Monday

18th Feb 2019

Opinion

MH17 and the diplomacy of business going Dutch

  • The MH17 plane was shot down over separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine on 17 July (Photo: Jeroen Akkermans RTL)

MH17 has left Dutch society in a state of mid-summer anaesthesia. Exactly 25 years after the end of the Cold War, and 20 years after the Srebrenica genocide that left more than 8,000 dead in a UN ‘safe area’ under Dutch command, the shooting down of KLM double tagged Malaysian Airlines MH17 is another defining moment for the Netherlands’ external relations.

This time it is all about changing relations with Russia, Europe’s geographically nearest BRIC and a major trading partner. The tragic shooting down of the plane in a warzone in East Ukraine does not quite constitute a Dutch 9/11. But this better be a ‘game-changer’ reaching beyond relations with Russia.

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After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Dutch were initially among the most conservative EU members when it came to sanctions that, in the view of The Hague, would cause a spiral of sanctions and counter sanctions. MH17 and Putin’s way of handling the crisis triggered policy change.

Apart from everything else, in politics a crisis is a psychological opportunity.

Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans’ speech at the UN in New York gave the Dutch maximum global attention. In recent years the majority of the Netherlands foreign policy establishment had come to accept the country’s shrinking international influence as an inevitable development.

The human tragedy of MH17 fleetingly catapulted the Netherlands back to the limelight of the UN and EU stage. Through working with Australia, which is much more vocal about its contribution to global affairs, MH17 serves as a reminder for the Euro crisis-beaten Dutch. The Netherlands could have more of an impact as a small middle power - by simply aspiring to it.

The MH17 imbroglio can help launch a Dutch and European debate about three interrelated issues in Dutch foreign policy that equally apply to bigger European countries: the attractions and perils of running one’s country as an ‘economy first’ nation; the responsibilities and diplomatic capabilities of airliners and other internationally operating firms; and the security of individual citizens outside state borders.

Business first approach

MH17 questions the potential consequences of external relations ruled by the primacy of business interests in a world where others have a predominantly geopolitical playbook. In the international realm there is more than just economics to business. This may be commonplace in a region like East Asia that live in constant fear of cold politics interfering with hot economics. But here we enter less familiar territory for Europeans, in particular historical seafaring nations like the Netherlands and the UK.

Until this year, big Russia had little to fear from little Holland and a divided EU. During a rocky cultural year 2013 between Russia and the Netherlands, celebrating 400 years of relations, the Dutch went at great lengths to keep the peace with Putin. In the interests of business, of course, and despite tension flying high sealed with a visit by the King, Queen and Prime Minister to the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympic Games.

In the Netherlands and abroad, the reductionist Dutch mantra of ‘economic diplomacy’ is gradually attracting quiet criticism.

Foreign diplomats, no less interested in trade than their Dutch counterparts, raise their eyebrows about what they perceive as a singularly one-dimensional ‘business first’ approach. No ambassadors to the Netherlands probably like to think of themselves as mere economic animals representing extra-European markets. The Netherlands’ global partners may prefer the Dutch devil they knew: business-like and pragmatic, but also principled and at times even kind of headstrong.

Geopolitical risks

In the Netherlands and across Europe, the crisis with Russia should also help us focus on the international roles and responsibilities of European firms themselves. After disaster struck MH17, the seemingly untouchable KLM Royal Dutch Airlines immediately claimed that the flight route over Eastern Ukraine was declared to be safe. Some of its foreign competitors came to the opposite conclusion.

Through foreign eyes it is probably surprising, but not uncharacteristic of the Dutch political temperament, that there was no immediate public uproar about corporate responsibility in this matter.

In The Hague such big issues are solved by committee and official investigation, drawing out the matter for months to come. It would help if Prime Minister Mark Rutte makes the point right now: big firms with responsibility for the safety of people should take governmental travel advice as seriously as individuals.

As a rule big business should give analysis of geopolitical risks to their foreign operations priority, and MH17 poses the question whether they always do. For KLM and many others this is a matter of commercial self-interest but, as has sadly become clear in the fields of Ukraine, this is also in the public interest. Integrating geopolitical risks into long-term corporate strategies has become more important. Like national governments, big firms need integrated diplomatic capabilities.

In one more respect MH17 and the ensuing crisis between Russia and the West is the saddest possible case-study. In an increasingly messy and unpredictably violent world the security of individual citizens stands front and centre. European governments recognise this. Their foreign ministers have learned that ‘consular cases’ can be highly explosive devices in domestic public opinion. Diplomats know that a bad press can also break their personal careers.

The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight reinforces the point that the security of citizens outside state borders is to be framed as a central issue in 21st century security policy.

Parliamentarians and pundits in Europe’s security community better keep their eye on the ball. The vague call for a strengthening of military defence as a response to ‘Putin’ is consistent with past debates, but it does not address this problem.

The writer (@JanMDiplo) is Senior Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, Professor of Diplomacy at the University of Antwerp, and Co-Editor of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy.

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