Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands
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Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands

On October 10, the Lowy Institute hosted Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte for a public address.

Mr Rutte spoke about the future of the global rules-based order. Following his speech the Institute’s Executive Director Dr Michael Fullilove conducted a Q&A session with Mr Rutte.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I already felt honoured to be invited to speak to you today as a guest of the distinguished Lowy Institute.

But when I learned that this event coincided with the opening of the institute’s renovated headquarters, I felt even more privileged.

The architects and builders have done an amazing job.

Thank you for having me on this very special occasion.

I’ve been looking forward to visiting Australia again and to speaking with you about the international rule of law and the multilateral world order.

But I’d like to begin, if I may, on the other side of the world, in my own country.

A few weeks ago, the Netherlands began a series of commemorations marking our liberation from Nazi occupation, 75 years ago.

It was a hard-fought battle, and the Dutch endured a long, cold winter and a deadly famine before the whole country was finally free, on the 5th of May 1945.

For many generations since then, the rule of law has been a given.

But when you meet the allied veterans that liberated our country, or talk to people that lived through the horrors of the war you instantly realise: we should never take freedom, justice and international stability for granted.

In this respect, the post-war generations could learn a valuable lesson from the life story of the institute’s founder, Sir Frank Lowy.

Mr Lowy, it’s an honour to meet you today.

You are someone who inspires enormous admiration and respect.

As a young man, you survived the Budapest ghetto, and you lost your father in Auschwitz.

You have lived a bold and enterprising life.

You’ve had exceptional success, and yet you have said it took you seven decades to summon the strength to take part in the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

‘I was afraid of one major thing’, you once said. ‘That maybe I would not be able to emotionally grasp what happened to him – your father – and all other people there.’


Ladies and gentlemen, it’s sobering to remember that what happened to Mr Lowy happened less than a lifetime ago.

A world in which ‘might makes right’ is never far away.

And of course, visiting Australia also makes me reflect on the 298 innocent people who lost their lives in the downing of flight MH17 on the 17th of July 2014.

So many families in the Netherlands, Australia and elsewhere, who lost their sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives.

Victims of an armed conflict they had nothing to do with.

MH17 was a tragedy that struck both our countries to the core.

What happened to those 298 people and their families happened only five years ago.

The truth is, when we speak of the international rules-based order it may sound abstract.

But when that order breaks down the effects can be felt in the most direct and tragic way.

That’s why the importance of the international system that was built after 1945 cannot be overstated.

Over the past seven decades, international rules have determined how we trade, how our citizens travel, how we fight poverty and climate change, and how we resolve disputes and manage conflict.

It’s not a perfect system – far from it – but it has made countries like Australia and the Netherlands more prosperous and secure than at any other time in our history.

And it’s simply in our own interest – not to mention the common interest – to build on that.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in my years as Prime Minister of one of the world’s most outward-looking trading nations is this: national interests are often best served by international cooperation.

Today the multilateral system is under heavy pressure, and can no longer be taken for granted.

Some international actors are trying to change the rules. Others are breaking them or ignoring them.

The traditional leader of the free world, the US, is now choosing a less prominent yet more critical role.

China is taking a far more proactive role on the world stage, with its own perspectives on human rights, democracy, free trade and intellectual property.

A rivalry is building between the US and China.

One that’s affecting the world economy and our national economies.

And finally, we have a Europe that’s more divided and less decisive than it should be in today’s uncertain world.

In the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to speak about this topic in several fora, including in the US.

And my key message, which I repeat today, is that we must modernise and improve the international system, to make it fit for purpose again.

The fact is that our international institutions – UN, the IMF and the world trade system, as well as NATO and the European Union – all originated in a bipolar world where international relations were defined by the divisions between East and West, and rich and poor.

That world has ceased to exist and the challenges of today’s multipolar world don’t always fit into our existing structures.

Our reality has changed, but our underlying system has not evolved with it.

And that’s causing friction.

Take decision-making in the UN and especially in the Security Council, which basically still operates as if nothing had changed since 1945. 

Or take the World Trade Organization, which still gives China the status of a ‘developing country’, with all the financial benefits that entails.

Take the Human Rights Council, where condemnation of Israel is high on the agenda, while grave human rights violators like Syria, Eritrea and North Korea are often given a free pass.

The criticism expressed by President Trump – but not only by him – has been fierce, it’s true. 

But at its core, much of that criticism is valid.

So I think we should see President Trump’s actions as a chance to move forward. To improve the international system and bring it up to date.

Not by withdrawing from bodies and treaties, not by throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but by pressing hard, together, for modernisation and improvement.

That’s what I’m calling for here today.

I believe that Australia and the Netherlands should work closely together in pursuing that goal.

I believe that for many reasons.

Because we share a long history, going all the way back to the early 17th century, when the Dutch ship Duyfken  – the little pigeon – landed in northern Australia.

It was a wonderful experience yesterday at the State Library of New South Wales to see the maps and journals documenting these first encounters between Australia and Europe.

Also because we are countries that believe in the rule of law, democracy and free trade.

Because in recent years we’ve forged a strong bond, working to bring peace and stability to Uruzgan province in Afghanistan and justice to the victims of MH17 and their families.

For middle powers like Australia and the Netherlands, working together is the best way to influence and shape international debate.

And not least because we complement each other perfectly, with Australia strongly represented in the Indo-Pacific region and the Netherlands at the heart of the European Union and the transatlantic world.

If you look at the world map and see that Australia is almost 230 times larger than the Netherlands, you might think that our nations are incredibly different.

But the opposite is true.

Yesterday Prime Minister Morrison and I discussed the many ways in which we’re already working together to bolster the international rules-based order and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Of course the MH17 case and the work of the Joint Investigation Team remain a key priority for both of us.

Another topical example is our growing cooperation on combating foreign interference and enhancing cybersecurity. 

We are both open economies and free societies.

And of course, that’s a source of strength, but it also makes us vulnerable to malicious state actors trying to undermine our economic security or influence our democratic processes.

So it’s important that we share information, intelligence and experience in this field, in order to protect our way of life.

A final example is our shared interest in maintaining and strengthening maritime law.

For trading nations like ours, it’s essential to have international mechanisms that guarantee free passage, peaceful resolution of territorial disputes and an effective approach against piracy.

These are just a few examples of how bilateral cooperation can help maintain the multilateral world order.

To me, the bottom line is simple:

We have to respond to the shifting global balance of power.

As middle powers we must act in concert if we want to make sure our voices are heard.

And I believe the current crisis in multilateralism and the tone of some of its fiercest critics may act as a catalyst for much-needed reforms.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Last year the American historian Robert Kagan published The Jungle Grows Back, his book on the imminent fragmentation of the post-war liberal world order.

In it he argues that jungle-like chaos is the natural state of international affairs, as world history has shown.

In the 19th century, uncompromising nationalistic diplomacy led to the First World War, which in turn led, only two decades later, to a second global conflict.

Only after these two devastating wars did the nations of the world acknowledge that they needed to agree a set of common rules of conduct.

Kagan argues that the multilateral liberal world order created after 1945 is a man-made garden. 

A place of order, where we could avoid the chaos of another world war.

And where prosperity came within reach of more people than ever before.

But a garden needs maintenance or it will be reclaimed by the jungle.

Australia and the Netherlands both know how foolish it would be to let the jungle grow back.

Thank you