Washington, DCJuly 18, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me here today, and also for the opportunity to share a few thoughts on the importance of the relationship between the US, and the Netherlands, and of Europe as a whole. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here.
The history of this great Atlantic Council is closely linked to the post-war transatlantic bond that has long been—and still remains—so important to the US and to Europe. As you know, this institution was founded in 1961. It was the era of the bipolar world order. An era when the Cold War between communism and the free west dominated global politics.
I wouldn’t say it was an easy time, because the threat of nuclear war was very real. But international relations were certainly more straightforward back then. You were either in one camp or the other. Today we live in a multi-polar world, where international relations are far more unpredictable. Which of course only makes your work more relevant and not easier.
And the same goes for the unique transatlantic partnership we’ve built over the decades.
As a history graduate, I believe it doesn’t hurt to look back once in a while, to reflect on who your friends are. And the friendship between the United States and the Netherlands—both seafaring and trading nations—goes back a long way. In fact, for some years the Dutch city of Leiden gave refuge to a group of Pilgrim Fathers before they set off on the Mayflower in 1620. To me, that’s the beauty of history: there’s almost always common ground to be discovered in the past.
Let me share a few more facts. Our country was the first to salute the new American flag in 1776. The first American embassy abroad was established in my home town of The Hague in 1782. Around four million US citizens are of Dutch origin—including the present American ambassador—and we see this in words like ‘dollar’, ‘Yankee,’ and ‘boss’.
And, of course, in the Netherlands we continue to honor the brave American soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy seventy-five years ago, restoring peace and freedom to my country and the rest of Europe. Many of them paid the highest price. And for that, we are forever in your debt and forever grateful.
After the Second World War our destinies became even more intertwined. And that’s where the Atlantic Council comes in. The common values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law forged a transatlantic bond that made us stronger on both sides of the Atlantic. As did our shared belief in the principles of free trade.
It was at Harvard in 1947 that George Marshall outlined the principles of his famous Marshall Plan that would prove crucial in helping a devastated and demoralized Europe to be rebuilt after the war. The plan was as generous and visionary as it was straightforward and sensible. The most important condition for receiving economic aid was that the countries of Europe had to work together in the recovery program. So in fact, it was the US government that pushed hardest for post-war European cooperation, based on the conviction that a stable and prosperous Europe was in the direct interest of the United States. As a partner in safety and security. And as a trading partner and of course a market for many American products.
Today the European Union is the largest single market in the world—around 500 million consumers with enormous purchasing power. And US and European economies are connected in countless ways. Again, just take the example of the Netherlands and the US.
Because If you take a look at the world map through American eyes you may have trouble finding the Netherlands at first, as it’s around 230 times smaller than your country.
But make no mistake: we are among the world’s five top investors in the US. We are the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter after the US, and some 800 Dutch companies are active on this side of the Atlantic. Overall, the trade and investment relationship between our two countries already supports around 825,000 US jobs, and it’s our ambition—together with President Trump—to make that a cool million.
So I’ve come here with a large business delegation of high-tech, future-oriented Dutch companies in the fields of life sciences and health, artificial intelligence and robotics, and climate resilience. They are in Boston right now, a total of 125 motivated, enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Looking for partners, markets, and knowledge. Because we’re here not only to sell, but also to learn and to exchange ideas.
This is the clear proof that we share a future, and not simply in economic terms.
Because we, like you, believe that international trade, economic cooperation, and shared know-how are essential, not only for prosperity but also for our common security and our common stability. There can be no doubt that strong, entrepreneurial and innovative economies make better countries to live in. The US and the Netherlands are a case in point, however different we are in size.
Let me be frank. The system of multilateral cooperation is under severe pressure, and that worries me. Through the UN, NATO, the World Trade Organization and many other institutions, we have built a post-war world order with the United States in the lead.
And why? Because it was in our own interest. Yours and ours. True, the system is not perfect.
New challenges don’t always neatly fit into our existing structures. Many of the rules of the multilateral trade system were drawn up when there were clear boundaries between the first world and the third world. Rules aimed at more equal distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor. But since then the reality has changed, but the underlying system has not adequately evolved with it. And that’s causing friction. For example, you can see that in the recent US decision to withdraw from the Universal Postal Union.
The main reason is that China still profits excessively from discounts on small package mail to the United States. Those discounts add up to a major subsidy, which China—now a manufacturing giant—no longer needs.
This shows that the US is right to question whether the system still serves its own interests.
And it’s not alone. In Europe, too, we have long been pressing for improvements to multilateral partnerships. It’s no accident that a big focus of the Netherlands’ recent Presidency of the UN Security Council was on reforms within the UN system.
So my point is: let’s use the momentum created by the critical approach of the current US administration. Let’s press forward. Let’s work together to bring real change in the organizations that really matter. Not by renouncing or dissolving the multilateral system altogether because it doesn’t work properly, but by improving it and making it fit for purpose once again.
