Europe and therefore The Netherlands needs America
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, it is time to examine the impact of Trump’s presidency on various countries across the globe. How do different countries look back upon four years of President Trump? In this eighth and final episode of the Clingendael Spectator series “Four Years Trump: Taking Stock and Looking Forward”, Bram Boxhoorn explains why the number of political differences between the Netherlands and the US has not increased or decreased significantly over the past four years.
Before discussing developments in the Dutch-American relations, it is useful to emphasise the stratification of mutual ties. At least three layers can be distinguished, or to quote the American historian Joseph Nye: the Netherlands plays at three “tables”: security, economy and culture.1
Of course, the Netherlands is no longer the only player at these ‘tables’. They are flanked to varying degrees by European Union allies. Nevertheless, the Netherlands strives for a strong bilateral presence.
The three ‘tables’
Since 1949, Dutch security policy has primarily been organised on a multilateral basis, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But given the political weight the United States (US) holds within NATO, the tie with the US in this area remains essential. This applies mutatis mutandis to the purchase of defence material, like the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter).
The Netherlands has been a loyal NATO ally for decades. The country often operated cautiously but – when it came to the moment of truth – supported American positions.2
If there has been a recent turning point in the relationship, it was the unilateral termination of the Dutch mission in Uruzgan (Afghanistan) in 2010. This brought an end to years of intensive cooperation following the Dutch Srebrenica debacle in 1995.
Within NATO, the Netherlands has different faces. While it does not commit the agreed minimum of two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to defence expenditure, there has been a great deal of willingness in The Hague – military perhaps more than politically – to contribute to NATO missions.
The Netherlands is also part of NATO's Nuclear Planning Group, a select and therefore prestigious group of allies whose task it is to carry out nuclear missions. It is an open secret that American nuclear weapons are stored on Dutch territory for this purpose.
The problems on the other side of the Atlantic also turn out to be ‘our’ problems
Without going into too much detail, it can be said that the economic ties between the Netherlands and the US are unquestionably healthy. In this context, the most cited data reveal that around 800,000 jobs in the US can be attributed to Dutch economic activity, whereas the US is one of the largest investors in the Netherlands.
Next to this, about 200,000 Dutch people work for American companies. It is not often mentioned, but thousands of Dutch people try their luck in the US every year.3
The cultural connection between the two countries is more difficult to measure.4 The American ‘footprint’ in the Netherlands has recently been illustrated again. Black Lives Matters, along with its English-language slogans, has penetrated the Dutch public domain without a Dutch filter. The problems on the other side of the Atlantic also turn out to be ‘our’ problems.
The election of the 45th president of the US in 2016, marked the beginning of turbulent years. Since 1945, no American president has ever focused so explicitly on the self-interest of the US. Donald Trump's inaugural address on 20 January 2017, in which he promised to put the interests of US citizens first, shocked America’s allies.
Trump's policy thus abandons the system of the international ‘liberal order 3.0’, as the political theorist John Ikenberry called the most recent phase of international liberalism.5 As a corollary to his ‘America First’ principle, Trump has strongly questioned the usefulness and necessity of international institutions, although consistency in his statements is often sorely lacking. At times, he has portrayed international institutions, such as the EU and (agencies of) the United Nations, as true enemies of the US.
While the criticism of Trump is not entirely flawless (which country does not pursue its own self-interest?), the lack of a clear international agenda as well as the reduction of nearly every international topic to a matter of national economic interest, added to the neglect – and sometimes the downright abuse – of America's political allies, which Trump elevated to an art.
Dutch foreign policy is increasingly ‘Europeanised’
Nonetheless, given the current state of affairs, he can boast little success abroad. Only in the Middle East, a success has emerged: the contours of an anti-Iranian coalition between Arab states and Israel are becoming visible.
This is not the place to dwell on historical developments in Dutch-American relations, but it is important to emphasise that the current third Cabinet of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is building on a stable foundation of relations and, more importantly, wants to continue that policy.6
The former Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Max van der Stoel (from 1973-1977 and 1981-1982) once stated that there are narrow margins in the Dutch foreign policy field.7 This applies a fortiori to Dutch-American relations.
Moreover, it is important to note that Dutch foreign policy is increasingly ‘Europeanised’; more and more, foreign and security policy have become a European (EU) prerogative. The phrase that NATO is the cornerstone of Dutch security policy has gradually given way to a more Eurocentric approach.
The scope of Dutch foreign policy has thus broadened and is no longer as binary – the EU for the economy and NATO for security – as before. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands has an interest in a strong EU, a strong NATO and other strong multilateral institutions.
