Toespraak van minister Koenders bij opening academisch jaar University College Roosevelt in Middelburg

Toespraak van minister Koenders (BZ) bij de opening van het academische jaar op het University College Roosevelt in Middelburg op 30 augustus 2017. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Professor Van den Brink, professor Oomen, mayor Bergman, dear students.

I'm honoured to be speaking here today. And, quite frankly, I’m also a bit nervous. I’ve been told that the crème de la crème of young intellectuals are gathered here. People from all over the world. I’m probably speaking to a lot of future colleagues right now.

For you, no doubt, this is a very special day. One recurring theme in this speech will be that of the different seasons.

Well, you must be in the springtime of your careers; an exhilarating time, full of promise and possibilities. Today you will start a new life, and will be part of a new community.

I remember my last days at university, still in the Cold War era. They were different times indeed. No Facebook or Twitter back then; you actually had to go to a bar to meet people. Where you paid for your beers with Dutch guilders. We listened to Abba, Queen, and Bowie. Madonna was still a virgin. Yes: different times, and different problems.

Now is a special time for me too. Believe me; I am getting older, but hopefully not yet in the autumn of my career. It is my Indian summer, and as you know, those are the best. As my second term as a government minister is coming to an end, it makes sense for me to look back. But also to look forward, and give some advice to my successor.

As you know, we live in an individualistic age. These days the focus is often on what I did, and what I achieved. Well, not today.

First of all, I wouldn’t get anything done without the hundreds of dedicated diplomats, development workers, support staff and security personnel working for our country around the clock. They are really at the 'Front Line': working in all the different places: from Bamako to Brussels, from Khartoum to Geneva, from New York to Old Hague. But secondly, and more importantly, I don’t think a country can go it alone either. Declare itself number one. Claim it can solve the world’s many problems by going solo. Of course – for the Dutch government, it’s also 'The Netherlands first'. But alone we cannot reach anything. We have to pool sovereignty. 

This is all the more important since the old dichotomy domestic policy – foreign policy is losing relevance. We see it every day: far greater possibilities for citizens to travel the world and the seven seas, to trade, to get to know new countries and people.

But also the downside: more possibilities for hostile forces to interfere in domestic democratic processes, try to disrupt trade and the functioning of a free society. As a Minister of Foreign Affairs, it is my role to be a bridge between the foreign and the domestic sphere. And for you, international students this is also a (future) role and ‘task’. We need a new ‘international social contract’, bringing the different lines together (the ones who ‘lost out’ on globalisation, the challenges of migration and integration, while at the same time being faithful to our values, our true driving force of collective of collective multilateralism and cooperation).

You can be this new generation of bridge-builders if you want.

Tackling these challenges ahead, I promise you, will take cooperation and long-term commitment. It’s not an easy task to protect freedom, democracy and equality: the values we hold dear. Morality is not for softies, we know since 1938, naiveté is not the answer. And the international legal order needs forceful protection in times of disruptors. So: those values require constant attention and tireless effort. Above all, it’s a collective endeavour.

Today, of course, we are at the University College Roosevelt. The three famous Roosevelts (Theodore, Franklin Delano and Eleanor) all believed that freedom is not a natural condition. Rather it’s a state that people construct and uphold. The international system as we know it today is in large part a legacy of the Roosevelts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you know, the current international system was built on the ruins of the Second World War. In a way, it was the springtime of international relations, where we witnessed a new beginning, new energy, and new hope. The rallying cry was: Nie wieder Kriegorplus jamais ça’. Never again would there be war and destruction on an industrial scale. Never again would we see such barbarity, cruelty and savagery.

Alas, soon after this upsurge of new energy and hope, the Cold War began. A grave and lasting crisis that polarised the world’s two new superpowers and their respective allies.

Relations and confidence dropped below freezing. Although Europe developed, and we had the Trente Glorieuses, the international system was bipolar, and full of difficulty [PG]. The spring of International Relations took a very long time to materialize. Although people were already expecting a general relaxation, this spring, filled with the threat of nuclear weapons, was freezing cold. People had to wait for summer for quite a while.

