In December of 2016, the UN General Assembly decided it would convene negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons within the coming year. Not surprisingly, possessors of nuclear weapons and their allies voted against the resolution. The Netherlands was the only NATO member-state to abstain from voting. Despite this, it took part in the first session of negotiations held in March of 2017. Why would a traditional U. S. ally that hosts American nuclear weapons on its territory make this decision?
First, the Netherlands faced pressure from Parliament, which called for the government to take part in international talks on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. An overwhelming majority supported the ban—including the Democrats 66, the GreenLeft, and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. Parliament was also subject to the influence of civil society: the initiative announced by PAX, ASN Bank and the Dutch Red Cross proposing to ban nuclear weapons was backed by more than 45 000 Dutch citizens. Furthermore, Parliament endorsed the proposal to expose the secret treaties that serve as a basis for the deployment of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands.
Consistent with long-term cultural and political traditions, the Netherlands has always sought to play a significant role in international relations. A small country without a large military industry, it tends to support multilateral initiatives, of which a proposed nuclear weapons ban convention is but one. Despite the pressure NATO brought on its member-states, the Netherlands decided to take part in the negotiations since the focus on multilateral initiatives and alliances plays a more significant role in Dutch political culture than the Atlanticism traditionally associated with NATO.
The Dutch government is also keen to build bridges between the existing non-proliferation regime and a new norm stigmatizing nuclear weapons as well as between nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states. By participating in the negotiations, the Netherlands will probably try to guarantee a new treaty that includes language aligned and complementary to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Last but not least, the Netherlands will chair the 2017 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in Vienna this May and it could also strengthen arguments for participating in the negotiations. Logically, the strategy of being in the room in order to gain full awareness of all the processes taking place in the field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation to organize the debates in the most efficient way would prove advantageous.
It is important to note, however, that the government in general does not express strong support for a comprehensive approach to nuclear disarmament. Instead, it advocates for a so-called “progressive” approach. This became evident when the Dutch representative at the negotiations in New York stated that “the ban treaty must be compatible with the obligations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a nuclear alliance”.
Nevertheless, it remains unclear what attitude the new Dutch government will assume on the nuclear weapons ban negotiations and how it will behave during the summer session in New York scheduled for June 15th – July 7th of 2017. Furthermore, even if it supports signing a future treaty, it will be difficult to put it into effect because of obligations imposed by NATO. On the other hand, while the relationships between the Netherlands and its traditional allies may weaken to a certain degree, the Netherlands’ reputation in the international community may improve. Traditionally, the Netherlands acts as a neutral mediator in multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation. Marking itself as a new player in the game of nuclear disarmament, the Netherlands would probably change its image in the eyes of non-nuclear weapons states. Besides, Dutch participation in a new legally-binding instrument may encourage other “umbrella states” to join it. This, in turn, will promote decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in military and defense doctrines.
*The views and analysis are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the VCDNP.