The fact that these institutions are not aligned (requiring choices to be made), becomes clear (again) by the current consternation in the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is because a strong ICC does not go well with maintaining a flawless relationship with the US, that does not recognise the ICC.
The amount of political differences has not increased or decreased significantly over the past four years. The most important observation is that the tone of the relationship has sharpened in some cases, especially regarding the aforementioned NATO agreement to spend a minimum of 2 percent of the GDP on defence and regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a new gas pipeline from Russia in which Dutch consortia participate.
The NATO issue has a long history. Of all member states, Dutch defence expenditure is clearly lagging behind. Although there is much to be said about the meaning of this agreement, this is an evident observation. Previous US president Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to persuade the – in American eyes – European ‘free riders’ to increase their expenditure. By contrast, Trump opted for a frontal political attack.
The result: European displeasure, especially on the Franco-German side. On the other side, European countries also made new promises to keep the agreement. However, it is virtually impossible that the Netherlands will be able to meet the standard in 2024, the year in which most member states aim to do so.
The Netherlands is commercially closely involved in the construction and operation of Nord Stream 2
A relatively new issue concerns a corollary of Trump's China policy: the restrictions affecting the Chinese technology company Huawei, which is constructing the fifth generation of wireless systems, 5G for short. They have been imposed, because the Trump administration foresaw major security risks through the involvement of Huawei. The pressure initially worked as a red rag to a bull, but now the discussion in the EU has turned in the direction of the US government.
Another charged issue concerns the construction of Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. An international consortium is responsible for this project, but the Russian energy company Gazprom plays a leading role as the only shareholder. Since the Nord Stream 2 has signed financial agreements with Shell and several Dutch offshore companies, The Netherlands is commercially closely involved in the construction and operation.
The Americans fear that the construction can make Western Europe vulnerable to blackmail by Russia. The counterargument that Russia is also becoming dependent – on Western income – is not given great credence by the Americans. The argument that it is a commercial project, without any government intervention, also makes little impression on US officials.
A complicating factor in this ‘dossier’ is the American offer to sell Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to compensate for the possible loss of Russian gas supplies. Is the argument really only about strategic considerations after all?
For decades, the Middle East has been fertile ground for disagreement as well. Dutch armed forces recently took an active part in the fight against Islamic State (IS), and contributed to a training mission in Iraq. However, the Dutch efforts were modest, handicapped by the low level of defence spending and recruitment difficulties facing the defence apparatus.
Trump's proposal to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel did not receive a lot of support from the Netherlands. Next to this, his peace plan, which is based on large investments in the Palestinian territories (to be paid for by the Arab world), was also met with scepticism from The Hague.
The Netherlands suddenly found itself in an EU coalition with Iran, Russia and China on its side
A similarly dismissive stance was taken with regard to the US request for a joint maritime action in the Persian Gulf, following several attacks on oil tankers in 2019. After hesitating for a long time, the Dutch government decided to opt for a naval mission under French leadership, for fear of being drawn into an American-Iranian conflict.
The ‘Iran deal’ between Iran and the ‘p5+1’ (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) was a thorn in Trump's side from the outset, summed up in his catchword “Bad Deal." One of his first acts, as promised in his 2016 election campaign, was the US withdrawal from the agreement.
The European signatories were furious but powerless. The Netherlands suddenly found itself in an EU coalition with Iran, Russia and China on its side. The fact that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), as the deal is actually termed, was considered to be a success story of the then EU foreign policy chief (Federica Mogherini) in EU circles, did not make this situation any easier.
The American ambassador
In the developments over the past four years, the role of the American ambassador to the Netherlands cannot be ignored. Ambassador Pete Hoekstra, who took office in January 2018, caused quite a stir in the short time he has been in office.
For an ambassador, he is open and he uses a direct communication style. Next to this, Hoekstra is a regular guest on news programmes. He does not disguise the views of the US government. It is difficult to assess whether this style is effective. It is certain, however, that he often provokes irritation in government circles with his sharp comments.8
The ‘Rutte factor’
At first glance, there are enough ‘dossiers’ on which the Netherlands and the US disagree, and which could make the relations run less smoothly compared to previous periods. The fact that relations have not been too bad can in part be attributed to the role played by Rutte.
This is because he is convinced of the importance of a strong bond with the Americans.9 He visited the White House several times in recent years (in the summer of 2018 and 2019 to be precise) and, more importantly, he did not allow himself to be intimidated by the US president during these visits. Apparently, he had prepared himself well for the pitfalls in terms of substance and publicity awaiting a visitor to the White House – including his predecessors.
