Editor’s Note: The following article looks at Abraham Kuyper’s foreign policy when he served as prime minister of the Netherlands. To read this series’ first part, which considers his positions prior to his time in political office, click here.
We have an introductory, if provisional, picture of anti-Revolutionary foreign policy and Abraham Kuyper’s platform coming into the highest political office in the Netherlands in the early twentieth century. But Christian Realists, in particular, are often loathe to leave things at the level of idealistic platforms or untested theory. In this second article, therefore, I want to ask, How did this platform fair? What “necessary adjustments” (as Kuyper called them) did he need to make between his Calvinistic international theory and the actual work of foreign policy?
The Boer Cause (1899–1902)
E.H. Kossmann writes that the Dutch population was made “painfully aware” of the country’s “total impotence” when confronted with the South African crises, and at no time more so than when the prime minister was Abraham Kuyper—a man who “represented much of what was modern… imperialism, militarism, nationalism, and an indomitable desire for action.”
History can partially explain Dutch affinity for the Boers. The Boers were Dutch colonists, long removed from the Netherlands, who in some respects attracted little attention from the Dutch. The British annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 initially attracted little attention, and yet the combination of the 1886 gold rush, the Cecil Rhodes Charter Company (1888), and the Jamestown raid (1895–96) inflamed both the Boers and Dutch nationalism. The Dutch government was officially neutral, but the Dutch public was passionately invested.
Kuyper was more member of the public than the government when it came to neutrality, a position which landed him in a few tight spots. Writing for the prestigious Revue des Deux Mondes (February 1900), Kuyper vilified the English for what he called “brutal egoism and passionate materialism.” His primary attack was legal, argues Bratt, one that “mixed a ready command of international law and comparative immigration policy with special pleading.”
On becoming prime minster, Kuyper labored to resolve the conflict on behalf of the Boers to such a degree that critics later accused him of dislocating Dutch foreign policy and endangering the policy of independence. In fact, some argue, Kuyper wanted “to alter in some way or another the traditional course of Dutch foreign policy based on neutrality and a reluctance to get involved in major international problems.” In reality, Kuyper was almost surely trying to find an independent foreign policy path that would reduce Dutch dependence on the British and, like all middle powers, sought to balance the influence of one great power with another: in this case, Germany.
Kuyper’s perspectives became so well known, and his penchant for going off message so widely feared, that his own civil servants and diplomats in the Foreign Office deeply mistrusted him. Even Queen Wilhelmina took the trouble of putting into writing her firm belief in the policy of neutrality. Hands tied, Kuyper unleashed a feverish diplomatic effort in Western capitals in January of 1902, offering Britain his services as a mediator. Though the British rejected his offer, they did use it to force their own negotiations to bear fruit. Using Kuyper’s offer as evidence that the Dutch had accepted Boer defeat, the British made clear to the leaders in the Transvaal that the Dutch had abandoned them and forced a peace later in 1902.
In immediate foreign policy outcomes, the South African crises exposed Kuyper’s willingness to challenge Dutch neutrality and—in my opinion—Kuyper’s emerging perspective that great power balance was the only true path of independence for a middle power like Holland. His rapprochement with Germany earned him more than a little enmity among his own ranks. Though, geopolitically it is at least understandable why a middle-power, seafaring economy sandwiched between Britain, France, and Germany would seek a more balanced arrangement. Whether Kuyper ever intended to abandon neutrality entirely and side with the Germans is a matter for biographical and historical debate. What we can know for certain is that the Boer cause drove Kuyper away from Britain and toward Germany as a counter-balance. It also ultimately showcased not only his difficulty in making foreign policy, but the impossibility and incoherence of the Dutch colonial project at the turn of the century.