Decades later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, summer finally seemed to arrive for geopolitics and international diplomacy. Some even predicted 'the end of history'. The end of history….well that sounds a lot like an 'eternal summer'. And like all things too good to be true, this was not true – just look at the rise of post Coldwar '’unfrozen conflicts'’. Nevertheless: we can conclude without exaggeration: those were relatively good days. Relations between the former enemies at least warmed up. Important institutions were created, to tackle the new challenges, like the Yugoslavia Tribunal and the International Criminal Court here in the Netherlands. The world united behind the Millennium Development Goals, and over time great things were achieved.

Extreme poverty was halved, literacy doubled, hunger and infant mortality dropped spectacularly while Asia was rising. Diplomacy and the art of compromise had seemingly triumphed over violent confrontation, war and weaponry. It was unquestionably an era of optimism – at least for some.

Now fast forward to today. The great geopolitical vacation is clearly over. After that long summer of progress, it feels as if we’re well into autumn now, with a harsh winter on the way. The perception is negative: Some fear the final demise of the rule-bas international order.

1)  The number of complex and protracted crises is alarming and again on the rise: Syria, Libya, Yemen, Venezuela, North Korea, Mali, the Central African Republic. Many regional and global actors are involved, making it even harder to find the political solutions that are needed. Some conflicts – notably Yemen and Syria – are getting worse while the world stands idly by, powerless to help.

Concepts such as International Humanitarian Law and the Protection of Civilians seem to be forgotten. The causes of these wars frequently lie in deep political and socioeconomic crises in regions badly served by failing states and systems. But we must be honest: those failing states and systems have themselves often been caused, aggravated or badly served by clumsy interventions. Take the ones in Iraq and Libya. In Yemen we see a humanitarian disaster unfolding, a cholera outbreak of unprecedented severity, and an international system unable or unwilling to respond.

2)  The number of refugees and displaced people – a staggering 65 million – is also unprecedented. From the Middle East and northern Africa, millions of people are fleeing violence, destruction and conflict. At the same time, those flows are difficult to manage responsibly, and they pose a severe test for European solidarity.

3)  And then there is terrorism. Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Stockholm.

The list of cities suffering horrendous – and seemingly unstoppable – attacks is long. These beautiful, vibrant cities are now tainted with horror. At times the unexpected and unimaginable seem to have become the new normal. The scourge of ISIS defies description. This apocalyptic movement rapidly conquered an area half the size of France, using a combination of medieval methods – terrifying violence and religious inspiration – together with highly modern hybrid warfare. The good news is obviously: ISIS is pushed back. Our own country took part in it, as did most of the civilized world. A major achievement, for sure.

However: the underlying mechanisms still need to be addressed. Programmes of de-radicalisation, early warning and de-marginalisation of Sunnis need to be reinforced. Militaru solutions without improved governance and reconstruction will just give rise to new radicalization.

4)  Elsewhere we are witnessing a tendency towards illiberal, ‘guided democracies’. In Turkey and Russia, some façades of freedom are still intact. But the underlying structures – indispensable for a true democracy – are not: a free press, room for dissent, space for civil society.

We can see the same worrying trends in our neighbouring Venezuela. Tending towards violent suppression of the opposition and strict control of power and civic space, until only one voice can be heard – the voice of absolute power.

5)  And in the midst of all this, we are seeing a clear Anglo-American disengagement. Two of the major defenders of liberal democracy seem to opting for a ‘time out’. The mantle of world leadership seems ill-suited to the US these days. Escalating rhetoric about ‘fire and fury’ or being ‘locked and loaded’ is not what’s needed now. The world is asking for more patient diplomacy, and fewer frenzied tweets. 

6)  Up until a few months ago, even the most optimistic Europhile had to be worried about the future of the European project. A couple of months and elections later, the picture is clearly filled with a ray of hope. But we cannot relax. Nor should we. Reform is needed. There are contradictions within and between countries, especially after the EU enlarged and deepened.

We urgently need to work towards a Europe that performs, empowers and protects or we will lose more people to the deceptive cause of chauvinists and nationalists.

