The Netherlands must set the course in security policy, says former Commander of the Armed Forces Dick Berlijn in an interview with Volkskrant. Because the role as “loyal, little ally” of the US cannot be sustained.
The Netherlands should not participate in a US-led military mission in the Strait of Hormuz “if it is intended to maximize pressure on Iran.” And while the first F35 fighter jets are now coming in and the cabinet has decided to purchase eight more in the largest and most controversial defense purchase in recent times, “the current political constellation” is asking for investment in European defense. Because Europe must learn to think and act in the field of security and strive for “strategic autonomy”.
That’s what Dick Berlijn (69) says, a former “Top Gun” himself, and widely praised as one of the best and most capable officers of his generation. After his successful operations as an F-16 pilot, he left his mark on defense policy for many years and was closely involved in the choice of the JSF – first as commander of the Air Forces (2000-2004), then until 2008 as commander of the Armed Forces, the highest military function in the country.
The Netherlands must set the course, says Berlin – no matter how difficult that will be. His plea for a radically different security policy sounds like a warning from the military that the role of “loyal, little ally” of the US, which the Netherlands started to fulfill after the Second World War, cannot be sustained today.
“We were not only tied to the US, but also to the American leadership. NATO was so strong because the Americans took that leadership, and that made unified action possible. But now power play is being played.”
Purchasing the JSF / F-35 has kept the Netherlands busy for thirty years. You were involved in this at decisive moments. How do you look back on the decision now?
“I want to make a distinction between the military and international aspects. Based on the experiences so far, the F-35 has still been a good choice in the military sense. It is a plane that can do a lot, a platform that absorbs and processes information – and information, knowing where your opponent is, that is crucial. Military wise it was the right choice, better than all competitors.
“If you look at the political considerations – what signal do you send by buying that plane and not a European plane? How solid is the coalition in which we always think we will operate? – then you can say that much has changed. Where around thirty, twenty, and perhaps ten years ago there was no doubt about our coalition partners, it is now different. Not that we suddenly doubt NATO, but the leadership has changed. In the past we consulted in the NATO Council about the strategy and the political goal. Nowadays America forces partners to follow them. And we are not always happy with that, careful said. ”
Can you give an example?
“I found it significant that when America was recently asked to provide troops for Syria, the American ambassador (Pete Hoekstra, ed.) Committed power play and relied heavily on the Netherlands – even publicly, which does not help either. We do not want to work in a coalition with a country that says “listen, I am the strongest and you have to follow me, otherwise I will kick you out or I will no longer do business with you”. And then I say: I don’t know what the estimate would be when choosing an aircraft. The choice at the time was also because of the coalition – the party with which we thought we would continue to operate. ”
Does the ambassador’s direct approach work?
‘Not at all. Perhaps it is lack of diplomatic experience. But if you really want something, then careful probing is done in advance. America, too, has no interest in letting the Netherlands suffer face loss because The Hague has to say no. Normally you see that if it is said “maybe that is possible”, the entire political spectrum does its best to make it happen. Even the opposition is sometimes willing, even if it does not support the mission, to say so in a mitigating way. But now you give every reason to say no. And “it’s a good thing the Netherlands says no once”, that kind of emotion. So it’s not effective at all. ”
Is that a widely shared feeling in The Hague?
“The one formulates it more cautiously than the other, but I am certainly not the only one who finds it. See how the US government is now looking at structures such as the EU and NATO that have brought us stability. There is increasing criticism of these structures, even openly, “it makes no sense at all, let’s get off.” Those are serious signals.
“As Europe, we must ask ourselves where we will get our strength from. And it underlines the importance that Europe remains united and that we agree on our security policy. That we do not fall apart in different countries. Europe needs strong defense to make it clear to other parties that they should not venture into all sorts of adventures. ”
But doesn’t Europe have a strong defense?
“Europe has many countries with defense. The European partnerships, such as the Dutch-German Army Corps, are good and effective. It makes military sense to do that. What we do not have is integrated defense. A defense with one uniform under one command. We don’t want that. We will no longer experience that. But we need to look much more at what makes European defense effective. That is not just about military means, but also about political structures around it to ensure that that power can also be put on hold. ”
Europeans should strive for strategic autonomy?
