Lack of Leadership – the Case of the Netherlands


Of the 298 people who died when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, 193 were Dutch nationals. But while grief in the Netherlands has been palpable, the Dutch have not so far taken the lead in responding to what happened. To the contrary. Given that the Netherlands’ loss on the occasion was roughly analogous to America’s loss on 9/11, it’s rather remarkable that the Dutch have been so restrained.

The Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has repeatedly expressed his sadness and anger over the tragic incident. The country’s new king, Willem-Alexander, has dutifully played his symbolic role. And the Dutch themselves have manifestly been affected by their grievous loss, publicly mourning their dead. Moreover yesterday it was announced that the Dutch Safety Board would be in charge of the international investigation into who exactly attacked the civilian airliner and with what military hardware.

Still, there has been no national outcry of anger and outrage. And there has been no national effort to exercise leadership on an issue – Russian aggression – that is threatening the European order.

I know the reasons for the Netherlands’ reticence. They include its extensive trade with Russia, its heavy dependence on Russian energy exports, Royal Dutch Shell’s huge investments in Russia, and cities and towns such as Rotterdam, which imports huge quantities of Russian oil, and then proceeds to refine and sell it. In other words, the Netherlands’ reluctance to antagonize Russia is based largely if not entirely on economic considerations – as opposed to political ones.

I should also note that the Netherlands is a small country – under 17 million people – which presumably figures in Dutch calculations. If Germany is a large country which all the world expects to play a leadership role, the Netherlands’ small size seems almost to exempt it, even to excuse it, from having to act boldly and bravely.

The Netherlands’ distant past is fabulous and fabled. There was the time when the Dutch ruled Manhattan Island. And there was the time when the Dutch Enlightenment trumped other European Enlightenments – and it was Amsterdam that was at the center of European culture and civilization. But, the Netherlands recent past is far less fabulous, and if it is fabled at all, it is for all the wrong reasons. I refer particularly to the dismal, dreadful record of the Netherlands during World War II as it pertains to Dutch Jews.

Though it is not well known, more than 70% of the Dutch-Jewish population perished during the war. This figure far exceeds that of nearly all other European countries including Germany (25%), Belgium (44%), France (22%), and Italy (17%). The reasons for this wretched discrepancy are, of course, complex. It should be pointed out, though, that another small country, Denmark, managed to save nearly all of its Jews, in spite of its being similarly occupied for most of the war by the Nazis.

Given this history, one might think that the Dutch would be first up to stand up to a dictator with overweening territorial ambitions. But, no such luck. In keeping with past patterns, they are choosing again to go along to get along. Too bad. For in the wake of those 193 Dutch deaths, they would have had the high ground, had they chosen to take it.


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