The Pacification of Aceh (1873–1904)
The Dutch government nationalized the former colonies of the Dutch East India Company in 1800 (not unlike what other European powers had done) because of growing concerns of security and trade. The goal, particularly of what became the liberal colonial policy of non-interference, was to reap the benefit of trade and growth with as little investment and exposure on the part of the Dutch government as possible. What it produced was some growth over the short term, but also an almost total collapse of the rule of law, a situation that was nowhere more severe than in what became known as the Aceh War (in the northernmost tip of modern-day Indonesia, a semi-autonomous region) and the rampant piracy in the Straits of Malacca (between modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia).
Kuyper knew all this when he wrote Our Program, a manifesto whose colonial components were directed precisely against both the liberals’ laissez-faire resource extraction and the imperial occupation’s overbearing and crippling costs. Writing in Our Program, he argues against the war in Aceh, calling it an “overhasty breach of the peace and overwhelming force. That approach spells military and financial ruin.” He also says “the people on this chain of islands should not have to fear the appearance of a Dutch flag but should be able to welcome and bless it. Only then are we justified before God and man.”
The long war in Aceh was, in some respects, not the result of Dutch imperialism, but rather just the reverse: the liberal principle of non-interference. Although at times in the nineteenth century the Dutch tried, through military expeditions, to pacify other islands (Borneo, Sumatra, Celebes, and Bali, for example), this could hardly be the case across the archipelago. Rather, the Dutch hoped that some nominal recognition of suzerainty would deter other marauding powers. The policy had the advantage of being cost-effective; direct occupations were extremely expensive, and the Dutch had a poor record of recouping such costs.
Despite nominal Dutch sovereignty over the region, the safety of the seas became majorly contested. Foreign ships, among them American, quickly became prey to pirates. The situation became urgent when the Suez Canal changed the main trade route from the Cape to one that included the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch attempt to impress their paper sovereignty on the Sultan of Aceh failed, and by 1873 the Dutch declared war on this tiny state. At the time, Kuyper denounced the “liberal” war in the strongest terms.
The war was, in a word, a quagmire. The conflict in the region, of which Dutch knew little geographically and less politically and socially, stretched over decades. The hope was to rapidly subjugate the population in a year. When expeditions failed, new methods followed: blockades, reconciliations, force concentration, fortified posts—all failed. It was an unwelcome war with resentful funding, and it’s hard to imagine the Dutch government’s heart was in it.
Given Kuyper’s anti-war stance, it is ironic that his Cabinet can be credited with eradicating the guerrilla resistance in the Aceh interior. Kuyper counted it, writes James Bratt, “as one of those necessary adjustments to reality.” The five-month campaign left nearly 3,000 dead, a third of them women and children.
Alexander Willem Frederik Idenburg, Kuyper’s disciple and colonial secretary (1902–05), tried to salve the wound by vigorously pursuing the “debt of honor” through interest-free loans, cultural development, and public investments. Idenburg labored to articulate an “ethical policy” that balanced between the need for the rule of law and the desire to catalyze investment and development. He promoted good government as a good in and of itself, commissioned investigations into rampant social problems, including one on the coolie-labor system that produced “results so appalling that he suppressed publication of the data, releasing only the executive summary.” To this, Idenburg added an “Antirevolutionary twist in granting greater self-governance to local communities.” The war in Aceh was hardly Kuyper’s idea, but the project of development and reconciliation on its heels, argues Bratt, could be counted a “solid success,” one which “followed his old principles” but also gained “support from other parties.” It was certainly the first tangible shift in Dutch colonial policy since the failed liberal agenda of the previous century. Ultimately, Indonesia was, for Kuyper, a tempering and sobering experience of international realities as a middle power prime minister, even though it was exactly here that much of the mark of his anti-Revolutionary agenda could be most felt in foreign affairs.
