The Netherlands as a Specialized Foreign Policy Actor in European Regional and International Affairs

Trans-Atlantic Relations, NATO, and the 2016 Election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency

The 2016 election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency marked the beginning of a new era of deteriorating relations between the United States and its core West European allies. Since Trump’s ascendency to the White House, the president has publicly attacked the foreign and domestic policy programs of the French and German governments, calling into question the legitimacy of Franco-German leadership in Europe.[1] Trump has repeatedly assailed the project of European regional integration using both rhetorical and policy tools to attack the European Union. This has taken shape in Trump’s endorsement of Britain’s exit from the European Union in addition to the president’s support for anti-liberal, right-wing candidates such as Marine Le Pen in France.[2] In 2018, the United States government, directed by the president, imposed a variety of tariffs on industrial and manufacturing products from the European Union prompting retaliatory measures from the European Commission.[3] The ongoing trade disputes between the United States and Europe threaten to undermine or severely damage one of the largest and most critical international trade relationships in the world.[4]

How can we make sense of these developments? On the one hand, trans-Atlantic relations have endured other periods of fracture and discord. Successive governments in the United States and Western Europe have clashed over a wide range of security issues, such as the placement of American troops and military hardware in Europe during the Cold War, the participation in the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and with regard to trans-Atlantic efforts to combat terrorism and extremism.[5] At times, the United States and Western Europe have been bitter economic rivals, competing for economic advantage, access to new markets, or over leadership in the international dissemination of new technologies.[6]  The trans-Atlantic alliance has suffered periods of intense division as witnessed during Britain’s Suez Crisis in the 1950s, the French withdrawal from NATO in the 1960s, West Germany’s program of detente with Communist Europe during the 1970s, and the Reunification of East and West Germany which began in the early 1990s.[7]

Yet, on the other hand, the current breakdown in the relations between the United States and Western Europe signals a rupture from which the trans-Atlantic alliance might not ever fully recover. Trump is the first American president in the post-WWII era to openly and publicly endorse nationalist leaders, parties, and movements in Europe—a move which only prompts consternation over Europe’s dark history of fascism, Nazism, and anti-Semitism. Trump is also the first American president since the founding of NATO in 1949 to call into question the United States’ commitment to European security and to downplay the threat of Russian military power to the sovereignty and security of states in Eastern and Central Europe or in the Balkans.[8] Furthermore, Trump is the first American president in the postwar era to attack the project of European regional integration, built through a number of regional organizations and institutions long supported by the United States. Trump’s policies toward Europe continue to significantly damage the international credibility of the United States among key North Atlantic allies. Recent polling data shows that confidence in American international leadership has reached new lows:  only 28 percent of respondents in Great Britain, 10 percent of those in Germany, and 9 percent of those in France express high confidence that Trump will “do the right thing regarding international affairs.”[9]

European Security and the NATO Spending “Controversy”

Among the more controversial of Trump’s positions regarding US-European relations—and among the most misleading of his claims about politics in the North Atlantic—is the assertion that Europe is not a meaningful contributor to international security and not a reliable partner in the context of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Academic research and scholarly analysis continues to clearly show that Europe plays a vital and pivotal role in support of international diplomatic and humanitarian organizations and operations, peacekeeping and civilian protection missions across the globe, and in the contribution of personnel and resources in most American-led military operations.[10] European governments remain the foremost global leaders in the management of manmade and natural disasters, using regional institutions to coordinate disaster relief in Europe and beyond.[11] Collectively, Europe accounts upwards of 20 percent of the world’s total military spending.[12] According to data taken from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States pays about 22 percent of the total costs required by the NATO budget to fund civilian and military operations, leaving European partner states to collectively pay for the remaining 88 percent of the organization’s operational costs.[13]

