Part III: Peter van Walsum: Morality and Realism in Dutch foreign policy

This is part three 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 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 third speaker was Peter van Walsum, who used his website to publish his speech as we heard it. Here are some of the main points, and quotes, of his argument.

Peter van Walsum, Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, 2005-2008

Peter van Walsum, Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, 2005-2008, copyright

Peter van Walsum: Morality and Realism in Dutch foreign policy

In international politics there is always an unquenchable appetite for debate about the … legality question. It is of course proper and feels good to be acting in conformity with international law. Yet, everybody is aware that this is not always possible. … [The violation of chapter VII of the UN Charter] is so normal, it is almost routine. The described stalemate is untenable and sane people will recognise that international law is not the only frame of reference. The intervention without a SC mandate will always happen in the end. And then invariably go unpunished. The legality debate is therefore, ultimately, inconsequential and we should not waste our time on it.

For this reason, Van Walsum wishes to redirect the debate on legality, to a debate on ethics and morality.

Max Weber’s two sets of ethical virtues

  • the ethic of conviction: morality of the action is be judged on the action’s adherence to certain rules and values
  • the ethic of responsibility: morality of an action is be judged solely by its consequences.

These kinds of ethic are to be complementary and would, only together,  produce the true human of having a vocation for politics.

Complementary does not imply their equality; the ethic of conviction will always make the first move, “but then the ethic of responsibility must take charge without delay because, on its own, the ethic of conviction, is an accident-prone creature.”

Weber’s politician by vocation constantly assesses the consequences of the decisions that have to be made.

Reassessment of the fall of Sbrenica based on the Max Weber’s politician by vocation

The failure by the Dutch to organise Sbrenica, and let many civilians to die as, according to international law and the UN Charter, force may only be used out of self-defence or in case of a UNSC mandate to do so.

Dutch bat’s fateful decision to avoid armed confrontation with the Serbs pales into insignificance when compared to the responsibility of all those well-intentioned Dutch politicians in both government and parliament, as well as journalists who, in 1992 and 1993, generated the immense political pressure that make the Netherlands settle for the unsound concept of ‘safe airings’ and accept the task of monitoring the remote safe area of Sbrenica after it had become known that no other government was prepared to let its peacekeepers take on this mission impossible.

The Dutch ethic of conviction had prevailed and the law of unintended consequences came into force.


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