And yes, I also have transatlantic cooperation in mind when I say that. But it’s certainly not the main problem. There’s a reason that the US and Europe have been partners for so long. We may have different opinions sometimes, but that’s normal among friends and allies who share the same values. The insecurities that could pose a threat to the US and Europe lie elsewhere.
If we look at the world as it is today, we see Russia consistently engaging in power plays, as in Crimea and the war in Syria. It’s impossible to ignore the way Russia interferes in democratic processes and seems to be trying to play the EU and NATO states off against each other.
Then, of course, there’s China, which has clearly broken with its tradition of taking a back seat in international relations. And in many ways I believe that is a positive development. For example, when it comes to combating climate change. But when it comes to free and fair world trade, cybersecurity, and the international protection of intellectual property it’s a different story.
China under President Xi is more active, self-assured, and vocal than ever before, and its outlook on trade relations and the rule of law is fundamentally different from ours. The US, the Netherlands, and Europe as a whole invest large sums of money in R&D and innovation. Not only in our own countries but also abroad. For example, the Netherlands is investing 2.5 billion dollars in the US for R&D purposes alone. And here we mustn’t be naive: we need to protect our intellectual property and our innovations. And we need to do it together.
Let me stress that I’m the first to acknowledge that the European Union and its member states have work to do as well. The truth is, for too long now the political debate in the EU has been dominated by Brexit. I still think it’s the worst idea ever—I hate it from every angle—but sadly there is no way back. And with that in mind I applaud the fact that the EU has set a clear deadline for the end of October. It’s time for Europe to move forward and return to its core mission: prosperity, security, and stability for its citizens.
Where international relations are concerned, I believe this means that Europe needs to step up to the plate. It needs to be more streetwise and more proactive than in the past. We must, for example, be prepared to use our enormous economic power as leverage for political power more often and more assertively. The EU was once famously described as an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm—and I cannot deny there’s some truth in this metaphor.
Since the Second World War, Europe has become a continent of soft power, thanks to the Pax Americana that allowed us to shelter for decades under the transatlantic security umbrella. For many years, this was taken for granted, but no more. I therefore fully understand your president’s view—and in fact his predecessor’s view as well – that European NATO members should pay more for their own security.
All the NATO countries have agreed to work towards a defense budget of two per cent of GDP by 2024. This is a work in progress. Speaking for the Netherlands we are not there yet, but I’m glad to say that step by step the number is increasing, but we’re not there yet.
And now, having said all that, here’s my key message today. It’s crucial that we keep the transatlantic bond strong and vibrant. We don’t have to agree on everything to see that we’re stronger together than we are apart. A lot may have changed since the days of the Marshall Plan, but a stable and prosperous Europe has always been – and will always be – in the direct interest of the United States. And vice versa, of course.
And many things have changed since the foundation of NATO, but it’s still as relevant as it was decades ago. Given the ongoing turbulence on Europe’s external border, an unpredictable Russia and an assertive China, safeguarding NATO cooperation and unity is the best way of safeguarding Europe. Naturally, that’s above all in Europe’s own interest.
But in this unstable and unfriendly world, a free and secure Europe is also in the direct interest of the United States as well.
So to me, it’s clear: we need each other. For safeguarding our democratic and free societies. And for protecting and bolstering free and fair world trade. You only have to look at the numbers because they tell a convincing story.
Each year a staggering 1.3 trillion dollars’ worth of trade changes hands across the Atlantic. US investment in the EU is three times higher than in all of Asia. And conversely, EU investment in the US is eight times higher than in India and China combined.
And then there’s the competition, so to speak. China’s population is around 1.4 billion people. India’s is more than 1.3 billion and climbing. By the middle of this century these countries will probably be the number one and two economies in the world.
So what could be more logical than the US and Europe sticking together, when you consider our stable populations of 300 and 500 million, our shared history and our shared beliefs? To me that’s a rhetorical question. Our unity is the bedrock of our future. Both our futures.
Ladies and gentlemen, last year the American historian Robert Kagan published The Jungle Grows Back, his book on the imminent fragmentation of the post-war liberal world order.
In it he argues that jungle-like chaos is the natural state of international affairs, as world history has shown. In the 19th century, uncompromising nationalistic diplomacy led to the First World War, which in turn led, only two decades later, to a second global conflict.
Only after these two devastating wars did the nations of the world acknowledge that they needed to agree a set of common rules of conduct. Kagan argues that the multilateral liberal world order created after 1945 is a man-made garden. A place of order, where we could avoid the chaos of another world war. Where prosperity came within reach of more people than ever before. According to Kagan, the US has been the principal architect of this garden, not for altruistic reasons but because it served American interests.
Just as it served the interests of the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. But a garden needs maintenance or it will be reclaimed by the jungle. So yes, the multilateral system needs to be modernized. That is the task we together face and that should be our mission, because it would be foolish to let the jungle grow back.