In the context of shifts in global power distribution, the position of the Netherlands is shifting too. The US’ “abdication of global leadership”,[1] in combination with China’s rapid ascent to great power status, puts a strain on the international community’s ability to find consensus on a range of pressing international dossiers. These include climate change action (e.g., the Paris Climate Agreement),[2] nuclear counter-proliferation efforts (Iran and the now de facto defunct JCPOA), [3] arms control (e.g., the dissolution of the INF Treaty), free trade (the series of trade disputes between the US and China but also with the EU), [4] the wars in the Middle East (the US’ sudden partial withdrawal from Syria, the roles of Russia and Iran, and the conflict between the US and Iran). In this environment, middle powers, either alone or in coalitions with other middle powers, continue to work on global dossiers to achieve their foreign policy objectives, as we already described in last year’s report.[5]

Navigating this changing global environment requires first and foremost a keen understanding of changes in Dutch foreign relations. The Dutch Foreign Relations Index (DFRI), developed by HCSS, captures the relationship between the Netherlands and other countries over time through a quantitative measurement of a limited set of important dimensions in international relations. The DFRI differentiates between relevance (“how important is this country for the Netherlands and the international sphere?”) and compatibility (“to what extent does this country share similar values and goals to the Netherlands?”). The two dimensions thus align neatly with two key tenets of Dutch foreign policy: interests and values. The DFRI operationalizes these dimensions through four key domains of international politics: political, military, economic, and judicial, and collects data for all these measurements for the period between 1996 and the present. Combining interests and values provides a multidimensional picture of the Dutch position vis-à-vis other countries. This can subsequently help in identifying potential partners as well as potential adversaries in the pursuit of Dutch foreign policy objectives.

The DFRI is also a useful instrument in the further development of a longer-term Dutch government vision of foreign policy. The Dutch government coalition agreement of October 2017 delineated a set of foreign policy goals for the next four years. The agreement expressed the coalition’s intention to pursue “a realistic foreign policy that serves both Dutch interests and the international rule-based order.”[6] It proposed a security strategy that integrates national and international security challenges, a strategy that was published in 2018.[7] It pledged to work through international organizations such as the EU, NATO, and the UN. It sought to focus on neighboring EU countries and Europe’s “ring of instability.” It committed to increasing the defense budget, strengthening the Dutch armed forces and establishing closer military partnerships with “like-minded countries.” The coalition’s plans foreshadowed important decisions about the countries with which the Netherlands is actively seeking closer or less close relationships. New directions will be set in the drafting of the updated integrated security strategy and the Defense Vision, both scheduled for 2020, and the next coalition agreement after the 2021 elections.

A word of caution is in order: like any other index, the DFRI provides a first high-level overview in this particular case of the state of Dutch foreign relations, based on a select number of indicators for which data have been collected, collated, and combined. The selection and combination of these indicators are described and explained in a longer method document (see also Table 20).[8] The DFRI considers dyadic relations, which means that it looks at relations between the Netherlands and third countries. It does not consider the position of the Netherlands in the global web of international relations, which would mean also taking into account the relations of the Netherlands in the context of the bilateral relations of other countries. The latter would provide greater context and depth to an analysis of its position, particularly in a multi-order world. Furthermore, this chapter provides only a concise and straightforward description of the results of the index. Further triangulation and contextualization of these results based on the analysis of secondary sources and qualitative in-depth assessment would be beyond the scope of this year’s report. This will happen in the Strategic Monitor 2020-2021, in which a standalone research project will be devoted to the state of Dutch foreign relations and the role of the Netherlands in the global web of foreign relations. Readers of this chapter should therefore not overinterpret the results reported here and should note that further analysis and contextualization will take place on the basis of these first high-level results in next year’s report.

Table 1
Relevance and compatibility: indicators, definitions, and sources of the DFRI








Measurement of a state’s influence within the global system.

Foreign Bilateral Influence Capacity Index

Pardee Center for International Futures: The Global Influence Index


Measurement of the degree to which the Netherlands and country X share membership in international organizations, exchange diplomatic missions, and express similar foreign policy preferences.

Shared membership of IGOs, Diplomatic Representation & United Nations General Assembly Voting Behavior

Pardee Center of International Futures: Political Bandwidth & United Nations General Assembly Voting Data



Measurement of a state’s military coercive capabilities.

Share of global power

Pardee Center for International Futures: Global Power Index


Measurement of the depth and intensity of military alignment and cooperation

Shared alliances, shared Centers of Excellence within NATO or other (non-EU) multilateral military cooperation platform (e.g., MNFP), as well as instances of training or procurement outside of NATO or EU frameworks.