To be clear, concerns over Europe’s place in the liberal international security architecture predate the Trump presidency. Arguably, controversy over the contributions of European countries to international security—inside and outside of NATO operations and treaty obligations—is now a permanent fixture of the post-9/11 political climate in the United States. In the aftermath of the French and German decisions to not follow the United States into war in Iraq in 2003, we have witnessed a near perennial anxiety among certain segments of the American political class regarding America’s relative isolation in the use of military force to exact political outcomes overseas. From Donald Rumsfeld’s divisive distinction between “Old Europe” (i.e., Western Europe) and “New Europe” (i.e., Eastern Europe) in 2003 to Barak Obama’s assertion that European nations are “free riders” not paying their “fair share” in the management of global security, we have seen American post-Cold War leaders become decidedly cooler toward Europe, a trend which mirrors an increasingly negative disposition toward European nations among a large portion of the American electorate.[14]

In the face of the negative publicity depicting Europe as ineffectual “free riders” and in an effort to saber-rattle in the midst of ongoing Russian incursions in Eastern Europe, much effort has been spent on behalf of European political elites to demonstrate Europe’s commitment to its own military defense as well as to the defense of the international liberal order.[15] On this note, European military contributions to NATO have increased for the third year in a row, and a total of six European nations now meet the 2014 NATO Wales Summit spending agreements that is, Estonia, Great Britain, Greece, Latvia, Poland, and Romania.[16] Much of the media and diplomatic spotlight has been on the larger member states of the European Union such as Britain, France, and Germany and their efforts to rehabilitate their security image in the midst of trans-Atlantic diplomatic discord. In 2018, for instance, Britain bolstered its troop contributions to US-led efforts in Afghanistan.[17] Earlier that year, the British and French governments reaffirmed national commitments to the Lancaster House Treaties for the creation of an Anglo-French expeditionary force.[18] By spring 2018, the German government had increased its own defense spending by 5 percent.[19]

The focus on the larger European partners and those domestic developments, which have produced some foreign policy change in Britain, France, and Germany, have overshadowed the longstanding and ongoing role played by smaller states in European security. Scholars, journalists, and observers of European politics frequently overlook the contributions made to European and global security by smaller European nations, save for a handful of academics working in the “Small States” research program in the Political Science subfield of International Relations.[20]  In what follows in the remainder of this article, I will outline the contributions made to regional and international security and diplomacy by the Netherlands—a small state with many military assets and security expertise on par with its larger neighbors. First, I will describe the Netherlands as a specialized actor in international affairs—a country marked by a sustained and concerted effort to fulfill a specialized role diplomatically and with regard to security practices in order to expand Dutch influence over larger states and international organizations. Second, I will outline three policy areas in which Dutch foreign policy specialization typically takes shapes, that is, in the context of international organizations such as the United Nations, within regional organizations such as the European Union, and with regard to security practices and strategies such as those related to counterinsurgency.

The Netherlands as a Specialized Actor in International and Regional Affairs      

Smaller countries in international affairs are typically disadvantaged in terms of power projection capabilities, state capacity, and access to both international markets and natural resources when compared to larger states. The combination of these deficiencies often inhibits the ability of smaller states to play a significant role in regional and global politics. The inability to play a major role in global affairs produces a wide range of difficulties for small polities in shaping the dynamics of the international system or those rules that govern international cooperation, trade, and diplomacy. Often, small states will band together and produce coalitions by which individual countries can leverage the collective bargaining power of a broader bloc. The Nordic nations (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland) have utilized regional alliance systems in this fashion with significant success using organizations such as the Nordic Council to coordinate economic, security, and military policies, and to engage emergent events in international politics in unity.

More often, however, we find that smaller states often pursue a program of specialization in trade, diplomatic, or security practices. Given that small European states are most often highly dependent upon access to the global economy and international markets for national economic survival, much of the specialization of smaller polities takes shape in the context of economic management. For instance, social science research suggests that small states in Europe attempt to capitalize on the production of labor intensive industrial, manufacturing or transportation machinery in order to maximize national employment levels as well as to ensure the exporting of highly valued commodities.[21] On this note, we have seen a variety of European nations specialize in the exporting of automobiles, farming machinery, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals; these nations often pursue market dominance in these production areas. Economic specialization and dependence upon global trade have created incentives for many European nations to develop highly specialized political and welfare systems as political elites employ expansive governmental protections to shield individuals and families from downturns in the global economy, which often impact small states more severely and in more acutely negative ways.[22]  Very rarely have we seen smaller states take on more expansive security or diplomatic roles in international affairs. On this point, the Netherlands consistently proves to be an exception.

