The Netherlands got things done in 2014, but remained careful to protect their economy and relations with powerful allies.
A crowd of dignitaries, dressed in black, waiting at a military airbase for Dutch bodies to arrive. An endless row of hearses on a blocked highway crossing the country. Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans giving an emotional speech before the United Nations Security Council. These images were etched in the Dutch national consciousness in 2014 after the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, as foreign affairs became linked with national tragedy.
In previous years, the Netherlands had invested heavily in its bilateral relationship with Russia, culminating in Netherlands-Russia Year in 2013. So, when the crisis with Russia began, Dutch diplomats took a moderate approach to applying sanctions against one of the country’s most important trade partners. But after passenger plane MH17 was shot down over Ukraine (supposedly by pro-Russian separatists), with 193 Dutch passengers among the victims, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Foreign Minister Timmermans used all the diplomatic leverage at their disposal. Within a short amount of time, other countries agreed on a strong OSCE condemnation, a Security Council resolution calling for access to the crash site and for international research, and support for accelerated sanctions. The European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2015 names the Netherlands as one of the leaders on this issue. The Netherlands was also a leader on bilateral assistance to the eastern neighbourhood, because of its ongoing policy of support ever since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
The political unity between member states that was evident after the MH17 disaster was not as strong during another international crisis that, for the Netherlands, is also beginning to hit close to home: the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. With over 200 Dutch people, mostly of Moroccan descent, going to fight in Syria and Iraq, fears are growing that fighters may return to commit attacks in the Netherlands. The Dutch have contributed six F-16s, 250 military personnel, and 130 trainers to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. The country also makes a significant contribution on the humanitarian and political side: the Netherlands is the twelfth largest donor in Syria and the tenth in Iraq. On the global problem of foreign terrorist fighters, the Netherland is playing a leading role together with Morocco in the Global Counter Terrorism Forum. Like their colleagues in other European countries, Dutch politicians have been more cautious about providing military assistance for attacks in Syria. The Dutch debate on foreign intervention is still influenced by the reaction to decision-making on the Iraq War in 2003. Then, the Dutch government gave political support to the United States, a decision that was strongly condemned by a Dutch parliamentary investigatory committee in 2010 because of the questionable legal foundations for the war.
Traces of an Atlantic attitude within the Dutch leadership can still be found in two other elements of Dutch foreign policy tracked by the Scorecard. The country was seen as a leader for its role in supporting the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, as politicians are taking active part in the public debate in the Netherlands to address concerns about labour standards and intellectual property rights. However, a clear lack of urgency in addressing data protection issues after the Snowden revelations led to a “slacker” rating on that topic.
For the past few years, the Dutch government has been working on scaling down official development assistance in favour of trade with developing countries. Because of the decrease, the Netherlands was given a slacker ranking on aid, but with the important caveat that it was a leader in taking action on the Ebola crisis. As well as contributing significant financial resources to the UN programmes that are fighting the disease, the ministry of foreign affairs launched an “Ebola platform” involving various stakeholders in the policy process. The Dutch navy’s ship, Karel Doorman, was sent to West Africa bearing €5 million-worth of aid supplies from nine European Union countries.
Scorecard 2015 shows that, in spite of the emotional moments of 2014, Dutch pragmatism is still a powerful factor in the country’s foreign policy-making. The country managed to get things done on Russia and Ebola, but it remained careful to protect its economy and its relations with powerful allies, especially the US.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.