NATO/EU & CoE websites. Notes to Parliament from the Dutch Minister of Defense (2012-2019)



Measurement of a state’s importance to the Dutch economy.

Bilateral import and export volume with the Netherlands

UN Comtrade


Measurement of the similarity in the way in which the Netherlands and country X value the principles of free trade.

Regulatory regimes concerning domestic business, labor, and monetary regulation, as well as trade, investment, and finance regulations

Selected measures from the Economic Freedom Index



Measurement of a state’s ability to influence international norms and norm-making processes.

Global Influence

(same as political relevance)[9]


Measurement of distance between the degree to which the Netherlands and country X subscribe to liberal democratic principles.

Level of electoral democracy and effective checks and balances on executive power

V-DEM Liberal Democracy Index

The Netherlands and Foreign Relations

Mapping countries on the relevance and compatibility dimensions yields five different clusters of countries (see Figure 2): anchors, associates, prospects, contradictors, and disruptors.[10]

Figure 1
Relevance (y-axis) and Compatibility (x-axis) for all countries
Relevance (y-axis) and Compatibility (x-axis) for all countries

The most fundamental of these we call anchors. Anchor states from the Dutch perspective are neighboring states, regional economic powerhouses, and the world’s largest military power. These states are both highly relevant for and highly compatible with the Netherlands. They are important states for a mixture of political, military, and economic reasons, and share largely similar worldviews. These states (the US, Germany, France, the UK, and Belgium in 2018) constitute important countries in the dimensions measured by the DFRI. Most of these countries are important international actors, comprising three UNSC members and four of the ten largest economies of the world. Belgium’s presence is explained through its proximity, and the close cooperation between the Netherlands and Belgium along a number of important dimensions, including the economic and military dimension. For now, the question remains whether Brexit will drastically affect the relevance and compatibility of the United Kingdom, although it will inevitably have an economic impact and will change the dynamics within the European Union.[11]

The second cluster of associates comprises liberal states that are either European Union member states or fall under the US security umbrella, with low to medium degrees of relevance scores on the DFRI. The associate category includes the Scandinavian countries, transitioned (eastern) European states, southern European states (Italy, Spain and Portugal), Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada, and two East Asian states: South Korea and Japan. Many of the associates possess very high potential relevance and could well become anchors if relations were to deepen. Considering the sizes of their economies, ties with states such as Canada, Japan, and South Korea could be strengthened, which would propel them into the anchor category. Despite the negative developments on the liberal democratic front in recent years, Hungary and Poland are still part of the associates group. Turkey, however, has moved further away.

The third cluster, prospects, consists of states that, with the exception of some (Russia and India in particular), have varying degrees of relevance as measured by the indicators in the DFRI, while their values systems do not necessarily align with those of the Netherlands. This category contains the largest number of states. It includes Western-aligned but highly authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which were in the contradictor category until recently on the basis of their DFRI scores, but it also features non-European democratic states such as Israel. This category contains important non-Western states, such as Russia, which is very nearly a disruptor, although its relevance score in the DFRI decreased after the oil price crash and the introduction of sanctions by the EU in 2014.[12] It also includes many emerging powers such as India and Brazil. While they may not be first choices for close partnerships, these states may certainly be amenable to cooperation in specific dossiers that are relevant to Dutch foreign policies, especially in the higher compatibility range of this category. In certain geographic regions where Dutch anchors or associates have limited influence, such cooperation may be particularly useful, for instance in the Indian Ocean theater, in which India’s role could be important in the ensuing rivalry between the US and China.

The cluster we label contradictors contains states which are at the far extreme of the economic, political, and judicial spectrum relative to the Netherlands. Contradictors include internationally isolated countries such as Iran and Venezuela, and/or the world’s harshest dictatorships, such as North Korea and Turkmenistan. These states are economically and politically illiberal. Because of this they also include many lesser developed states, including in Africa. Contradictors’ outright incompatibility with the Netherlands, their frequent status as international pariahs, and often underdeveloped economy, also mean that many of these states are ranked lower in terms of relevance.

