, for example, has dismissed the emphasis on human rights as ‘ideological triumphalism’. I couldn’t disagree more: I don’t see anything 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. That’s why I have placed human rights at the very centre of Dutch foreign policy. Again, we find common ground here with the Australian government.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many Dutch people, as well as Australians might be sceptical of what can be achieved by international organisations. They say it is all talk and no action. But there is no alternative. When states renounce the system and try to withdraw from agreements they have made, the world becomes a less safe and less stable place. Stability depends on order and rules. And because instability is not in our interest, we must continuously adapt the international system to our present day requirements. There is only one world community. With the advent of globalisation and the growing tensions between countries, regions and religions, between North and South, rich and poor, multilateralism is now more relevant than ever. The Netherlands thus remains committed to strengthening the international, multilateral system, and although it may require difficult, demanding efforts, I hope our partners will be there at our side, including, of course, Australia. A multilateral commitment is often the only way to bring lasting peace to conflict-ridden areas. We have seen this in Timor Leste and elsewhere in the Pacific, where Australia has showed impressive leadership. And I am convinced that the same holds true for Gaza: there can be no way forward without an agreement which has serious international backing, both in terms of security and development. For that reason, my Danish counterpart and I have put forward two initiatives over the past two weeks to stop weapons getting ito Gaza.

(The need for closer alliances: cooperation between Australia and the EU)

So now more than ever, we need to forge strong alliances with countries that share our values. Of course, for the Netherlands, a strong European Union is key: our most effective way to exert influence in the world is through Europe. That is a simple reality. Australia, too, places great emphasis on regional cooperation – at least that is what I infer from Prime Minister Rudd’s proposal for an Asia-Pacific Community, based on the EU model. I truly believe that regional cooperation is the way forward. Fifty years of European integration have brought us unprecedented stability and prosperity.

Later today, the new President of the United States will be inaugurated. It is a momentous occasion for various reasons. Europe’s relationship with the United States is extremely important, as is Australia’s. Although we are clearly seeing shifts in global power, the United States’ role in the world is not coming to an end, as some seem to think. We still need American leadership to help resolve the world’s most pressing issues, such as responding to climate change and preserving peace and stability in many parts of the world. That is why the transatlantic relationship, whether through NATO or the EU, remains a cornerstone of Dutch foreign policy, as it does for Australian foreign policy.

The Netherlands and the European Union also need to look beyond their traditional alliances. We need to strengthen the team, so to speak. And Australia is definitely a top player that we would love to have on board! I believe that intensifying our cooperation would be highly worthwhile. As I have said: we may not be close in geographical terms, but we are definitely close in spirit. The EU-Australia Partnership Framework that was concluded last autumn provides useful starting points for future cooperation. Preferably, that partnership should be as practical and result-oriented as possible. Climate change is a logical issue for us to collaborate on, but there are many others, including high-level cooperation on immigration and counterterrorism. Australia is already NATO’s largest partner outside of the Alliance.

(NATO – Afghanistan)

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have spoken about the United Nations; I have discussed cooperation between Australia and the EU. I would like to close by saying a few words about NATO and our partnership in Afghanistan. I’d like to stress at the outset how important it is that Australia, and other non-NATO members that contribute to ISAF, are included in discussions of our joint mission in Afghanistan. The Netherlands will continue to advocate Australia’s inclusion.

Working together in Afghanistan has clearly created a strong bond between our countries and our people. We have worked hard, we have had our setbacks, but – and this is the rewarding part – we have also shared our successes. Look at Tarin Kowt, the capital of Uruzgan, today. The town’s lights are on, the bazaar is busier than ever, more children go to school and the hospital has been expanded. On a bright morning, the town has the feel of an ordinary provincial capital, bustling with activity as people go about their daily business. And in most other provinces, too, there are indications of progress. This is definitely something to be proud of.

At the same time we all understand that the situation remains fragile and we still have a very long way to go before sustainable security can be established, before development takes root and before full Afghan ownership, which is our ultimate objective, becomes a reality.

