Uri Rosenthal didn’t waste any time after assuming office as Dutch Foreign Minister in 2010. The conservative VVD politician immediately made waves by declaring that from now on, economic interests would be the driving force behind Dutch diplomacy. Embassies and Consulates would be located in countries where money was to be made.
Rosenthal had two years in the job before the cabinet fell earlier this year. With elections looming next week, we look at what the Foreign Minister’s approach achieved.
Professor Jan Melissen, head of Diplomatic Studies at the Dutch Clingendael Institute is critical. The minster talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk. “Rosenthal talked a lot about the contribution diplomacy could make to The Netherlands Ltd by focussing on contacts that were useful to the business world”, he says, but it remained unclear just what this meant in practice. “There was no clear guidance from The Hague about what exactly was expected of the international diplomatic network”.
Soon after taking office, Rosenthal was accused of alienating his own department with his high-handed opinions. Melissen agrees that this was a problem. “That he found it necessary when he took over to dismiss international diplomacy as a ‘rustic pastime’ didn’t do much for morale at Foreign Affairs. Diplomats have been struggling with a discouraging environment for some years now. The Netherlands has become hopelessly introverted and Europe is in trouble.”
There was concern that the new emphasis on economic interests would come at the cost of attention for human rights. But Amnesty Netherlands is far from dissatisfied with Rosenthal’s performance. “The minister laid out his priorities in an interview with [Dutch daily ed.] de Volkskrant”, remembers Ruud Bosgraaf, spokesperson for the human rights’ group. “Number one was security, number two economic interest and only then human rights. We sounded the alarm, and Rosenthal assured us that human rights would not be forgotten.”
And that’s a promise he honoured says Bosgraaf: “He spoke up firmly about the political trial of Ukraine’s Yulia Tymosjenko for instance. Rosenthal may have been less prominent on human rights’ issues than his predecessor Maxime Verhagen, but he certainly didn’t abandon them”
This qualified approval doesn’t mean that Amnesty wouldn’t have liked more from Rosenthal. “The problem is not what he did, but what he didn’t do. He said scarcely a word about human rights’ abuses by Israel for instance. Mind you, that’s been the case with his predecessors for the past 40 years or so. It’s always harder to criticise a country with which you have a friendly relationship”.
Amnesty’s under no illusions that a new government will mean major new initiatives, but is hopeful that the next Foreign Minster might take a less one-sided approach. “Certainly when it comes to lands such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain but the minister could also be more critical of China and Russia.”
Amnesty’s initially sceptical attitude towards Rosenthal eventually became more sympathetic, but surprisingly the reverse is true of the business world. The right-wing government was expected to stimulate an entrepreneur-friendly environment in The Hague, but Josst van Dam of the leading Dutch trade organisation NEC didn’t notice much difference. “If anyone profited from this economic diplomacy it was the big multi-nationals; small and medium-sized businesses actually got less support under this government. Of course those big companies can attract jobs but the smaller companies are the driving force behind the Dutch labour market and they’re out in the cold.”
Fenedex, the umbrella organisation for the import-export branch is also unimpressed by the minster. The small number of trade delegations was particularly disappointing according to the group.
No longer a lap dog
Minister Rosenthal himself is pleased with what he’s achieved during his two years in office. Speaking at a recent news conference he said he’d had to operate in a world that’s become increasingly changeable. Despite that, “everyone now knows what the Netherlands stands for. We’re no longer running along behind others like a lap dog,” he claimed, adding that ad-hoc coalitions were a good way to wield influence on the international stage.
Rosenthal is keen to continue as Foreign Minister under a new cabinet and dismisses claims by critics that the Netherlands’ reputation has been damaged under his watch. “We are welcome abroad and taken seriously as an international partner,” he believes, “people listen to the Netherlands because they know we’re reliable”.