The Netherlands and European Integration

The Netherlands’ postwar posture toward regional affairs is consistently one of regional economic, political, and monetary integration. This strategy has guaranteed the Netherlands a place at the negotiating table vis-à-vis its larger and more powerful neighbors. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg were among the leaders of those institutions of regional integration that would become today’s European Union, beginning with the Benelux Customs Union. The Netherlands spearheaded an economic integration template that Benelux would then promote as a broader framework for postwar European unity.[23]  As a regional industrial and financial power, the Netherlands’ most pressing economic needs have consistently been met within the framework of broader regional integration and the Hague has consistently supported the widening and deepening of integrative processes including support for and adoption of a common regional currency and the promotion of a Common Foreign and Security Policy at the EU-level. The continued support of the Netherlands for integration has allowed for a Dutch presence in all regional negotiations and representative institutions.

More recently, this influence has been expanded by those very regional developments often understood as undermining European solidarity, namely the financial and political instability caused by the debt crisis in Europe. For much of its post-Maastricht history, European supranational politics has been marked by the presence of smaller, regional blocs which formulate policy and voting strategies together in light of shared, common interests. Generally speaking, this has often taken the form of a “southern” bloc, led by France and Italy, which places pressure on European governance institutions for greater agricultural subsidies and greater economic protectionism and a “northern” bloc, led by Germany, which seeks to promote financial harmonization and more free-market-oriented policy prescriptions. The European Sovereign Debt crisis in Europe caused sharp divisions among these competing blocs with the “southern” group calling for a rethinking of European regional economic and monetary governance and a supranationalization of European national debt.[24] Conversely, the “northern” grouping called for less of a role for European institutions in solving the debt crisis and a more national approach to debt management, that is, a greater adherence to the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact.[25] Although Germany and its Northern European allies—Finland, the Baltic States, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Netherlands—ultimately made concessions to its European counterparts, this voting bloc emerged as the dominant force driving economic and financial reform in the European Union. Victory in these policy areas have accorded a new and expanded role to the members of this bloc who continue to work closely with each other in the building of new frameworks for European regional governance. As a part of this bloc, the Netherlands has been afforded a wide range of new opportunities to shape and reshape European Union policy with the possibility of pushing Dutch national interests in exports and currency regulation to the forefront of European policy-making.

The Netherlands and the United Nations

Looking to other international organizations, the Netherlands has long pursued a policy of promoting and expanding rules-based regimes for regional and international governance as a means through which its own territorial and economic security might best be realized. The preservation of state sovereignty and national self-determination in international law in addition to the regulation of interstate warfare by the United Nations Security Council provides for the foundations of Dutch political and economic stability and welfare. As a small nation surrounded by big neighbors, pushing states to adhere more closely to international law preserves the Netherlands’ policy maneuverability both at home and abroad. The Dutch experience with German occupation and subjugation during the 1940s has become a potent rationale for the enforcing of international norms and the human rights violations experienced by the Dutch population—including genocide, sexual assault, deportation, forced labor, and deprivation of food, water, and fuel—provide for a moral impetus to Dutch policymakers to seek institutions and alliances to protect others from that same abuse and maltreatment.[26]