The Great War (1914–18)
After his time as prime minister, Kuyper grew increasingly pessimistic about the state of international affairs. It became his conviction since that time that the egoistic imperialism of the European powers was destined not for balance but rather catastrophe. When the Bosnian crisis of 1908–09 (the annexation of Bosnia by Austria with British support) took shape, Kuyper accurately predicted this would trigger a much broader conflict. The anger of Serbia, the humiliation of Russia, and the aggression of Austria would not end well. Already in March 1909 he writes:
The most painful prospect here is that, should the blaze at the Danube spread, no one can predict the limits in which the war can be contained. Russia can hardly stand idly by as Serbia and Montenegro are crushed. But if Russia intervenes in the conflict, Germany, as Austria’s ally, may swiftly follow suit and bring the danger right to our backyard. Even more, if Russia were hard pressed, France would have to take sides. So all of Europe could be set aflame.
When the Great War struck, then, Kuyper could hardly be said to have been taken by surprise. His geopolitical predictions were eerily accurate: a war would turn Europe’s “fratricide” into “suicide.” And while Kuyper maintained the official Dutch policy of neutrality, he nonetheless felt Germany had more of the right of the conflict.
The fundamental flaw of Europe was, however, neither German nor British. It was, in a word, that venal sin of pride. Europe, for him, “had smashed upon the rocks of human pride. They had mistaken cultural advances for moral improvement, so that their technical progress had only multiplied their powers to destroy.” According to James Bratt, the situation fit one of Kuyper’s favorite mottos: “the best, corrupted, becomes the worst.” As for international affairs, the error, he argues, was that the great powers grounded their policies not on “the Right grounded in God’s ordinances” but “on Might” and “pure self-interest.” To that problem, Kuyper saw no ready solution, other than repentance, a condition Christian Europe seemed unable to find its way back to in this great “consummation.”
In Kuyper’s opinion the imperial nationalism of Christian Europe had, in its pride, “exploded civilization.” Kuyper argued that “people had been satisfied with [Christian] appearances alone and failed to bring the gospel to the heart, and the sad outcome was that in Europe the torch of division and discord (with a view to life’s most fundamental principles) was set alight.”
Kuyper had argued that through common and special grace Christian Europe achieved the world’s highest standards and achievements, but now he was forced to concede that “the genuinely devout in every one of them [Christian nations] had not lagged a bit in baptizing their country’s cause as the Lord’s.” The fervor and fury with which Europe’s great capitals took up the cause of war smashed his idealism. Writes Bratt, “The moral and material resources that were harnessed in the war effort Kuyper attributed to Christian influence.” But what now that these great resources had clashed in the greatest conflagration of history?
“We must assume already now,” Kuyper writes in his final volume of Pro Rege, “that Christian Europe’s period of dominion is nearing its end, and that in terms of both technology and ideas, as well as religion, the age-old struggle is once again being revived with a growing intensity.”
The promise of Christian democracy, and even the sure Calvinistic idealism of his youth, seemed not enough when tested by the idols of his day. Pro Rege contains some of Kuyper’s most significant revisions to the relationship between society and the state. Here, at last, he recognizes that in the century ahead the great challenge may not be only the growth of the state, but rather “the massive expansion of economic, technological, and social institutions that had forged the new system wherein the sovereignty of God seemed eclipsed. One step in its retrieval, therefore, was to acknowledge a more active role for the state.” His qualified suspicion of the state, a hallmark feature of his Lectures on Calvinism, was moderated by a recognition that society itself didn’t do much better in the Great War. Kuyper recognizes the need for limited, but robust states, ones that can balance the material idolatries of the coming age; not empires, certainly, and not the imperial egoism or tyrannical totalism modeled by Napoleon and Bismarck, but institutions of justice capable of balancing and restraining the worst of society’s excesses. There, then, is a kind of Christian Realism, international to be sure, but far from the baptized nationalism or idealistic foundationalism of his youth. Christian foundations were essential to Kuyper, but no nation, and no continent, should lay exhaustive claim to those pillars. The evidence of that project, for Kuyper, was the past and—as he rightly feared—coming ruin of Europe.