The fact that Rutte remained steadfast in his positive view towards the established multilateral system did not go unnoticed, even outside the White House. He received the Global Citizen Award from the American Atlantic Council for this; not a Nobel Prize, but Rutte is the first Dutch person to receive this prestigious award.
It is also notable that, due to his efforts, the Dutch-American Global Entrepreneurship Summit, jointly hosted by the two countries, was held in The Hague in June 2019.
According to Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad, the US was able to establish a great “empire” of allies through a policy of "seduction" after the Second World War.10 For each of them, participation in the empire was advantageous from a multilateral economic and security perspective. In essence, this picture still holds true for the Netherlands.
However, President Trump has attacked this ‘seduction model’. He may not have thrown multilateralism completely into the trash yet, but for the past four years, his bilateral approach has dominated affairs.
Ironically, Trump's policies have led to notable ‘unintended consequences’ on the other side of the ocean. His constant criticism of the EU and NATO has driven America's European allies into each other's arms.
It is up to the European allies – including the Netherlands – not to be reduced to a footnote in American foreign policy
For example, a recent report of the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) plainly argues for the Dutch to join Franco-German initiatives aimed at further European integration ("European strategic autonomy"). Former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has now become an enthusiastic advocate of such a course. With this approach, the Netherlands would undoubtedly drift further away from America.
Because no single EU country has the strategic power to replace the US, such a course would also be fatal. For strategic security reasons, the time has therefore come to invest in the transatlantic bond and set self-interest aside.
Ultimately, Europe and the Netherlands need the US more than the other way around. That was the case back in 1949 and the fact that it continues to be so, says more about the European allies than it does about the US.
For the Netherlands, there is a high degree of continuity at two ‘tables’: the economic and the cultural. The disagreements are mainly of a political and strategic nature. It is up to the European allies – including the Netherlands – not to be reduced to a footnote in American foreign policy, but to remain relevant.
- 1. Nye, Joseph S. (2011). The Future of Power. New York: PublicAffairs. p. 84. ISBN 9781586488925.
- 2. These include NATO reforms, such as the reorientation of the tasks of the alliance after 1989. See: Bram Boxhoorn, ‘American and Dutch policies toward the Reorientation of NATO after the Cold War’, in: Hans Krabbendam et al., Four Centuries of Dutch-American Relations: 1609-2009, Amsterdam: Boom, 2009, pp. 717-728.
- 3. On the economic relationship between the Netherlands and the US: ‘Internationaliseringsmonitor 2019-I: Verenigde Staten’, CBS, March 2019. Another useful source is: ‘Investment Climate Study 2020’, AmCham The Netherlands. This study describes a number of global developments, including the effects of Trump’s trade policies on international trade and investment. For the studies covering the years 2015 to 2019, see: ‘The Investors' Agenda of Priority Points’, AmCham The Netherlands (my thanks to Elke Roelant, AmCham, the Netherlands).
- 4. An interesting, but far from complete, image of the Dutch presence in the US can be found in a report issued by the Dutch consulate in New York: ‘About Us’, DutchCultureUSA.
- 5. Liberal Internationalism 3.0: America and the Dilemmas of Liberal World Order Author(s): G. John Ikenberry Source: Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Mar., 2009), pp. 71-87.
- 6. “The US remains an essential partner to perpetuate our security, prosperity, norms and values and create a functioning multilateral system. We also maintain an intensive trade and investment relationship with the US and work closely together on innovation. Only together can we find an appropriate response to strategic challenges facing both the US and Europe. The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the importance of good transatlantic relations. Transatlantic cooperation therefore remains one of the cornerstones of foreign policy. (...) Naturally, NATO is central to Dutch security policy. In 2021, the Cabinet will invest in the further restoration of the Dutch armed forces and in a more balanced transatlantic burden sharing within NATO along the lines of the 2018 National Plan." Source: ‘Miljoenennota 2021’, Vaststelling van de begrotingsstaat van het Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, 2020, pp. 10-11.
- 7. Reformatorisch Dagblad, 21 September 1976.
- 8. ‘Why are Dutch-Americans so different from the Dutch?’, The Economist, 24 May 2018. The article questions why someone with a very conservative Dutch-American background is appointed ambassador to one of the most liberal European countries.
- 9. See his talk at the Netherlands Atlantic Association, 3 October 2019.
- 10. Geir Lundestad, The United States and Western Europe Since 1945: From Empire by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift, Oxford: Oxford University Press, September 2005.