Balancing Against Bigger Neighbors: Dutch Foreign Policy

From neutrality to transatlantic engagement, the Dutch always aim to balance against their bigger neighbors.

President Richard Nixon of the United States and King Baudouin of Belgium listen to a speech by NATO secretary general Joseph Luns, former Dutch foreign minister, in Brussels, June 26, 1974
President Richard Nixon of the United States and King Baudouin of Belgium listen to a speech by NATO secretary general Joseph Luns, former Dutch foreign minister, in Brussels, June 26, 1974 (NATO)

Bordering perpetually feuding France and Germany and lacking clear natural frontiers, the Netherlands has had to carefully position itself as a nonthreatening middle power while helping to prevent any one country from menacing the whole of Western Europe.

Before America emerged as a protector in the second half of the twentieth century, the Dutch considered an alliance with Britain. Liberal and seafaring like itself, and posing no direct threat to Dutch security, such an entente seemed sensible except that it would surely have aroused German suspicions. A pact with Germany, on the other hand, would have alarmed the British and might even have convinced them to take over the Dutch colonies, as they had during the Napoleonic occupation — which would have been devastating. The Dutch East Indies provided as much as 15 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and gave the Netherlands disproportionate standing in international affairs as an imperial power.

Hence the Netherlands’ neutrality during World War I which neither the Allied nor Central Powers saw much gain in violating. With the two sides blockading each other’s trade, the neutral Dutch proved indispensable. Between 1915 and 1916, they accounted for half of Germany’s agricultural imports while oil from the Indies fueled the British Expeditionary Force. The Netherlands also provided flank cover to the Germans against an amphibious assault from the west while the British could hardly violate Dutch neutrality when they had entered the war to protect neutral Belgium.

But the country could not very well entrust its security to the goodwill of other powers that might one day calculate they stood more to gain than to lose from conquering the Netherlands. Unlike the Swiss, who could hold up in their mountains and whose territory was of little worth, the flat Netherlands could easily be invaded and was of tremendous economic and strategic value. Its fertile polders produced agricultural surpluses while the country commanded access to the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers — which, in turn, connected Germany’s industrial Rhine-Ruhr conglomeration and the port of Antwerp with the rest of the world.

To guard their neutrality, the Dutch took a leading role in early global governance. They hosted the Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 in The Hague which set out to regulate disputes between states. The Permanent Court of Arbitration was settled in the same city which would later host the United Nations’ International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court as well. In 1919, the Netherlands was among the founding members of the League of Nations.

The central Dutch role in these early attempts at international law entrenched in the national identity an idealized perception of neutrality. Abraham Kuyper, who served as prime minister between the two Peace Conferences and was the country’s leading Calvinist theologist, proclaimed that the Netherlands fulfilled a missionary role in the world and would preserve the legal order by means of example. The Dutch began to see their country as unlike others. They had outgrown military ambitions and were concerned only with peaceful trade.

Others were not, however, and the Second World War proved a rude awakening. The German army overran the Netherlands in a single week and the occupation necessitated a rethinking of Dutch strategy.

After the war, the Dutch abandoned their neutrality and buried, at least for a while, their highminded notions of serving as a model to other nations. Instead, they anchored their diplomacy and security in the transatlantic relationship. The Dutch saw European integration — the Netherlands was one of the six founding member states of what would become the European Union — primarily as a means of securing access to markets and resisted attempts to come to a European defense policy independent of the United States.

In 1959, after Charles de Gaulle had become president of France and suggested Europe should position itself between the Soviet Union and the United States, Joseph Luns, the Netherlands’ top diplomat and later secretary general of NATO, warned that France was pushing for European integration “not because it wants the integration but because through the Europe of the Six it wants to conquer the group’s leadership.” The Dutch saw NATO’s primacy in European security, and Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973, as a way to balance against French domination.

President George H.W. Bush of the United States visits Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers in the Netherlands, June 17, 1989
President George H.W. Bush of the United States visits Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers in the Netherlands, June 17, 1989 (ANP)

Even as the United States pressured the Netherlands into giving up its colonies in the Indies — to the point where Congress threatened to cut off Marshall Plan funds for the country’s postwar reconstruction — causing much resentment in The Hague, the Dutch saw themselves as loyal American allies throughout the Cold War. There was a broad crossparty consensus in favor of close transatlantic relations. Even cabinets that tilted toward the left largely backed American foreign policy in defiance of public opinion, from the Vietnam War to the placement of cruise missiles in the 1980s to the recent war in Afghanistan.

Only in the last few years — and after the Americans and the British accepted that a European defense policy need not weaken NATO — have Christian Democrat and progressive parties in the Netherlands warmed up to European defense cooperation. The political right still puts NATO first.

Foreign policy priorities since the turn of the century have included freedom of the seas and the promotion of human rights and peace abroad. The former is clearly in the interest of a maritime nation that depends heavily on trade. The latter stems from both a desire to prove to the Americans that the Netherlands can punch above its weight and a returned sense of mission.

Emphasis tends to shift between economic and security imperatives on the one hand and this desire to better the world on the other. When one government — typically those that include the Labor Party — leans too strongly toward the latter, the next — usually including the pro-business liberals — invariably gives priority to commercials interests which critics will say comes at the expense of developmental aid and the promotion of human rights. The Dutch characterize this recurring conflict as one between the dominee and the koopman, or between the minister and the merchant.

Some see no conflict at all. As recently as 2008, Maxime Verhagen, a Christian Democrat and then foreign minister, wrote not only of a “moral obligation” to promote human rights but argued, “Values and interests really go hand in hand.” Although he was quick to point out that the government’s constitutional requirement to “promote the development of the international legal order” — unusual in itself — surely came second to safeguarding Dutch security and prosperity. Even the dominee understands preaching only gets you so far.

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