Quick trivia question: Which was the first country to recognize the newly independent United States?
Answer: The Netherlands, when on Nov. 16, 1776, an American warship, the Andrew Doria, docked at St. Eustatius—a tiny Dutch-speaking island colony in the Caribbean—and was greeted with a gun salute from Fort Oranje.
“Our close relationship has continued ever since then,” said Dutch Ambassador André Haspels, speaking May 24 at the International Student House. “During the Second World War, when you liberated us from Nazi Germany, and afterwards with the Marshall Plan, which helped us rebuild our demolished economy and set up structures from which we still benefit today, such as the creation of NATO.”
In 1953, Queen Juliana showed her peoples’ gratitude to the Americans by presenting the United States with the Netherlands Carillon, a 127-foot-high musical instrument situated on a ridge overlooking the Potomac River in Arlington, Va. One year ago, three new bells were added to the 50-bell carillon; they were named after George Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.
The ambassador’s warm feelings toward the United States clearly do not extend to Russia.
In his talk, Haspels expressed his admiration for the “brave people of Ukraine” and called for boosting the supply of heavy weapons to the Ukrainian army while tightening the screws on Vladimir Putin.
“We have enacted unprecedented sanctions against Russian individuals, companies and its leadership. Many companies have pulled out of Russia,” he said, noting that one of the EU’s first decisions was to stop the 1,234-km Nord Stream 2 offshore natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. “Now it becomes more pressing because the oil embargo we have announced against Russia really hits some our countries hard. But I’m quite convinced we will maintain them.”
In 2014, Russian-Dutch relations took a turn for the worse after a Malaysian Airlines jet en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down. All 219 people aboard MH 17 were killed by what was later proven to be a Russian missile fired by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“We’ve always taken a mixed approach toward Russia, and that was one of the differences between Europe and the US. We were always trying to find a balance between not denying the risk while investing in the relationship,” Haspels said. “Russia’s war against Ukraine has completely changed this picture.”
The Netherlands is already home to some 30,000 Ukrainian refugees—still a relatively small number compared to the country’s population of 17.5 million. And public sympathy for Ukraine’s struggle seems to run deep among the Dutch people themselves.
“Our position has always been that countries are sovereign and must decide for themselves whether they want to join NATO or the EU. That right of self-determination is fundamental,” he said. “Even though some experts argue that NATO expansion was seen by Russia as a threat, NATO is not an offensive bloc, but a defensive one.”
Haspels said the war could end in two ways—with Russia economically bankrupt from both international sanctions and a brain drain of skilled people, or with Putin defeated on the battlefield. But either option will take a long time, he predicted.
“At a certain stage, this will be a frozen situation. That’s why it’s so important that we support Ukraine militarily,” said Haspels. “They might be able to gradually push back the Russians.”
These days, the Dutch perception of the United States is much better than it was under the Trump administration, said the diplomat.
“President Trump was not a popular figure. Many Europeans wondered what was going on,” he said. “The perception was that the United States would gradually move away from Europe. ‘America First’ also meant Europe would be on its own. I think that perspective has changed, and there is more willingness now to invest in our relationship.”
The son of a flower importer and trader, Haspels has represented The Hague as ambassador here since 2019. He earned a degree in political science from Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit in 1986 and a year later joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
His first overseas posting was as a policy officer at the Dutch Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka (1988-90), later becoming press secretary to Piet Dankert, the minister for European affairs (1990-92). In 1997, Haspels became head of the political department at the Royal Dutch Embassy in Pretoria, where among other things he helped set up the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Haspels then headed the External Affairs Division of the Foreign Ministry’s European Integration Department (2000-05), where among other things he was involved with his country’s 2004 presidency of the EU. Haspels later served as ambassador in Vietnam (2005-08) and South Africa (2011-14), where he was also accredited to Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana.
An avid traveler, Haspels, 59, has visited every state except Hawaii.
“If you want to make diplomacy a career, you need to consider only three things,” advised Haspels, who along with his wife, Bernie Grootenboer, has four children. “What does your foreign ministry want from you? What are your other objectives or interests? And what does your family want? And if your partner joins you on a diplomatic mission and you take the kids with you, they should be prepared to move a lot.”