“Exact. If you start to think about what strategic autonomy entails, that also brings us back to the question: what resources are involved? In that light, the choice for the F-35 could have been different. ”
There are now rolling stock initiatives in Europe. Are you confident that the national reflexes can be overcome in this?
‘No actually not. It is still very opportunistic. These national considerations are still dominant. It won’t change much in the short term, but America is going in a different direction, and even after Trump, the ghost won’t just come back into the bottle. America no longer wants to be the police officer of the world, and Europe must ask itself: what role do we want to play and what resources do these include? And how do we ensure that countries do not think “European policy means: buy French”? ”
The old situation no longer exists, something new is not there yet – what do we do in the meantime?
“A lot of tops are unrelated, which means that we also respond very ad hoc. Do you want to participate? Yes, because I don’t want to have to say no. If the Americans appeal to us, we think: yes, we actually disagree with security policy, but let’s just say yes otherwise we will be seen as the bad guy. That is of course disastrous in the longer term. Then we always see ourselves in situations in which we do not want to be at all. That is a very bad way. I like to quote Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the sound for the defeat. “Then we go up to the beet bridge, if we only react bite to things.”
What do you think about that mission in the Strait of Hormuz? To begin with: is it necessary?
“Is that mission necessary to put further pressure on Iran? No, I don’t think so. I am very skeptical about the American policy of stepping out of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Iran has adhered to the agreements. We note that the Trump government believes that those agreements should have gone much further, but that has not been agreed. America is now deciding to put further pressure on Iran. If that is the reason for that mission, then I am strongly against it.
“If you participate in an American program focused on regime change, you escalate the situation. That is not the same as participating in a European mission that wants to be neutral in ensuring that free passage is guaranteed. The British have said they want a European intervention force. I don’t think we should participate in an operation by the Americans that we absolutely don’t know what’s going to happen there. What if there is a provocation, and America sees that as a license to wage war on a large scale? ”
It is a curious situation: the Netherlands was questioned by the US and Great Britain in a short time on individual missions in the Strait of Hormuz. But under Prime Minister Johnson, the British are still taking part in the American mission.
“I see very big risks in that. They should know that the British do that. But the Netherlands must ask itself: “Should we participate?” Yes, we believe that the free passage through the Strait of Hormuz should remain. But we don’t want to get sucked into a conflict that we actually don’t agree with at all. With the EU, we are committed to upholding the nuclear agreement – and so we disagree with US foreign policy. ”
The British say: we are now participating with the Americans, but the ultimate goal is still a European mission. Can this mission be explained to the House of Representatives?
“That will be very difficult. Although it has happened in the past. (Laughs) All understanding that the government does not want to offend important partners, but I do not find it convincing. At some point we must dare to stand up for what we actually think. The best thing would be if you could do that in a European context, that would be much more powerful. And I think Europe is also very passive in that area. ”
The Netherlands should not participate under American leadership?
“Certainly not if it is an American-led mission with the aim of putting further pressure on Iran. That will be expressed differently, I realize that too, but if that is the purpose of the operation, I think we should not do that. ”
Not participating in an American mission, Europe strategically autonomous, perhaps better not a JSF – ten years ago you were the commander of the armed forces. Apparently much has changed in a short time.
‘Certainly. In the past, we sometimes had our doubts about operations. But then we had the idea that our arguments were heard and that our reservations were taken into account. We have never doubted American leadership in the same way as we do today. A roaming policy, without a clear path, based on dubious considerations, that does not make it all stronger.
Some people will say: that is nice talking. Berlin has worked extremely hard to get that JSF …
“… And I still support that, but a lot has changed in the meantime. Europe owes itself to a strong policy. And if America or Russia or Turkey or anyone else has very different views on stability and no longer adhere to international agreements – yes, then something has changed. It is no surprise if Turkey suddenly buys Russian weapons or chooses a party with the Russians in Syria, while the rest of NATO with America is on the other side. ”
If the world is so unstable, is this the time to argue with the US?
“Not a fight, but as Europeans we shouldn’t compromise our principles because we want to say yes to the big brother. We are grateful for everything that happened in the past, but there will come a time when you say: this should not be this way. ”