2009 will be a crucial year for Afghanistan. The upcoming presidential elections will be an important test for the Afghan government. Fair and credible elections will reaffirm the legitimacy of the Afghan government. We must help the Afghan government to enable as many people as possible to cast their vote. Nowhere is this more important than in the south of the country, where segments of the population are disaffected and do not feel represented by the government in Kabul. These people need to see that they too can have a say in how their country is governed; an opportunity the Taliban could try to deny them.

Another important event this year is the arrival of additional US troops in the east and south of Afghanistan. These troops will allow ISAF to expand its operation and increase its level of ambition.

If we are to win this conflict, we need a broad, comprehensive approach. In 2009 we need to increase our efforts to bring reconstruction and better governance to the people of Afghanistan, particularly in the south. We are making tangible progress, but the pace has been slow and too many Afghans have seen only limited benefits from the democratically elected government in Kabul. This is one of the main reasons why the Taliban has been able to stage a come-back. This means we will need to provide the government with more funds and more expertise to help build Afghan capacity.

It also means we will need to push the Afghan government to perform better. The most effective weapon against the Taliban is not a helicopter or missile but a competent, effective government official with personal integrity who is willing to work for the benefit of the wider Afghan population rather than his own tribal group. Such officials are still too thin on the ground.

Finally we have to come to terms with the fact that Afghanistan is part of a volatile region and that its problems cannot be solved in isolation. We are of course concerned about developments in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the resulting tensions between India and Pakistan have shown how events elsewhere can have knock-on effects for Afghanistan. As partners in ISAF we must work together closely and coordinate our efforts. There are no easy solutions, no ‘silver bullet’ to deal with these issues.

As you know, the Netherlands will conclude its present role as lead nation in Uruzgan by the end of 2010. By that time we will have led the ISAF Task Force for four years, having previously led a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghlan province for two years. As Australia knows better than most, the mission in the south of Afghanistan is tough, and by the end of 2010 we will be up against the limits of what our armed forces can sustain. The time has come for one of our allies to step in and shoulder part of the burden in the south. This does not mean that the Netherlands will abandon Afghanistan or ISAF. Our commitment to helping the government with reconstruction, development and improving governance is open ended. How the Netherlands will contribute militarily to the ISAF mission beyond 2010 is a subject that will be examined in due course.

It is clear that the international community needs more resources to successfully complete the difficult mission it has taken on in Afghanistan. And in that respect, I have repeatedly called for increased investment in our defence capability, both at national and at European level. Not only must the EU countries invest in cooperation among the various European armed forces, we must also spend more money on our national defence capabilities. We cannot allow the United States to account for the better part of global military capabilities while its European allies fail to pay their full share. Since NATO is as important today as it was when it was founded sixty years ago, I hope that we can demonstrate progress in this area in the coming years: it is badly needed. In any case, NATO’s sixtieth anniversary this year will be a good opportunity to reaffirm the values on which the North Atlantic Treaty was founded. Demonstrating NATO’s continued commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights is enormously important symbolically, especially in a world where these values are under threat. This is the source of NATO’s moral authority. In reaffirming that commitment we send a clear signal to other countries that cherish these values, like Australia, that NATO is eager to work with them.

I believe the multinational force in Afghanistan, to which both our countries contribute, stands out as a model for future military cooperation. In this day and age, our armed forces operate in a truly international environment. We are working hand in hand with many different partners, not least with the Afghans themselves. And doing so has taught us many valuable lessons. Our comprehensive approach – integrating defence, development and diplomacy – has proven its value. I expect this approach to continue to guide us in all our peace operations. And I will strongly urge all stakeholders, including the new US administration, with its incoming additional troops, to continue this integrated approach.

Ladies and gentlemen,

‘A champion team will always beat a team of champions’. One of Australia’s oldest football clubs, the Collingwood Magpies, has built their club around this principle. And it is true that if we put our collective interests first and work together, we will perform better and achieve more. I hope that Australia and the Netherlands can both be part of that ‘champion team’, which will be a decisive force for good in the world!

Thank you.