The Netherlands could save the world
Image by Nattu on Flickr

Our lead researcher Haroon Sheikh writes a weekly column for Dutch newspaper NRC. In these columns, he shares his insights about changes in the global hegemony, economy and society. In his second column he writes about how The Netherlands could save the world. Not with defense, but with its expertise on food and water, peace and safety. 

The Netherlands can save the world. It may sound naive, but it is meant seriously. In various expert groups in the Netherlands a powerful notion emerges regarding the future role of the Netherlands in the world. A hopeful notion, that is not a pipe-dream, but one that builds on things the Dutch are already good at. It should give the next Dutch government – which is still in formation – the opportunity to turn the tide on fear and isolationism.

The first thing to note is that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. We are aware of this within Europe, with all the conflicts going on at its borders and the refugees coming over to the continent because of these conflicts. This realization has hit home and after years of cuts in spending, European countries are now increasing their spending on defense. In a dangerous world, a good defense is important. However, with the Netherlands being a small country, the Dutch won’t make a difference on their own. They can however, but in a different way.

“Put our expertise on food and water to good use for an international security plan”

The dangers we are facing now differ from those we were up against in the past. The natural environment lies at the root of many conflicts: drought, failed crops, and water shortage. Egypt and Ethiopia quarrel over a dam in the Nile, and in Central Asia, there are tensions about rivers. In India, China, and in California, as well, shortage of freshwater looms.

More than radicalism, it is the climate that drives problems in the Middle East. Between 2006 and 2009, Syria suffered enormously from a huge drought. Bad crops caused many poor to move to the cities, where later they would rise against Assad.

A while ago, I attended the Future Force conference, hosted by the Department of Defense, where the movie Age of Consequences was shown. This movies argues that it was a drought in 2010 that led Russia to ban the export of wheat. As a result bread prices in Egypt and Tunisia went up sharply, which was followed by the Arab spring the next year.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The population in Ethiopia, Nigeria and DR Congo is expected to triple in 35 years. During the course of this century, Nigeria’s population will overshoot that of the combined countries in the European Union! What is currently going on, is just the beginning of the climate refugee phenomenon.

So, where can we derive hope from? The Netherlands have two components that together can tackle the above mentioned problems at the core. The first is the Dutch expertise on food and water. After the U.S.A., the small country of the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world: Wageningen Food Valley is to food what Silicon Valley is to ICT. Moreover, water management is in the Dutch genes. Dutch companies and institutions, such as Deltares, supply expertise everywhere, from New Orleans to Ethiopia and Dubai.

The other component is peace and safety. The Hague is often referred to as the ‘legal capital of the world’. International institutions, such as the ICC, the ICJ and Europol are situated in The Hague. Not brute force, but neutral and fair safety is the specialty of the Dutch. The Netherlands have expertise in international relationships and law. It is an ancient tradition, dating back to Spinoza and Hugo de Groot.

What if the Dutch were to connect these two fields? Food and water would then not merely be used for export or development aid, but could be part of an international security plan. Let’s define some of the regions where food and water scarcity could pose a threat, and tackle that scarcity before conflicts erupt. It would be a unique Dutch approach to make our world a safer place by fighting causes, instead of symptoms: Bombing IS off the map will solve nothing, as long as despair remains.

This solution is not a ‘military industrial complex’, but a ‘climate-safety complex’. And the beauty of it all: it is not a pipe-dream, but based on components that are already firmly in place. So, yes, the Dutch really could save the world if they show a bit of courage and fantasy.

To read the article in Dutch, click here.