Fifth, and finally, is the disruptor category, which involves highly relevant countries whose value systems are at the same time very different from the Netherlands. These states have sufficient global influence to shape significant international regimes, yet their values diverge from Dutch values in the areas of democracy and human rights, the role of governments in the regulation of economies, and the international rule of law. This does not mean that these states should be avoided. On the contrary, they may even require additional outreach efforts. In 2018, the only state in this category was the steadily rising China. While Russia continues to be a high foreign policy priority (with comparatively much higher scores than other contradictors), China is both more dissimilar to the Netherlands and more powerful than Russia. Its rise has been marked by economic as well as military strength, but its closer integration in the global economy has not led to an assimilation of Western liberal ideas and values. While this does not necessarily conflict, a high reliance on a very different type of state is a liability that the Netherlands has started to actively engage with – for example, through the discussion on Chinese companies’ contribution to 5G infrastructure – and will undoubtedly do so in the years to come.[13]

Figure 2
Map of the five different categories in 2018
Map of the five different categories in 2018

There are clear geographic clusters of country types (see Figure 3). The anchors and associates clusters are European or Anglo-Saxon countries, complemented by South Korea and Japan. The only NATO countries not in this category are Montenegro, a recent addition, and Turkey, whose illiberal domestic developments as well as its international antagonism to its Atlantic partners has been cause of concern for a number of years now. The prospects, the largest group, are dispersed globally. The contradictors consist of the highly illiberal, authoritarian states, the majority of which are on the African continent. The sole disruptor is China. 

Over the last twenty years, Dutch relations with other countries have improved according to the DFRI. One could even say that from the perspective of Dutch foreign relations the Netherlands finds itself in a fortuitous position. The Netherlands is surrounded by anchors and associates. The total number of associates has doubled to 30 since 1996. There are also fewer dissimilar states, as the number of contradictors has fallen by fifth to 39. Importantly, these countries are now almost exclusively located in Africa. Many of the countries in the European neighborhood, in the Middle East, and in the former Soviet sphere have become more likely partners – prospects – for the future. A few populous Asian nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia have gone through similar developments. Both in these theaters and elsewhere, opportunities for cooperation have appeared for the Netherlands.

The roles of North America, Europe, and Asia have changed in recent decades, with the former stagnating in importance and the latter two growing in relevance. It should come as little surprise that North America and Europe are the most compatible regions in the world. Europe’s relevance to the Netherlands is only increasing. This is despite the fact that the 2008 economic crisis and the 2014 decline in trade appear to have affected mainly the relevance of this region, while leaving others largely unscathed.

Which States are the Most Relevant?

Figure 3
Share of total relevance per country and region over time
Share of total relevance per country and region over time

In relative terms, Europe remains at the core of Dutch foreign relations, but the US and Canada are ceding ground to emerging powers, notably China. Europe’s share of overall relevance remains stable at around half. The relevance of the UK, France, and Italy decreased while that of Belgium, but especially Germany, increased. China’s rise is spectacular, more than doubling its share of relevance due to growth in economic, political, and military relevance. Vietnam is also a notable riser, as its relevance has nearly quintupled, making it now comparable to European states such as Portugal or Greece. Prospects that have grown significantly in military and political relevance are Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Russia has also become more relevant. Turkey poses a complicated case, as its significant rise in relevance is matched, as we will see, by a significant decrease in compatibility. Despite these dynamics, the dominant partners of old, the US and Germany, remain just that, although the dominance of the US has decreased significantly over the past decade (see Figure 4 and Figure 5).

Figure 4
Highest scores in total relevance in 2018, broken down by domain
Highest scores in total relevance in 2018, broken down by domain

The total number of countries decreasing in relevance, as well as the degree by which they decreased, is far lower than the countries that increased (see Figure 6 and Figure 7). This is due to the fact that relevance (with the exception of military relevance) is not a zero-sum game and particularly the total level of economic relevance – Dutch bilateral trade – rose overall in the period under review.[14] It is no surprise, then, that the most dramatic decreases are in military and political relevance.

Figure 5
Top 20 biggest increases in total relevance between 2007 and 2018, broken down by domain
Top 20 biggest increases in total relevance between 2007 and 2018, broken down by domain
Figure 6
Top 20 biggest decreases in total relevance between 2007 and 2018, broken down by domain
Top 20 biggest decreases in total relevance between 2007 and 2018, broken down by domain

Almost all of the top declining countries are close allies of the Netherlands. This is a reflection of the globally changing balance of power. The rise of powers such as China on the military front has led to a relative reduction in military and political relevance for many of the world’s traditional powerbrokers, such as the US, the UK, and France. The international status quo, of which the Netherlands has traditionally been a firm supporter, has been upset by the rise of new powers, and the Dutch allies are less relevant because of this development.

