How The World Sees The Netherlands

Does the continuing debate on the rights of Muslims in the Netherlands affect the country’s nation brand? Does the rise of anti-immigration politicians in Dutch politics affect the image people have of the Dutch? Does hosting international insitutions like the International Criminal Court improve the country’s brand image? The Dutch government has investigated these perceptions, and some results are certainly interesting…

In mid-March Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen reported the results of an opinion survey on how other nations view the Netherlands. The purpose was to discover to what extent the domestic debate over Islam (“het binnenlandse moslimdebat”) was affecting the country’s trade position. The report also included details of the Dutch public diplomacy activities designed to promote positive opinion abroad.

The report makes interesting reading. The starting point is that the Netherlands has for many years held on to a positive image abroad (‘Nederland is een sterke merk’). In terms of recognition and associated values, the country is rated alongside the larger nations of Europe. Simon Anholt’s Nation Brands Index regularly places the Netherlands around position 10, 11, or 12 out of a total list of 50 nations tested. Leaving aside, of course, the dubious merits of a nation brand index, the point here is that a positive image can support the capability to achieve a range of foreign policy goals – in particular in this case the securing of favourable economic deals.

In 2008-2009 the Dutch trademark was tested in 15 countries: Belgium, France, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Egypt, Russia, Turkey, India, Indonesia, China, Brazil, USA. A mix of close European partners, BRICS, and important Islamic countries. Out of this lot the Netherlands received a positive judgement of between 5.9 and 8.3 out of 10. The scores – to the disappointment of the Ministry, were significantly lower in the non-European countries (with the exception of Brazil) than in Europe itself. In Turkey and Egypt the lowest scores were registered for Dutch moral standards and respect for other religions. Tough for the Ministry to take was also the fact that the Dutch are not recognised for being ‘open-minded’ or ‘tolerant’ – hard-working and friendly, yes, but thats as far as it goes. Lastly, the civil servants cannot be surprised to find that no-one regards the Netherlands as playing a leading role in the EU. The days of being one of the original path-finding Six are long, long gone.

Interesting result from the countries with a muslim majority: The values that the Netherlands likes to think it stands for – human rights, international law, international peace, and a reliable partner in international organisations –  are not accepted because they are selectively applied. The significance of this in the wake of the Davids report should not be lost. Likewise the Dutch are seen as predominantly pro-Israel, undermining its position as a credible partner in the Middle East peace process. And the ICC’s call to arrest Sudanese president Al-Basjir has gone down badly as well (the ICC’s location in The Hague placing it within Dutch foreign policy by proxy).

The response of Verhagen to these results was significant, because it didn’t take him long to draw direct links between some of the poor results and the ‘fear and hatred’ politics of Geert Wilders giving the Netherlands a bad name. So Wilders is damaging Dutch export capacity? This angle was explored by the Groene Amsterdammer in an article last week, which gave the word to among others the head of the Dutch employers’ association (Wilders damages the Netherlands “in an amazing way”). Funnily enough, the Groene didn’t have much interest in this approach, and instead focused on the damage to Dutch reputations coming from the impending withdrawal from Uruzgan. Is that going to have a negative effect in muslim countries? Unlikely. But it has in the US. Considering the trade balance with the US as compared with the Middle East, it is clear which is the most important trading partner – and where the Dutch trademark really matters.

Incidentally, the NRC ran a nice reconstruction of the fall of the cabinet last weekend too. Biggest conclusion – it was complicated. Second conclusion – the crunch came when Verhagen, having obtained the letter from NATO Secretary General Rasmussen requesting an extension of the Dutch mission (with the acquiescence of Wouter Bos), then decided, without discussion, to send the letter to parliament and make it public. That careless attempt to force the issue and make Bos back down before the cameras exploded any trust between the two. So Bos, up to that point willing to find a way out, pulled the plug.

Final conclusion – Verhagen blew it, big time.

Article by Giles Scott-Smith, first published here.