In light of all this turbulence, it might seem most logical to retreat and turn inward. To hide in our trenches or behind our dikes. For governments to raise barriers, build great and then even greater walls, close their borders. For people to just shut their doors, sit by the fire place and read À la recherche du temps perdu.

This would be a great mistake, and I will tell you why. First of all, hiding for the winter doesn’t make us safer. It wouldn’t help to reinforce our wealth or our societies, based on openness and freedom. Those who promise you otherwise are lying. They hold up the prospect of easy solutions, without bothering about practicalities, without thinking about the consequences. This much I will admit: the international architecture is in need of renovation, and in some places reconstruction.

It was built in a different time, in response to different events. Yet to conclude that institutions like the EU, UN and NATO are obsolete, and that we could do without them, is absurd.

We shouldn’t forget what diplomacy and dialogue are capable of. And what we can achieve if we all work together.

1)  In 2015, after intense preparation, a ground-breaking agreement was reached in Paris to protect the environment. The way we live and consume is clearly jeopardising our peace and security. In the years ahead we need to devote our full attention to caring for the climate, and ensuring clean water and clean air – a burden we should share much more fairly. Some countries face an existential threat. Mitigating climate change is also a question of distribution: between rich and poor countries, North and South, and present and future generations.

We now need to complete the energy transition: towards a new green economy where government and private sector work together. 

2)  After years of negotiations, careful preparation and diplomatic patience, a deal was reached with Iran – a really remarkable achievement. There is independent oversight and inspection, and it is clear the country is no longer developing a nuclear weapon. In turn, sanctions are being partially lifted. We support this deal, for it was the best one feasible in the circumstances. And in a way, multilateral diplomacy will have to be made more effective in the case of North Korea, that just jeopardized security above Japan in what the SC called last night 'an outrageous manner’'.  Reaching out to partners who are not like-minded is key here. It is the most effective way. The US, China, Russia will have to work together in the Security Council, finding the balance between diplomacy, sanctions and pressure. The role of China and Russia is crucial here.

3)  Where the leaders of Venezuela are increasingly choosing the path of violence, peace has finally arrived in neighbouring Colombia. The country of One Hundred Years of Solitude lived through more than 50 years of conflict, where thousands 'disappeared', hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were displaced. Again, it was years of patient diplomacy that led to a breakthrough. Diplomacy between arch enemies, mediated by Cuba and Norway. In the end it led to verifiable agreements, the disarmament of the world’s oldest and strongest guerrilla army, and an end to the worst forms of violence. I have seen this with my own eyes. Earlier this year, I visited a site with former FARC members in Colombia. I was impressed by the vibrant energy of positive political will. 

4)  What’s more, a new generation of young, strong, courageous and intelligent leaders is taking the stage in North America and Europe. People like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron.

People who dare to shape the narrative, renew politics, and dare to defend what they believe in – human rights, freedom, and peaceful cooperation among nations. I am sure others – maybe some of you – will follow.

5)  In Europe, meanwhile, there is an unmistakable new energy and vigour emerging. A lively discussion of how to make our old continent great again. This is partly in reaction to Brexit, Putin and Erdogan, and the unpredictability of and discomfort with the new leader of the Free World. So: we will dare to reform the EU where needed. We need a better Europe, and that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘more’ or ‘less’ Europe. But it does mean a more political Europe, an EU that is big on the big things and small on the small things. A Europe that learns how to shape its narrative. For the new generation of Europeans, ‘never again’ is not the rallying cry it once was. It’s become a distant whisper. So we should think long and hard about a new European narrative that speaks to all generations

Until now, Europe speaks softly, and carries no stick at all. On defense, closer cooperation is needed.

It is happening, for instance between the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium. But much more should be done. For instance on R&D; European countries should pool defense capacities. Because one thing is very clear to me: Europe has to take more responsibility for its own security. Hiding only under the powerful umbrella of faraway friends is something of the past. If we do not export stability, we will import instability. And Europe has a unique toolbox of political, developmental and increasingly security instruments it should use much more effectively.  

