From Atlantis to Europa: Erosion of Dutch Atlanticism?
Series Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs

From Atlantis to Europa: Erosion of Dutch Atlanticism?

20 Mar 2019 - 15:03
Photo: Flickr
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Brexit and Trump are challenging the traditional approach of the Netherlands’ foreign policy: the dual-track of Atlantic and European cooperation. In its series of articles on ‘Europa or Atlantica’ the Clingendael Spectator analyses this dual-track strategy and its potential dilemma. In the sixth contribution historian James Kennedy assesses Dutch Atlanticism. In the Netherlands, strong influences of the Anglophone world, and more particularly American culture, can be found . Extensive trade with and investment in the Anglo-American world has tightened the bonds. Will the Atlantic centre of gravity persist? 

In his famous essay Nederlands Geestesmerk, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga remarked on the peculiar geographical and cultural position of the Dutch people. “A wonderful destiny has made our people, separated from the original tribe, a noble part of Western Europe. The border between Western and Central Europe runs between Delfzijl and Vaals. Both our strength and the reason for our existence lie in our westernness. We belong on the Atlantic side. Our centre of gravity is by the sea and overseas. Our company is that of the Western peoples, of the notable great people who created the modern state order and sustain freedom."1

It is surprising that Huizinga -writing in 1934 - drew a line along the eastern Dutch border. The Nazis had just seized power in Germany, and across Europe several liberal democracies had been replaced by authoritarian rule. Only Western Europe remained untouched. Huizinga may have given thought to Scandinavia and the still-functioning democracies found there, but it is likely he defined the 'noble part' of Western Europe as the Netherlands’ nearer neighbours of Belgium, France and - most clearly and most importantly - Great Britain. As has recently been noticed by the writer Peter Brusse, it was with the Britons - that 'great people' - that the Dutch had come to associate. Hence breaking with, as Huizinga saw it, their original Germanic tribe. Even more broadly, though, the Dutch historian claimed that Dutch 'westernness' was anchored in an Atlantic 'centre of gravity'.

A 1754 painting depicting the moment New Amsterdam became new York in the 17th century. ©Wikimedia
Painting depicting the moment New Amsterdam became new York in the 17th century, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930). © Wikimedia

Huizinga's essay was written before there was a formal Atlantic alliance. He did not live to see the creation of NATO or the geopolitical domination of the United States: a country whose civilisation left him ambivalent. By the same token, he did not live to witness the creation of a free and democratic Europe whose outer boundaries would eventually lie some 1,500 kilometers east of the line he drew. He clearly lived in a very different time than our own.

At the same time, though, we seem to be closer to Huizinga's age than we thought possible not so long ago. America may be receding beyond the Atlantic horizon, and the British may well be retreating from Europe in a way that is, perhaps, reminiscent of the 1930s. It is true that the Dutch may not soon face an illiberal neighbour beyond Vaals and Delfzijl. However, across the Oder-Neisse and the Danube there is a shadow in the east, with the rise of political regimes with an ethos quite different from what the Dutch would expect or wish. If the Dutch once seemed on a path of convergence with the Mediterranean countries and the Balkans, they often assumed a severe, almost Nordic estrangement from these countries.

Today, the Netherlands and its 'westernness' is - culturally speaking - as far away as ever from pivoting away from its default Atlanticism, however defined. Seen this way, the country is culturally not well positioned to play a role in helping to forge new and durable alliances in a rejuvenated Europe. In this respect, Huizinga's border, a more indelible version of the stark line he drew in the 1930s, still exists in Dutch mentality and practice. The country's centre of gravity continues to lie in the west, and its full embrace of a more robust continental comity is as unlikely as ever.

The Dutch continued to harbour a sentiment that the country is - almost - too good for Europe

The Dutch stance towards Europe
As in the days of Huizinga, part of the persistent Dutch coolness toward Europe has nothing to do with the United States or any particular affection for it. The postwar Netherlands needed Europe, of course, and this rather self-evident reality was recognised by most Dutch people, particularly after Indonesian independence. For decades, the Dutch led European publics in affirming the European project necessary and desirable. At the same time, however, the Dutch continued to harbour a sentiment that the country is - almost - too good for Europe. There was a brief moment of real Dutch enthusiasm for Europe right after the Second World War, but it had ebbed by the time of the creation of the European Economic Community. The Europhile intellectual Hendrik Brugmans - ranking alone among the Dutch as a leading European federalist - complained in the early 1960s that the Dutch were on 'the balcony of Europe': that they looked down upon European affairs swirling below them, somehow detached from the dark continent.2

The Dutch were, and to a large extent still are, very much satisfied with themselves and their own society

To be sure, in one way the Netherlands was to be found at the very core of the EEC and the EU. However, in another sense, Dutch attitude seemed similar to the Protestant, northern European states like Denmark or Great Britain: more impressed with the quality of their own achievements than with the gifts Europe brought. The Netherlands obviously needed frictionless trade with its neighbours. But beyond that Europe did not, existentially, offer a gleaming opportunity to transcend or correct national failure, as was the case for (West) Germany, Italy, France and, in its own way, Belgium. The Dutch were, and to a large extent still are, very much satisfied with themselves and their own society, in ways that parallel the Swedes and the Danes. In the Netherlands, things seem better arranged than anywhere else.

Furthermore, it seems more open than the closed societies further south and east. The chief and longstanding Dutch defense of legalised euthanasia was that they - in contrast to other nations - at least openly talked about what doctors were doing at the deathbed. Writer Geert Mak's very popular book and television series ‘Europa’ actually had very little of the Netherlands in it. It was as if the deep European crises of the twentieth century – except for the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands - had passed the Dutch by. Seen this way, Brugmans’ assessment of the Dutch on the balcony still holds: they are inseparably and necessarily a part of Europe, but with a distanced superiority.

