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An active foreign policy should invest in education, health and democracy

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DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions.

By Barend ter Haar.

Between the lines of its new policy paper on international security[1] the Dutch government seems to admit that the decision of the previous government to economize simultaneously on defense, diplomacy and development and to concentrate on short term economic interests was naïve.

Although it remains to be seen whether this insight will lead to more than a slowing down of the dismantlement of Dutch foreign policy, it could be a turning point. The crucial question is whether the Dutch government considers the development of an effective and active foreign policy more important than respecting the traditional fences between ministries.

A prudent foreign policy should of course be based on a sound analysis of the current international challenges. Most of these do not fit in the concepts of a traditional security policy. A credible defense, for example, remains important to deter a Russian attack on the Baltic States, but it is of little use in the current crises in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. And dealing with problems such as climate change and infectious disease requires more than the traditional instruments of defense, diplomacy and development. Providing education for all, in particular for all girls and women, providing basic health care for everybody and supporting young democracies are examples of necessary investments in our own interest.

It is regrettable that the paper, although it recognizes that the world has changed, fails to reflect that in the policy it proposes[2]. The paper recognizes the need of a structural, long-term approach to address the underlying causes of instability and acknowledges the need to pay special attention to climate change, scarcities and inequality, but it recoils from considering what type of foreign policy and what instruments would be needed to address these underlying causes and new challenges.

The result is a paper that fails to address the current challenges and opportunities in a comprehensive manner. A truly coherent and comprehensive foreign policy should, inter alia:

  1. Look for opportunities to strengthen democracy and the rule of law (instead of waiting until crises and threats arise).
  2. Invest in positive developments, such as the increase of support for democracy in Tunisia and Ukraine (instead of ignoring their strategic importance).
  3. Invest in the people of our neighborhood (instead of closing the Netherlands Institutes in Amman, Ankara, Beirut, Rabat, etc).
  4. Recognize that education for all and global health care are in the interest of the Netherlands (instead of pretending that education and health care are domestic issues).
  5. Reform international institutions (instead of neglecting them, with the result that the WHO was incapable to react timely to the Ebola crisis).

The envisaged publication in the spring of 2015 of a new international security strategy will show whether the Netherlands government remains stuck in the straitjacket of traditional thinking or will address the wider challenges and opportunities that confront the Netherlands.

[1] Policy Brief on International Security, sent to Parliament on 14 November 2014

[2] See also: Barend ter Haar: How Security Strategies Can Harm our Interests in Studia Diplomatica (

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