6)  In the end, diplomacy will have to work for Yemen. And it will have to work for Libya. Yes, I know, it’s difficult. But it’s not impossible. The Netherlands wants to put Yemen on the agenda in the upcoming Human Rights Council. We are working hard to make sure we are not exporting weapons to the parties in this terrible conflict. And we work with likeminded countries to hopefully help bring this biggest human tragedy to an end.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am the foreign minister of a country which, while small, is also a great nation: the seventeenth economy of the world, one of the biggest trading nations. A great past, and a bright future. A nation which helped build the current international architecture, as co-founder of the EU, NATO, and the UN. This year we are member of the G20, we presided over the EU and will be a member of the SC next year. Our goal is to ensure our international architecture is fit for the 21st century. But make no mistake – we need it now more than ever. We have to defend, innovate and modernize these international institutions. On all manner of international issues – security, migration, climate change and fair trade – the current tendency is to try and solve the problem at home. This is a mistake. I see it as my privilege to help unite foreign and domestic policy.

To strike a balance between assuring people we’re working to protect them and their interests, and at the same time being honest and critical. Today’s many global challenges can never be solved solely at home.

So, as I reach the end of my term as minister, can I say I am hopeful? Am I optimistic? Absolutely. I believe there’s always hope. In a time of twitter and antagonism, diplomacy is paradoxically a progressive force.

Diplomacy can work, and thanks to diplomacy, the world can work. What we need is cautious, determined and patient efforts towards verifiable agreements. What we need is a fairer, more inclusive international system. The international order will survive, as long as we update existing arrangements with a new framework for effectiveness and legitimacy. We need to trust in our own values, and resolve to defend and protect them. It is important to link foreign policy with the local level. I am very impressed by the work done here in Middelburg, by the municipality and mayor, and by academia, by Barbara Oomen and her team.

As some of the [Dutch] students know, we will have a new government in a month or so. I will not stay on. But, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, I have this to say. It is partly preaching to the choir, but you have to forgive me; we are in a church after all.

The current government laid the foundation of a much stronger economy than when we began, five years ago. Then, we had severe cuts in our foreign service. Too severe. Everybody is talking about the 2% defense norm, but I for one think we need to spend more on diplomacy. Our diplomatic service is more needed than ever. It is also not expensive. The total cost of all our embassies is the equivalent of 40 km highway. A diplomat is also cheaper than a soldier. But for part of the public, it was not cheap enough. Well, we will have to choose. If we want to play a role in this world and help shape and strengthen the rules, and it is clear to me we should, we also need the money and people to do just that.

For embassies where great women and men are at work. For development work, to continue the fight against hunger, extreme poverty, underdevelopment. To take our responsibility, defend our interests, and stand for our values in the EU, the UN and NATO. Finally, we should not be afraid. Reform and innovate. The EU, and address concerns of the people.

Reform and innovate. Peace operations, make them protect and perform better. And reform and innovate our trade systems, making trade work for working people.


The most difficult part of any (long) speech is ending it. What should we take away from all this? Three things, I think:

-      In politics, you have to be both idealistic and realistic. Diplomacy requires patience and perseverance. It also requires results, and agreements you can verify. Foreign policy based purely on ideals would be full of empty promises. But policy based solely on realism wouldn’t inspire anyone. Without ideals we cannot change the world. And change is sorely needed.

For that, we need you. We need the energy and creativity of bright young minds. So please participate and come up with your own ideas on how to make the world work better.

And this, generally, is a word of advice this ‘sadder and wiser’ guy in the Indian summer of his career wants to give to you, the leaders of tomorrow. Dare to dream. Dare to be different. Dare to believe in positive change.

Liberty, equality and respect don’t just come into being spontaneously. It’s up to us to create them. It’s not enough to sit back and trust that everything will be OK. You should never resign yourself to injustice, or to the violence and insanity that destroys lives.

So, lastly: the international order will reinvent itself, it will survive. But we need a new framework for effectiveness and legitimacy. Previous generations had to fight for strong institutions that made the world work. Now it’s your turn. I wish you all every success in your studies and future careers. We’re counting on you.

It seems fitting to conclude with the words of a Roosevelt: Eleanor. She once said something that still rings true today:  'The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.'