This trend is further underlined by the relative decline of NATO’s military relevance. Until 2013, the states in NATO together possessed more military power than all other states in the world combined as measured by the military relevance indicator of the DFRI, which is based on the Global Power Index of the Pardee Center for International Futures. This was despite the fact that in terms of number of countries, NATO was outnumbered 10 to 1 in 1995 and 5 to 1 in 2018.[15] NATO’s dominance has declined steadily throughout this period, however, and increasingly so since 2008. First surpassed in 2013, NATO states together now account for less than half of the world’s military power. The era of NATO’s unassailable military superiority is over and continues to face a downward trend.[16] Aside from a slight rise in Poland and Turkey, no NATO country has risen in military relevance since 2007. As this measure is indexed as a zero-sum game, this can largely be explained by the rise of previously lesser military powers. These include Arab states such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but also India and China. China is single-handedly responsible for a large portion of the rise of non-NATO countries, as its power doubled between 2003 and 2018. The US alone still possesses a quarter of global military power, with China at less than one-sixth. Contrary to the US, however, China’s relative power is increasing.

Which States are the Most Compatible?

The top twenty of countries whose value systems are most aligned with the Netherlands consists only of European and North American states (see Figure 8). This should come as no surprise because of close and longstanding ties with the states in regions with strongly institutionalized forms of cooperation. The trend that emerges from this list is remarkably stable. Nearly all nations have near-perfect scores in terms of judicial, economic, and political similarity with the Netherlands, showing that it is firmly integrated in a regional system of like-minded states.[17]

Figure 7
Highest scores in Compatibility in 2018, broken down by domain
Highest scores in Compatibility in 2018, broken down by domain

Unlike the relevance dimension, the highest increases in compatibility with the Netherlands are found among existing allies and democratizing non-Western states (see Figure 9). One group is made up of European states with which military coordination has increased in recent years, in the context of the EU, NATO, or through bilateral cooperation. Another group consists of prospects or even contradictor states that have been going through a process of economic and political liberalization and, albeit sometimes very checkered, improvements in the protection of their human rights record. Most notable in this group are Tunisia, Myanmar, and Gambia. Increases in the political compatibility domain indicate that states are sharing a greater number of overlapping memberships in international organizations and are more in agreement with Dutch foreign policy objectives. It is clear that this political compatibility does not necessarily align with judicial compatibility, as examples such as the UAE and Qatar demonstrate. Increases in political compatibility therefore represent an opportunity for increased functional cooperation on international political issues.

Figure 8
Top 20 states with largest increases in terms of total compatibility, broken down by domain
Top 20 states with largest increases in terms of total compatibility, broken down by domain
Figure 9
Top 20 largest decreases in total compatibility, broken down by domain
Top 20 largest decreases in total compatibility, broken down by domain

At the other end of the spectrum, we encounter well-known contradictors, such as Venezuela, which has gone through a process of even greater inimical alignment and economic deliberalization (see Figure 10). In general, many Latin American nations have become less similar to the Netherlands, indicating that several countries in this region have moved away from liberal political and economic values and from international political alignment.

Turkey and Hungary emerge as problematic allies. Economically they have moved closer to the Netherlands. These states have raised their military compatibility scores over time as measured by the DFRI through increased NATO and EU military cooperation, even if there are significant problems in these relationships as well, with Turkey positioning itself as an independent political and military actor in the context of the Middle East and the relationship with Russia. Judicially these states have gone through a process of democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism, leading to huge decreases in terms of judicial compatibility. These developments pose a clear problem for Dutch relations with these countries.


In the context of the changing global distribution of power, Dutch relations with other states have changed quite substantially, along both the interests and the values spectra, as measured by the DFRI. The descriptive analysis of the DFRI offered in this chapter, which will be triangulated and corroborated with a review of secondary sources in next year’s monitor, yields the following insights:

First and foremost, the Netherlands finds itself in a relatively fortunate position. It can count on close allies and partners in its immediate geographic surroundings. Moreover, the number of associates has increased considerably, while the number of contradictors has decreased, suggesting that there are more potential partners for the Netherlands while it faces fewer outright opponents.

Second, despite ongoing turbulence in the EU and the impact of Brexit, Europe is increasingly the most relevant region for the Netherlands. The US nevertheless remains the most important country in Dutch foreign relations, together with Germany. The US’ position is undermined by the relative decline of its political and military influence in world politics. When taken collectively, the relevance of Europe dwarfs all competitors, stressing the vital importance of the EU internal market and its potential strength as a geopolitical bloc.

Third, China’s stellar ascent economically, militarily, and politically, in combination with low compatibility in terms of shared values, underscores once again that China presents both an opportunity and a risk. China is across the board a force to be reckoned with in the design of future Dutch foreign policy.

