Tuesday, November 29, 2022

A Ministry of Common Affairs?

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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.

In the late 1800s, almost all issues that governments had to deal with were internal affairs. Foreign affairs were little more than trade and international security.

Since then, the world has fundamentally changed. In 1900, only about 250 million people earned more than the bare minimum. That number has now grown to almost 7 billion.[1] But this enormous economic progress has given rise to new challenges of a comparable magnitude.  

Scientific and technological progress have made it possible to increase the average real per capita income of the world population by 500%.[2] The use of advanced technologies, however, is not necessarily always in our best interest. Biotechnology and artificial intelligence, for example, present mankind with unprecedented ethical dilemmas. 

Even more difficult are the challenges posed by our environment because we are using natural resources at an unprecedented scale with little or no attention to the long-term consequences for the environment, nature and climate.

What all these challenges have in common is that they have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Therefore, they are “internal” affairs, not “foreign” affairs. What they also have in common, however, is that addressing them effectively requires close cooperation at international level. Dealing with them as “internal” affairs on a national base will not suffice.[3]

Governments are thus confronted with major problems that neither fit in the concept of “internal” affairs, nor in the concept of “foreign” affairs. However, like many other governments, the Dutch government is still organised in the same way as in the late 1800s, as if every problem is either an “internal” affair or a “foreign” affair. Ministries that deal with “internal” issues such as public health, public transport and public education still believe that their responsibility stops at the Dutch border.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has added aid and European cooperation to its traditional tasks, but still shows little interest in global public goods such as health and education. As a result, the Dutch government, like many other governments, was ill-prepared for the Covid-19 crisis, which requires international cooperation in areas beyond traditional foreign affairs.[4]

What to do? Renaming Ministries of Foreign Affairs into Ministries of Common Affairs will not suffice, but it might be a symbolic beginning.


[1] As the world population grew from 1.65 billion in 1900 to about 7.63 billion in 2018, the number of people living in extreme poverty decreased from about 1400 million to 736 million. The number of people with an income above the poverty line therefore grew from about 250 million in 1900 to about 6.9 billion now.

[2] The output of the world economy, adjusted for inflation, grew from 3.4 trillion in 1900 to 101 trillion in 2013.https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-gdp-over-the-last-two-millennia

[3] Illustrated by the UK’s post-Brexit decision to seek “something akin to membership” of the EU’s early warning and response system (EWRS). See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/may/02/uk-seeks-access-to-eu-health-cooperation-in-light-of-coronavirus

[4] https://www.trouw.nl/zorg/kabinet-negeerde-adviezen-over-pandemie-aanpak

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