What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The politics of coalition burden-sharing: The Netherlands and "the Afghanistan card"

With my colleague, Nik Hynek, we have a review of our book over at Travels with Shiloh. Consequently, I will now be moving on from just advertising our book in a never-disappearing blogpost to occasionally offering related commentary on new developments and to drawing attention to commentary on related subjects by others.

Today's post follows the latter script. First of all I will point to this study, from College of Europe's EU Diplomacy Papers series:

Bart van Liebergen (2011): American War, European Struggle? Analyzing the Influence of Domestic Politics on the ISAF Contributions of EU Member States. College of Europe EU Diplomacy Papers, 2011/3.

In this paper, Van Liebergen overviews the role of domestic politics in the British, German, French and Dutch cases. The last of these is one I have been paying much attention to myself here over the years, and so I will offer some commentary regarding interesting aspects of it below. But before delving into this, I very much recommend it to the readers to give a read to van Liebergen's study.

Regarding the Dutch case, I have some observations which challenge some of van Liebergen's observations, but very much, in my view, validate certain other, deeper insights of his. Let's take a closer look at this.

Van Liebergen points out an interesting instance of coalition politics on pages 22 and 26-27 in his paper. In his retelling, Dutch officials asked US officials in 2009 to put pressure on Dutch Labour Party leader, Finance Minister and Deputy PM, Wouter Bos, in order to get him to change his mind on the issue of extending the Dutch military's mission in Uruzgan beyond 2010. More specifically, they suggested to their American colleagues that they convince Bos by linking the issue to the Netherlands' invitation to the 2009 Pittsburgh Summit of the G20. For context, it may be useful to clarify that the Dutch government was a coalition government of left and right parties, with the Christian Democrats holding the position of Prime Minister (in the person of Jan Peter Balkenende) at the time. This coalition came to an end in early 2010 in large part because of the debate over operations in Uruzgan, and with the fall of the government that mission was then ended as well (in Uruzgan; otherwise the Netherlands still has an active role in Afghanistan).

In my view, the case van Liebergen refers to has been more complex, and this is one of the important points where I will deviate from van Liebergen's account. You may want to give a read to four "Wikileaked" cables on the basis of which I am arguing my version - here, here, here and here. From these I deduce the following narrative:
  • Dutch officials, including senior advisor to Dutch PM Balkenende, Karl van Oosterom, seem to have made the suggestion to US Embassy officers that Bos should be told at the G20 (not before it) that he can thank the invitation of the Netherlands to Dutch troops' presence in Uruzgan province. The US Embassy agreed with this view, and suggested that NSA General James Jones could pull aside Bos in Pittsburgh, to convey just this message, and that then perhaps Regional Envoy (the late) Richard Holbrooke could give a phone call to Dutch Development Minister Koenders (Bos' Labour Party colleague), to reiterate it. It seems that some Dutch officials, as well as the US Embassy sources concerned, were of the view that Bos "misunderstood" the reasons for the invitation of the Netherlands, attributing it simply to the country's economic importance.
  • As to this purported misunderstanding, one tends to strongly doubt it. Bos may have been well aware of the attempt at a "G20 invitation/Uruzgan extension" issue-linkage, but he may also have known that this would not be enforced with anything like tough love. Moreover, he may have genuinely believed that the Netherlands, by its economic and financial weight, may have deserved being invited anyway (just as it used to be invited to similar meetings before).
  • Furthermore, at the time, in light of the last one of the cables listed above, the Labour Party was under some pressure from its constituencies (labour unions and local governments) to deliver on promised benefits of Netherlands firms' participation in the production of the General Electric/Rolls Royce F-136 engine for the Joint Strike Fighter program - an engine whose project currently may be in the process of crashing, with the Pentagon and the White House throwing their weight decisively behind its rival, Pratt & Whitney's F-135. Since the project did not look much more promising at the time, back in 2009, Bos may well have used scoring some points on this, to alter his stance, in case he ever in fact considered that, and this may be a reason why Dutch sources were raising this issue with their US counterparts.
Of course I am not aware of all the details of the case, as someone reading Dutch sources on a daily basis would be, and in fact these details won't change the bottomline of van Liebergen's assessment of it. In his view, the US did not put much pressure on the Netherlands in the end, certainly not in the very direct way suggested by some Dutch officials themselves, and this may prove that "the Afghanistan card" may not have been so precious in the eyes of the US as some of its European partners tended to think, looking as they were to score points on it all the time in Washington. Van Liebergen goes on to argue that this eagerness to score may be a key part of the explanation concerning why European countries did not intend a big role for the EU in Afghanistan - because they were always looking to bilateralise their cooperation on Afghan matters with the US, to maximise the number of "individual points" scored for it.

I think this sounds quite sound for a proposition. My main argument against it would concern the US side of the equation. The United States may have decided not to put too much pressure on the Netherlands for several reasons, only one of which is that they may have considered the Dutch extension in Uruzgan not worthy of a try. One such reason may be that putting overt and aggressive pressure on any partner can alienate others - this is one of the major challenges for a "coalition shepherd," such as the US, when dealing with partners who define their key motivation in a coalition effort as "alliance dependence." Another such reason may be that it may have been seen as unfair to use strong pressure towards a partner that has already punched above its weight, especially compared to others - as the Netherlands did in fact. Having said that, I do think van Liebergen is correct in the sense that by Autumn 2009 the US may have considered the Dutch contribution in Uruzgan less irreplaceable than earlier on - even if a Dutch decision to leave at least some troops in Uruzgan could have served the quest for keeping a bigger Canadian footprint in Kandahar province (which at the time was slated to come to an end by 2010).

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