On Wednesday Feb 27th, US ambassador Pete Hoekstra was a guest at Room for Discussion (we published this introductory article in advance.) The interview covered both domestic and foreign US policy, and transatlantic relations.
Hoekstra is not like most previous ambassadors. Not only does he represent the unconventional Trump administration, but he also sparked controversy in the Netherlands when entering his current office. A video from 2015 surfaced where he claimed Dutch politicians were ‘being burned’ and that the Netherlands had ‘no-go-zones’. When Hoekstra was confronted with his own false claims, he called the accusation ‘fake news’ (after the fragment was shown to him, he denied saying fake news in the very same interview).
Hoekstra’s service as ambassador thus had a rocky start. However, in the interview at Room for Discussion, we saw a very different Hoekstra. As he defended president Trump’s policies, Hoekstra’s tone was more diplomatic. Like many of those functioning in the Trump administration, he acted as a ‘translator’ of Trump, explaining the president’s one-liner policies as intricate strategic choices.
This showed in the discussion of the US’s trade policy. The interviewers asked Hoekstra about Trump’s apparent anti-free-trade stance, referring to Trump calling the import of German cars a ‘national security threat’. Hoekstra, however, claimed that this was a mere tactic to get the EU to start negotiations since it is the EU that practices protectionism the most. Trump, Hoekstra claimed, is, in fact, a major proponent of free trade.
The same goes for Trump’s recent declaration of a state of emergency for his border wall. Hoekstra described it as merely a tool that presidents can use, with or without congressional approval (which, for the first time in history, the US president doesn’t have for his state of emergency.) Whether it is appropriate for Trump to declare a state of emergency, Hoekstra did not want to comment on. He said he is not involved in evaluating the president or Congress on a day-to-day basis, and no longer has the liberty to address these issues. Quite the difference to Hoekstra when he was still an outspoken member of Congress.
Another covered topic was Venezuela. Hoekstra stuck to the official White House rhetoric, claiming ‘all options are on the table’ when it came to military intervention. He was also asked to react on National Security Adviser John Bolton’s oil being the main reason for the intervention. Hoekstra claimed that the emphasis on oil is simply because this is a major source of income for Venezuela and is needed to rebuild the country. He rejected that an intervention could be in the US’s own best interest, claiming that in the last 100 years, the US has never economically profited from military intervention.
When asked about the desirability of a US intervention in Venezuela, Hoekstra said that these issues are very complex and that the person who makes the decision should realize that past interventions have often not worked out well. As an example of these ‘stupid wars’, Hoekstra named Iraq, Syria, and Libya, for which we (both the US and Europe) are partly to blame. However, this does not mean that Europe is obligated to take in Middle-Eastern refugees, just like the US is not obligated to take in Latin-American refugees.
Lastly, when discussing president Trump, Hoekstra said that statements like ‘shithole countries’ or that ‘NATO is obsolete’ are just part of Trump’s style. When it comes to NATO, putting pressure on your closest allies is something friends should be able to do. This has no consequences for the trans-Atlantic alliance, which according to Hoekstra, is as strong as ever. Hoekstra also remarked that the president’s choice of rhetoric should not determine whether European NATO-members pay their fair share in the NATO budget. He said the Dutch have ‘lange tenen’ (are easily offended), but this gives them no reason to keep their defense budget below two percent.
Despite the change of tone and the warm words about the US-Dutch relations, one cannot deny that this interview did not seem like friends conversing. Trump’s unconventional policies have confused and even alienated some of the US’s closest friends, which showed in the interview questions. The US’s diplomatic class has tried to ease the tensions created by Trump. They give more favorable interpretations of his words, emphasizing the good relations with countries the president has just scolded. Hoekstra showed to be an example of this. However, judging the reaction of the international community, the damage is done. Even a trained politician like Hoekstra cannot put a positive spin on that.