Part II: Hugo Siblesz: Values vs. Interests: is there a difference?

This is part two of a five-part event summary of the main points and statements  of high-ranking Dutch political directors at The Hague Institute for Global Justice’s, entitled “An Inside View: The Effectiveness of Dutch Foreign Policy”.

The building of The Hague Institute for Global Justice

The building of The Hague Institute for Global Justice, copyright

The question under discussion was ‘in which way could Dutch foreign policy be made more effective’? Structurally how, based on which principles, and how with who?’

The members of the panel all had a decade long career at a large variety of organisations. but all having served the Dutch Foreign Ministry for a number of those years. For more on their individual profiles, please refer to the speaker biographies on the event program.

The second speaker was Hugo Siblesz

(Due to the compact and abstract nature of this presentation, there a fairly many quotes from the speaker)

Hugo Siblesz, thirteenth Secretary-General of the Permanent Court of Arbitration

Hugo Siblesz, thirteenth Secretary-General of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, copyright

Hugo Siblesz: Values vs. Interests: is there a difference?

The Netherlands has a long history of presenting its policy objectives in terms of values rather than interests.

What’s the rationale?

The choice for a value-based policy could, arguably, be meant to kind of neutralise, depoliticise, the underlying issues. But, by pretending that they represent values, we say, in fact, that they should naturally and, ideally, universally, be respected as a manner of principle without us having to compete or put up a fight to safeguard them.

Sometimes their is no logical explanation for presenting our FP objectives as values. In such cases, the implications might be negative.

Examples of value-based formulations of objectives and the rationale to consider them rather from an interest perspective

1. The Freedom of the Seas, in respect of merchant shipping

The Freedom of the Seas, or the Right Which Belongs to the Dutch to take part in the East-Indian Trade > Defending and enforcing such a freedom everywhere is difficult and costly, thus “this is a case where presenting an interest as a value, is a rational thing to do.”

2. Peaceful settlement of international disputes

While the Netherlands surely has many reasons to be in favour of the peaceful settlement of dispute, the fact that some of the international organisations on peace justice are in the Hague, bring significant economic benefits. As such, the major of The Hague, as well as the Dutch government, recognise the economic interests that the development of the initiative to the peaceful settlement of international disputes bring.

3. The pursuance of a multilateral approach, seeking solutions in the framework of intergovernmental organisations

As such, it is  the opposite of going in alone, often and with some contempt associated in the public discussion with the policy of our friends across the Atlantic. Some see this as proof that we occupy the moral high ground, i.e., the choice for multilateralism reflects our values. However, I would submit, since the Netherlands is not in a position to defend its interests by going in alone, opting for a multilateral approach is as much a matter of interest as of values.

4. Human Rights policy

Seems to be the embodiment of a values-based FP, seeking to ensure human rights are defended, seems the obvious thing to do from a perspective of values.

Then why present it in terms of interests? Seems selfish. However, it is in the interests of the Netherlands that human rights are global ensured. “In the end, stability will be served by allowing people to determine their own destiny.”

Interest-based HR policy would be more honest. Value-based HR policies lose credibility at time their economic interests are prioritised. Presenting the policy in terms of interests would prevent this loss of credibility because interests are posed relative to others, while values are always absolute.

5. Development cooperation

Has long been a core Dutch FP principle. where a sense of moral obligation was predominant.

“The benefits of seeing developing countries participate fully in the world economic, both in the interests of its citizens and of the world as a whole. Such an approach might also have led to a more critical determination and implementation of policy.”

The policy of development cooperation had failed in part because it was seem as an obligation of what the government ought to do, rather than a policy objective in the interests of the Netherlands.


I submit that the objective of a nation’s FP is pursuing the national interests, like any public policy – that is what governments are elected to do. Does it make a difference to pursue a FP, presenting interests as values? As I have explained, I think it does, at least in a number of situations. Calling interests by their name would produce in any event a broad acceptance of the policy domestically. … Calling them by a different name sometimes has the effect of obscuring the policy objectives. The only upside being that it may make one feel good, at least for a while.


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