By Marno de Boer
This guest post summarizes some conclusions from the report Defensie in het Stemhokje (defence in the voting booth). The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) published this study, which made it to all the country’s major newspapers, on 1 September 2012. The present author co-authored the report. It analyzes the defence plans presented by Dutch political parties in their election programs for the 12 September 2012 parliamentary elections. The financial substantiations provided by the Centraal Planbureau, an independent government agency which calculates the consequences of parties’ plans, were also taken into account. These hard figures sometimes reveal proposals and consequences that parties gloss over in overtly ambitious electoral programs. This lack of realism about the consequences of cuts is probably the most interesting finding of the report.
Unrealistic about the consequences of budget cuts
In 2011, the current minority cabinet of prime-minister Mark Rutte (consisting of his VVD right-wing liberals and the CDA Christian-democrats, supported by the right-wing PVV of Geert Wilders), decreased the defence budget from 8.3 billion euro to 7.7 by 2016. Consequently, spending on the armed forces will reach 1,0% of gross national product in 2017. This would place the Netherlands in the lower strata of NATO and the EU in this respect. According to CDA defence minister Hans Hillen, the cuts and ensuing reorganizations seriously diminish the readiness of the force in the coming years. The contribution to the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and the police training mission in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province can be maintained, but further activity is impossible until at least 2014. A new round of cuts and reorganizations could prolong this period, or even turn it into a permanent situation.
None of the parties appraise these realities in their programs, which generally do not connect ambitions with the necessary budget. VVD and CDA strive for an all round force to carry out a wide array of expeditionary missions. To make this possible, they oppose new cuts. As indicated above, this ambition cannot be realized for most of their possible future stint in government. The same is true for the small Christian parties SGP and ChristenUnie. Their proposed increases of 200 and 100 million respectively, compared to 2011 still a decrease, will have little effect in the short term.
D66 (liberal-democrats), PvdA (social-democrats) and GroenLinks (green party) are similarly inaccurate about the consequences of their cuts. All strive to maintain the current all round force and want to participate in various international missions. Nevertheless, D66 proposes a further 500 million euro cut, while the latter two intend to slash 1 billion. All political parties promise to maintain capacities through further European defence integration and cooperation. However, this is a long term process, while cuts take direct effect. The ambition level of these three parties is therefore unattainable. Moreover, the cuts will hamper European defence cooperation. A country that unilaterally cuts its forces preceding to talks will be seen as un unattractive and unreliable partner, that rushes ahead of joint choices and coordinated cuts.
The PVV, 500 million, and the SP (socialists), 1.5 billion, want to decrease defence spending as well. Both are less than enthusiastic about European cooperation. Instead, the PVV wants to focus on the protection of direct Dutch interests, which it does not define. Because the party wants to reduce foreign missions by 50%, it seems to interpret the connection between international peace and security and Dutch interests more narrowly than current policy does. The SP opposes an expeditionary NATO and wants to conduct UN peacekeeping missions. The PvdD animal-rights party shares this view, but has not revealed its exact budgetary plans.
These budgetary plans provided to the Centraal Planbureau also reveal the real consequences of the PvdA, Groenlinks and SP cuts. They base their plans on an option in a civil service report from 2010 that outlines possible cuts in government spending (Heroverwegingen, variant G). This variant includes among others a permanent 50% reduction in contributions to international operations, abolishing the Army, and a stark reduction in the defensive and offensive means available to soldiers in the theatre of operations. Especially in the case of PvdA and Groenlinks, the discrepancy between ambitions listed in the electoral program and the realities of the budgetary choices is striking.
Right wing parties appear to share similar views on defence. SGP, CDA, ChristenUnie and VVD all want an all round force that conducts missions as part of an expeditionary NATO. They support European cooperation, but are against far-reaching defence integration. Only the CU mentions the importance of a mission’s legality under international law, and a coordinated 3D (Defence, Diplomacy, Development) engagement that is supposed to help people in the theatre of operations.
On the left, two differing visions appear. GroenLinks and PvdA want an allround force that, within an expeditionary NATO, conducts missions worldwide, using the 3D concept. SP and PvdD oppose an expeditionary NATO and want to conduct UN peacekeeping missions. As mentioned above, the PVV has a unique vision centred around the protection of a narrowed definition of Dutch interests.
The generally limited quality of the discourse is disappointing. Most programs concentrate on the security problems of yesterday and today, rather than those of tomorrow. Future challenges like the shift of power toward Asia, tensions over cyber space, outer space and the Arctic receive cursory attention at best. If specific regions are mentioned these are generally Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Golf of Aden. While those are certainly important, other potential hotspots like the Straits of Hormuz and the South-China Sea are glossed over by and large.
Article 97 of the Dutch constitution provides that contributing to the international legal order is a fundamental task of the armed forces. Many parties (D66, PvdA, ChristenUnie, Groenlinks, SP, PvdD) demand an international legal mandate for deployment of the armed forces. For the latter three this must even consist of a resolution from the UN Security Council. This could potentially have consequences for participation in NATO or EU deployments without a UN-resolution. SGP, CDA and VVD do not mention the topic, which at the least shows that they do not find it important enough to mention in their electoral program. PVV’s call for tough naval action against ‘Jihad-pirates near the Golf of Aden’ seems to implicate that this party pays less importance to the legal framework.