In the decades after the war, the Dutch found outlets for their global importance other than Europe, chiefly in development aid and care for the Third World. However, one might now evaluate either the saliency or the discontinued interest in such interventions. Dutch civil society was very much invested in projects beyond Europe, such as human rights. Furthermore, the role and importance of the Dutch in Europe declined over time, as other nations joined. Being a small- to middle-sized state in a club of 27 or 28 nations is a very different matter than being one in a group of six, as was the case in 1958.

Anglo-American influence
Apart from this, another unmissable cultural development was taking place: the strong influences of the Anglophone world, and of course more particularly American culture. As research has shown, it was only after the Second World War that the Dutch began to take an interest in American cultural products. Film, literature, music and ,to a lesser extent, the arts made in America had become strongly in vogue in the Netherlands by the end of the 1950s.To a large extent, this trend has continued. Probably more than in neighbouring continental countries, the United States became the leading 'reference culture' of the Netherlands. The United States became a deeply familiar country to the Dutch, even if there were not that many who had actually visited America.

New York City Hall Manhattan
New York city hall Manhattan. ©Flickr/Gary Liu

Like their counterparts on the northern periphery of Europe, the Dutch also strongly imbibed the English language and became increasingly able practitioners of it. This development went hand in hand with the decline of their once accomplished capacity to spreak French and German well - or even at all. Though politically not uncontroversial, Dutch universities increasingly opted for English as the language of instruction, far surpassing such trends in other continental countries. The mere fact that many Dutch people speak English is not in itself proof of a cultural orientation toward Great Britain or the United States. The English language is now often functioning as the informal lingua franca of the European Union and of European commerce and culture, so it could be argued that English is just as much a vehicle of Europeanization as it is of Americanization. Language, like culture, is appropriated by new users in ways that are highly adaptive and which are seldom mere imitations. Nevertheless, the widespread use of English has made the Dutch highly conversant in the idioms of a global Anglophone culture which remains to be subject to heavy American influences. In this respect, the Netherlands cultural center of gravity is even further west than it was in Huizinga's day.

This Atlantic influence also extends to other areas of Dutch life. Extensive trade with and investment in the Anglo-American world has tightened the bonds, and the Netherlands' commercial culture has been influenced by America. The relatively open and less hierarchical research climate of the Netherlands resembles that of Great Britain and the United States more closely than it does France’s or Germany’s, which used to be -both in different historical periods- the standard for Dutch intellectual life. Dutch Christianity, or at least what is left of it, has become strongly influenced by American music and theologies, particularly among Dutch Protestants. Looser forms of spirituality, too, often bear a made-in-America imprint. Even the Dutch 'Rhineland model', pressured by liberal ideology, has come to take on a more Anglo-American cast than a few decades ago.

Cultural affinity with the English-speaking world is not the same thing as retaining a sense of political solidarity with it

Is a shift occurring?
One should not be blind, of course, to countervailing trends or to the erosion of Atlantic influences. Cultural affinity with the English-speaking world is not the same thing as retaining a sense of political solidarity with it. Suspicion of American influence - whether developing into a full-fledged anti-Americanism or not - has waxed and waned in the Netherlands in the same way as it has elsewhere, and Dutch confidence in the Americans (or British) is obviously not at a high point at the moment. Ever since the end of the Cold War, it has been harder to imagine the importance of a geopolitical transatlantic partnership, even if the 'war on terror' has continued to give that partnership a particularly cogency. Donald Trump's presidency is the consequence of that decay, not its reason . Sometimes this erosion is evident in mundane trends, such as the decline- even before Trump took office- of Dutch students’ interest in studying in the United States, which is more expensive and more inconvenient than the ease with which students can now study in European exchange programs.

Yet it is not easy to buck persistent cultural patterns. For a long time, strong commitments to a free society have defined Atlantic democracies like the Netherlands. Through an extensive intertwining of culture and language – one that is now affected by American idiom- cultural patterns have been strengthened in the decades since Huizinga. One might hope that those commitments to a free society have become more widely European and global, and no longer depend on the United States that is facing its own political problems. There is no universal law that dictates that the Dutch are to remain bound to an identification with western Europe or the Atlantic. It could well be that the Dutch, out of pragmatic self-interest, will adapt to new circumstances and embrace new geopolitical logics. Nevertheless, it cannot be expected that the Netherlands will easily shake its Atlanticist mentality. As in the days of Huizinga, their orientation continues to face west from Vaals and Delfzijl, and not to the east.

  • 1. ‘Een wonderlijk lotsbestel heeft ons volk, gescheiden van den oorspronkelijken stam, tot een edel deel van West-Europa gemaakt. Over Delfzijl en Vaals loopt de grens tusschen West- en Middel-Europa. In onze westelijkheid ligt onze kracht en de reden van ons bestaan. Wij hooren aan den Atlantischen kant. Ons zwaartepunt ligt op en over zee. Ons gezelschap is dat der Westelijke volken, van het groote volk in de eerste plaats, dat de moderne staatsorde schiep, en nog de vrijheid handhaaft’. Uit Johan Huizinga, ‘Nederlands Geestesmerk’ (1934), in: Johan Huizinga, Verzamelde Werken VII, Haarlem: 1950, pp. 279-312.
  • 2. Laudatio von Dr. Hendrik Brugmans, 1951.


James Kennedy
Professor of modern Dutch history at Utrecht University