Dear President Obama

Mr. S. (Sergei) Boeke

Would you mind adding one more thing to your ‘to do’ list before you leave office? Last year, before the elections in the UK, you spoke to prime-minister David Cameron, and told him that he had to maintain the NATO 2% Defence spending target if he wanted to keep the ‘Special Relationship’ intact. Large spending cuts loomed over all British departments, including Defence. After your chat, Cameron spared Defense and kept expenditure at the 2% level. Civil servants quietly changed the accounting rules, now including war pensions in the calculation, but the UK did meet the NATO solidarity norm. Later on in an interview, you mentioned Cameron and how ‘free-riders’ aggravated you. The British press whipped up a storm and Cameron is all now all for a strong Defence. Could you give our Dutch prime-minister Rutte the same treatment?

As your faithful – and thrifty – NATO ally, the Netherlands spends 1,14 % of GDP on Defence. This already includes pensions; we are much better at accounting tricks and ‘spread sheet management’ than the British. The Dutch military even pay tax on weapons systems purchased abroad, so for every JSF we have ordered – only 37, sorry – Defence will pay 21% VAT to the ministry of Finance. Incessant Defense cuts have hollowed out the armed forces to the point that they are no longer operationally capable, as described scathingly in the latest NATO Defence Planning Capability Review. There is no money to invest in new platforms, no spare parts are available and during exercises soldiers run around shouting ‘pang!’ to save ammunition.

In our political system, we get all stakeholders to sit around a table, talk a lot, and then postpone any difficult decisions. It used to be easy to find consensus on Defense cuts, but it is much more difficult to get the money back in: refugees, health, education;there are so many areas that compete for extra funds. Our political parties realize that Defence needs a lot more money, but can probably only agree on a small budget increase. Nonetheless, around € 1billion is needed just to fill the current budgetary hole and keep the whole sorry wreck afloat. In sum, our system needs a nudge from outside.

Your ambassadors have certainly pressed the issue of Defence spending before. But this is subtle diplomacy, behind closed doors. We Dutch, together with Israeli’s and Russians, are probably the most blunt people in the world. So messages to us need to be direct and loud. As we are very sensitive to what others think of us, public naming and shaming also works. While our self-esteem is not dependent on a ‘Special Relationship’, our politicians do dream of a temporary seat in the UN Security Council. Could you call Rutte and link the ‘free-rider’ issue to our international aspirations? And perhaps make a small public remark on the Dutch not going Dutch? Many thanks, also for your eight years of thoughtful leadership and avoiding new wars.

Yours faithfully,

A concerned Dutch citizen

Bron: Marineblad mei 2016
Auteur: Mr. S. (Sergei) Boeke, voormalig marineofficier, is onderzoeker aan de Universiteit Leiden, Campus Den Haag.