Being at the forefront of international institutions for the promotion of human rights and international law has allowed the Netherlands to exercise a tremendous amount of influence within those institutions and over the policies they adopt. Perhaps the most emblematic example of this is the locating of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, that is, the cultural, spiritual, and administrative capital of the modern Netherlands. Speaking of the Netherlands’ role in the promotion of rules-based governance, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted that “I deeply value the close partnership between the Netherlands and the United Nations. This country plays an important and constructive role around the world. It is a leading progressive force in promoting the rule of law, disarmament, the peaceful settlements of disputes and sustainable development. The Netherlands is also a champion of human rights and gender equality and it is engaged on climate change and the post-2015 development agenda process.”[27] Ki-Moon also went on to laud the Netherlands financial commitments to global governance as only one of five nations in the world, which has met its promised financial obligations to the United Nations. In regard to recent developments, the Dutch government is at the forefront of stunting the flow of European Islamic State recruits to Syria and Iraq.

The Netherlands remains unique in that its constitution mandates action from the Hague for the promotion of international law (Article 90) including military action for the protection of the international legal order (Article 97).[28]  Two areas in particular are marked by extensive Dutch initiatives in international institutions, namely, nuclear weapons disarmament and non-proliferation and the expansion of human rights protections including recent legislation governing the international community’s Responsibility to Protect. Since the 1960s, the Netherlands has been at the forefront of international initiatives to regulate nuclear weapons technologies, including the promotion of test-ban treaties, the monitoring of the sales of nuclear weapons hardware in addition to a wide range of initiatives to create an international surveillance regime for conventional forces.[29] Despite that nation’s firm position in the North Atlantic alliance system, the Hague has been willing to deviate from the preferences of its larger security partners, namely the United Kingdom, France, and the US, in the development of programs aimed at the denuclearization of Western Europe including a push for the removal of allied nuclear weapons systems on Dutch territory.[30] In 2013, the Netherlands issued an official statement to the United Nations, expressing its support for a reconceptualization of the Responsibility to Protect to include a more programmatic framework to be built for mass atrocity and genocide prevention.[31] Thus, the Netherlands aligned itself with ongoing international efforts to establish a core set of international protocols for political, economic, and military intervention in the prevention of gross human rights violations.

The Netherlands and Innovations in Counterinsurgency

The Netherlands has been among a small handful of transatlantic nations to reconfigure its overall military strategy in the post-Cold War international environment, allowing that nation to provide for an expansive military role in a wide range of conflict theaters including peacekeeping operations in Southern Europe, Africa, and Central Asia and coalition efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, currently, in Syria to combat the Islamic State. Although recent publications from the Defense Ministries of European states outline a marked overall shift in the strategic priorities of North Atlantic states, the Netherlands has been, for some time, well ahead of larger, wealthier states, such as Germany, in investments made in new military technologies, notably those for high intensity military engagement including aircraft to ensure theater command and force dominance.[32] This is in large part due to the Dutch experience during peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia in which Dutch peacekeepers were unable to withstand a major assault by Serbian forces. As a result, according to Rem Korteweg, “On the military front, the Netherlands concluded that during crisis management operations it could not rely on other powers for protection. As a result, the Hague approved continued investment in high-spectrum capabilities such as next-generation fighter aircraft, heavy artillery, and attack helicopters. From then on, Dutch troops would only be deployed with robust military capabilities to provide escalation dominance.”[33] The Netherlands is now one of five NATO partners which now holds significant expeditionary capacities, that is, the ability to rapidly deploy troops overseas and support a foreign intervention with overwhelming land, air, and naval force.

The Dutch government has been at the forefront of reconfiguring counterinsurgency strategies, partly in response to the perceived failure of American efforts in the Middle East but also in light of the Netherlands’ long record of humanitarian aid provision and the defense of human rights, especially for civilians in war zones. In its deployment to Uruzgan Province under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) banner, the Hague was willing to break with the programmatic approaches of its NATO allies to pursue a qualitatively different program of occupation and local engagement. Although it may be problematic to talk of a specific “Dutch approach” to counterinsurgency given that a similar set of strategies was employed widely during Europe’s colonial history,[34] the insistence of the Dutch government to pursue programs of cultural awareness, local economic development, and civilian security in Uruzgan nonetheless serves as an example of an important policy evolution relative to the strategic engagement of the Netherlands’ key allies in adjacent Afghan provinces.[35]