Fourth, several states have increased in both relevance and compatibility. These prospects, such as Mexico, South Africa, and Israel, can be valuable partners for the Netherlands to collaborate with in shaping international regulation on important themes.

Finally, engaging with prospects and associate states that are becoming more relevant but that are moving away in terms of compatibility poses relevant dilemmas, which require careful assessment on a case-by-case – or state-by-state – basis. Especially judicially, a number of states are drifting away along the liberal democratic values spectrum. The balance between relevance and compatibility should always be taken into account in determining which relationships to invest in and from which to disengage. With states like Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, the strength of the existing relationship with the Netherlands is such that it can potentially be leveraged to reverse this process. The EU especially offers mechanisms to this end. With states that are less embedded in such partnerships, the compartmentalization of partnerships might be an option. If a state is (increasingly) far removed from the Netherlands along the judicial dimension, but closer in terms of economic similarity, partnerships focusing exclusively on economic affairs might be a possibility. Examples of such increasingly relevant autocratic states abound, with cases in point being the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The decision on whether to pragmatically engage with these countries is both politically and morally fraught with difficulties. Such compartmentalization, however, may be more difficult when it comes to the security domain. Overall, even if Dutch anchor states remain dominant in absolute terms, none experienced an increase in relative relevance in the past decade, while many prospect states increased remarkably. If the decline of Dutch traditional allies persists, the Netherlands may have to consider future ‘coalitions of the willing’, including countries that would as yet still be considered strange bedfellows.


Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership (New York: Public Affairs, 2018).
Emily Holden, “Trump Begins Year-Long Process to Formally Exit Paris Climate Agreement,” The Guardian, November 5, 2019, sec. US news.
Dan Smith, “The US Withdrawal from the Iran Deal: One Year on | SIPRI,” SIPRI (blog), May 2019.
Christiaan Pelgrim and Clara van de Wiel, “Handelsconflict VS En EU Bedreigt Wereldeconomie,” NRC, October 2019.
Willem Oosterveld and Bianca Torossian, “A Balancing Act | Strategic Monitor 2018-2019” (HCSS, December 2018).
VVD, CDA, and D66 en ChristenUnie, “Regeerakkoord ‘Vertrouwen in de toekomst’ - Publicatie - Kabinetsformatie,” Bureau Woordvoering Kabinetsformatie, October 10, 2017.
“Wereldwijd Voor Een Veilig Nederland: Geïntegreerde Buitenland- En Veiligheidsstrategie 2018-2022” (The Hague: Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, 2018).
For a more detailed description of the indicators and underlying data, issues, please refer to the DFRI Methodology Document, Hugo van Manen et al., “Methodological Note - The Dutch Foreign Relations Index: Version 2” (The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, January 2020), available at link.
The ability to contribute significantly to international norm-making is hard to meaningfully separate from the ability to shape international political decision-making in general, leading the DFRI to use political relevance as the proxy for judicial relevance. This is only for purposes of within-domain analysis of relevance and compatibility, however. In the total relevance scores, judicial was excluded, as its inclusion would simply mean counting political relevance twice.
These categories are established mathematically: the distinction between the high-relevance categories (Anchors and Disruptors) and the others was made by dividing the highest relevance-score in 2018 (67.49) by three, meaning the boundary became 22.5. The compatibility categories were made in a similar manner, namely by subtracting the lowest compatibility score in 2018 (4.59) from the highest (96.12) and dividing that range into three equal parts (of 30.51 points each). The Disruptor-Anchor dichotomy was made by dividing this same range by two.
See for instance “Forming Coalitions in the EU after Brexit: Alliances for a European Union That Modernises and Protects,” publicatie (Advisory Council on International Affairs, July 6, 2018).
“EU Sanctions Map: Russia,” European Commission, July 2019.
“‘Huawei Mag Meebouwen Aan 5G-Netwerken in Duitsland,’” NOS, October 14, 2019.
An effect which would be even greater if 2008 or 2009 were taken as a baseline.
With a population of over 500,000 in 2010. If you were to consider population ratios, this is 12.5% in 1995 and 12.3% in 2018, a 1:8 ratio.
A clash between NATO and all non-NATO members working in unison is of course entirely fictional. The extent of the US’ security umbrella includes many countries outside of NATO such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia, all three of which are enough to shift the total power balance back into NATO’s favor. Nor are all nations outside of this umbrella a unified front – far from it.
Mohammed Haddad, Usaid Siddiqui, and Owais Zaheer, “How Has My Country Voted at the UN?,” Al Jazeera, accessed December 9, 2019.