The Holland Bureau: image and reality of a special relationship

Back in the glorious 60s the US Embassy in The Hague wouldn’t hesitate to describe Dutch-American relations as a ‘special relationship’. There may be policy differences over the years, but the basis remained solid, writes Giles Scott-Smith of The Holland Bureau.

As recently as 2009 – celebrating the 400 years since the first contact between the Dutch and North America (in a ship captained by an Englishman! Ha!) – you had Maxime Verhagen and Frans Timmermans waxing lyrical about the common political (democracy, human rights), economic (free trade, entrepreneurship), moral (tolerance, diversity), even mental (openness, curiosity) attitudes that had united the two countries for the past centuries. It seems like a long time ago.
Uri Rosenthal made his first visit to Washington DC last week, holding a joint press conference with Hilary Clinton on Friday. The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a nice rendition of the meeting, with suitable emphasis on the shared intent of both countries to pursue the freedom/democracy/human rights/religious minorities mantra in the Middle East and North Africa, including ongoing military action against Gaddafi and promoting female emancipation.
Rosenthal has used the opportunity to declare that Gaddafi must go, claiming that the combined effect of political pressure, economic sanctions, and military action will succeed. (NOS also picked up the curious fact that the two ministers would work together to ensure that people in poorer countries cook with non-poisonous fuel – a good cause, sure, but who came up with that in the current circumstances?)
But beyond the word for word coverage, others saw something slightly different. Rosenthal’s interview on the NOS confirmed that despite all his big words, the Netherlands wasn’t going to do anything extra to contribute to NATO’s Libyan mission.
And the NRC‘s Washington correspondent Tom-Jan Meeus, writing in Friday’s paper (no digital version available), saw something quite different at the press conference – a largely disinterested Secretary of State going through the motions for the sake of protocol and media, unimpressed by the Dutchman’s anti-Gaddafi bluster.
In other words, the days when the Netherlands could function both as the behind-the-scenes transatlantic bridge-builder and sometimes as the confident pro-US ice-breaker in European affairs are fading out. Rosenthal tried to give a good impression of a Dutch foreign minister talking tough in DC, puffed up by his visit to the most powerful ally, but it was all too transparent that words and deeds didn’t match.
A minimal police training mission in Afghanistan, a minimal contribution to the NATO mission over Libya, and a growing Euro-scepticism that means zero influence in the EU. Clinton knows it, and Rosenthal missed the point entirely: what is the point in portraying relations as close as ever, and then responding to a journalist’s scepticism by stating that “the Netherlands is aware of its own interests and follows its own path”?
Washington is looking elsewhere for partners and power centres. Sarkozy’s throw of the dice on Libya correctly recognised the need for Europe for once to prove its worth in security matters. And the Dutch are convincing colleagues for neither.

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