Successive Dutch governments have developed a wide range of enduring strategies to cope with new economic, ecological, and humanitarian crises. For much of its modern history, the Netherlands has conducted foreign policy in tandem with a variety of state and non-state actors. We can consider this, perhaps, to be the most fundamental element of Dutch geopolitical strategy. More recently, as outlined above, the Netherlands has evolved even more robust responses to emergent challenges than most its larger counterparts, especially in regard to humanitarian aid and international law as well as military and counterinsurgency strategies. The challenges confronting the Netherlands needn’t obscure what can be understood as the core features of a strategic orientation toward world affairs:  embeddedness in multilateral organizations (especially those in Europe and the North Atlantic region), the promotion and expansion of the rules-based international order, and new forms of counterinsurgency and expeditionary tactics which allow for the rapid participation of Dutch military forces to aid allies.

Luke B. Wood is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Bucknell University College of Arts & Sciences. Wood also works as a Research Associate in the Office of Congressman (ret.) Lee H. Hamilton at the Indiana University Hamilton-Lugar School of Global and International Studies.


[1] Susan Glasser, “How Trump Made War on Angela Merkel and Europe” The New Yorker (December 24, 2018)

[2] See David Frum, “In Brexit Crisis, Trump Abandoning U.K. and EU” The Atlantic (November 15, 2018);  Aaron Blake, “Trump is Now Supporting Far-Right French Candidate Marine Le Pen, for All Intents and Purposes” Washington Post (April 21, 2017)

[3] Jack Ewing, “Europe Feels the Squeeze of the Trump Trade Tariffs” New York Times (August 2, 2018)

[4] European Commission, “Top Trading Partners 2017,” Directorate General for Trade (September 17, 2018), see link here: (Accessed on January 12, 2019)

[5] See Tony Judt, Postwar:  a History of Europe since 1945 (New York:  Penguin, 2005) and Desmond Dinan, Europe Recast:  a History of the European Union (Boulder, CO:  Lynne Reinner, 2014)

[6] See George Modelski and William R. Thompson, Leading Sectors and World Powers:  The Coevolution of Global Economics and Politics (Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1996); David Rapkin and William R. Thomson, Transition Scenarios:  China and the United States in the Twenty-First Century (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2013)

[7] See Stanley Sloan, Defense of the West:  NATO, the European Union, and the Transatlantic Bargain (Manchester:  Manchester University Press, 2016)

[8] Julianne Smith and Jim Townsend, “NATO in the Age of Trump” Foreign Affairs (July 9, 2018)

[9] Richard Wike, et al. “Trump’s International Ratings Remain Low, Especially Among Key Allies” Pew Research Center (October 1, 2018)

[10] See, for instance, Andrew Moravcsik, “Europe, the Second Superpower” Current History:  a Journal of Contemporary World Affairs (March 2010)

[11] See Frederiga Bindi and Irina Angelescu (eds), The Foreign Policy of the European Union:  Assessing Europe’s Role in the World (Washington, D.C.:  Brookings, 2012);  Arjen Boin, Magnus Ekengren, Mark Rhinard, The European Union as a Crisis Manager (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2013)

[12] Andrew Moravscik, “Europe is Still a Superpower” Foreign Policy (April,  2017), see link here: (Accessed on January 12, 2019)

[13] Eileen Sullivan and Linda Qiu, “Trump Misleads on NATO Spending” New York Times (July 9, 2018);  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Funding NATO” (July 27, 2018), see link here: (Accessed on January 12, 2019)

[14] Judy Dempsey, “Poland and France Move Toward a Europe Less Dependent Upon the United States” New York Times (March 18, 2013);  Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine” The Atlantic (April 2016); Peter Hays Gries, The Politics of American Foreign Policy:  How Ideology Divides Liberals and Conservatives over Foreign Affairs (Stanford:

[15] Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper, “Trump Discussed Pulling Out from NATO, Aides Say Amid New Concerns Over Russia” New York Times (January 14, 2019)

[16] Michael Birnbaum, “NATO Defense Spending Goes Up for Third Year in a Row” Washington Post (March 15, 2018)

[17] Jonathan Beale, “Why are UK and US Sending More Troops to Afghanistan” BBC (August 13, 2018)

[18] Office of Prime Minister Theresa May, “UK and France Commit to New Defense Cooperation”  United Kingdom Ministry of Defense Press Release (January 18, 2018), see link here: (Accessed on January 16, 2019)

[19] Lewis Sanders, “How Does Germany Contribute to NATO?” Deutsche Welle (March 9, 2018)

[20] See for instance, Christine Ingebritsen, The Nordic States and European Unity (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1998); Christine Ingebritsen, Scandinavia in World Politics (New York:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2006); Baldur Thorhallsson, “Small States in the UN Security Council:  Means of Influence?” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy Volume 7, No. 2 (January 2012); Baldur Thorhallsson and Anders Wivel, “Small States in the European Union:  What Do We Know and What Would We Like to Know?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs Volume 19, No. 4 (2006)

[21] Sven Steinmo, The Evolution of Modern States (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2010);  Peter Katzenstein, Small States in World Markets:  Industrial Policy in Europe (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1985)

[22] Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve:  The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States and Japan (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004); Peter Gorevich, Politics in Hard Times:  Comparative Responses to International Economic Crises (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1986)

[23] Alan Milward, The Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1945-1951 (New York:  Routledge, 1987); Duco Hellema Dutch Foreign Policy: The Role of the Netherlands in World Politics (Dordrecht:  Republic of Letters Publishing, 2009)

[24] Vivien Schmidt, “Speaking to Markets or to People? A Discursive Institutional Analysis of the EU’s Sovereign Debt Crisis” British Journal of Politics and International Relations Volume 16, No. 1 (2014)

[25] Luke Burgess Wood, “The Bureaucratic Politics of Germany’s First Greek Bailout Package” German Politics & Society Volume 34, No. 2 (2016)

[26] Nico Schrijver, “A Missionary Burden or Enlightened Self-Interest? International Law in Dutch Foreign Policy” Netherlands International Law Review (2010)

[27] Ban Ki-Moon, “Secretary General’s Remarks at the Joint Press Encounter with Foreign Minister Timmermans of the Netherlands” (The Hague:  April 8, 2013)

[28] ibid, Schrijver (2010)

[29] ibid, Schrijver (2010)

[30] Wilbert van der Zeijden, “A Dutch Revolt? The Silence of the Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons Issue in Dutch Politics” European Security Volume 23, No. 1 (2014)

[31] Karel van Oosterom, “Information Interactive Dialogue on the Report of the Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect:  State Responsibility and Prevention” Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations (2013)

[32] Ben Knappen, et al., Attached to the World: On the Anchoring and Strategy of Dutch Foreign Policy (Amsterdam:  Amsterdam University Press, 2010)

[33] Rem Korteweg, “To Fight or Not to Fight? The Rise and Fall of a Smaller Power” in Gale Mattox and Stephen Grenier, Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan:  the Politics of Alliance (Redwood City, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2015), pp. 142

[34] see, for instance, Thijs Brocades Zaalberg, “The Use and Abuse of the ‘Dutch Approach’ to Counterinsurgency” Journal of Strategic Studies Volume 36, No. 6 (2013) or George Dmitriu and Beatrice de Graaf, “The Dutch COIN Approach:  Three Years in Uruzgan, 2006-2009)” Small Wars and Insurgencies Volume 21, No. 3 (2010)

[35] Rene Moelker, “The Genesis of the ‘Dutch Approach’ to Asymmetric Conflicts” Armed Forces & Society Volume 40, No. 1 (2014)

Photo: Netherlands colorful brush strokes painted national country Dutch flag icon | Shutterstock
Published on March 5, 2019.


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