‘I see the world as a club in which all members look out for each other’

What is it like to switch jobs from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to running as a candidate for Parliament? How well does idealism match with the reality of international peace and security? How can we make foreign affairs more appealing to the average Dutch person? These are some of the questions JASON editor Aileen Schuurmans addressed in an interview with Bas Bijlsma, former JASON Advisory Board member and current candidate member of Parliament for the PvdA (Dutch Labour Party). From working at an NGO to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bas has gained experience with a broad range of international and domestic topics from different angles. Read all about his views on current trends in international peace & security, cyber threats, nuclear weapons and human rights in this article. 

First of all, could you introduce yourself to the readers of JASON? 

Sure, I am Bas Bijlsma, an independent advisor on international peace and security and currently running as a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary elections. I studied human geography and international development studies at the UvA in Amsterdam, after which I started my career at an NGO. From there I worked first as political advisor for the PvdA and later for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Security Policy Directorate. Last year I quit my job there and started working as independent advisor. 

About that, why did you leave the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and started your own business? 

That was mostly out of personal reasons. I have a son who is two years old, and I wanted to spend more time with him. That is why my wife and I both quit our jobs so we would have more freedom to travel and go on adventures with our family. However, because of Covid-19 this went a little differently than expected. I enjoyed working at the Ministry very much. The many interesting colleagues who know everything about international affairs and meeting partners all around the world makes it an amazing place to work at. However, as an independent advisor I also enjoy having more freedom and working for a broad variety of clients, from the World Bank to the African Union and NGOs. 

Why did you want to make the switch from policy officer at the Ministry to Member of Parliament? 

Well, it is actually a switch back, because I have previously also worked for the PvdA. The reason why has to do with a sense of urgency. All over the world, individual freedom is under pressure, human rights are being threatened and the inequality between people is increasing everywhere: within countries, between countries and between regions. I think this is harmful to many people, especially those that are discriminated against, for instance because of their ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity. These are the vulnerable groups I want to stand up for, not only as civil servant but also as politician. My ambitions are high; our foreign policy should be fairer and more ambitious if you ask me. We should stand up for more solidarity and equal chances for everyone. Our values and ideals should inform our foreign policy to a greater extent. 

You are very idealistic in your plea for more international solidarity but how does that match with the reality? I am thinking about financial constraints, responsibilities because of alliances with major powers, threats from other countries etcetera. In other words, to what extent is an idealistic foreign policy possible?

I view myself as an idealistic realist, or a realistic idealist, in the sense that I perceive my ideals to be the way in which we can make a realistic change. In my opinion, this is through protecting human rights and democracy, decreasing inequality, in a sense viewing the world as an association in which you stick up for each other. In this way we can make the world become fairer, safer and more prosperous. And this is shared more widely. It is not a coincidence that one of the first things President Biden did was to organize an international summit about democracy. A democratic world is a more stable world. When people are free to live their life as they see fit, trade and the economy thrive. This suits not only our values but also our interests, it will have positive effects on our country as well. As such, I think that pursuing ideals are also a realistic manner to create a more just world. 

In that sense I do not agree with the current Dutch foreign policy. In my opinion, realism is used as a guise to primarily promote the interests of Dutch companies. For instance by enabling Shell to do whatever they like in countries such as Nigeria, for which now finally local farmers will be compensated. Not because Shell’s CEO or its shareholders decided to change their behavior, but because a Dutch court ordered them to. Also collaborating with authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East to prevent migration to Europe is not the way to go in my opinion. This is not realism but egocentrism, at the expense of repressed people all around the world. The only way in which Africa can become safer and wealthier is by investing in equality, democracy and including all citizens in this process. And we can definitely achieve something there, for instance by making multinational corporations comply to strict rules about the protection of human rights. In my opinion that is the most realistic way in which we can make a change, and this is beneficial for the Netherlands as well. 

This sounds easier said than done though. Talking about Africa, it is often claimed that if Europe is too idealistic and strict when it comes to human rights, China will take over its role in Africa. This would not only be harmful for the state of human rights in Africa, but also for European companies that want to invest in these countries. What is your opinion on this? 

During my first job I worked on making the extraction of resources in Africa more sustainable. When talking to people living there, I noticed that in the beginning there was a sense of euphoria about the Chinese investments, particularly within the authorities. However, this euphoria quickly waned as they found out that these cowboy investments from China and other countries were extracting wealth from the country and that they were purely focused on their own interests. It turned out that the local employees were not treated well, the environment was harmed and the infrastructure that was built was of bad quality. In sum, the short-term benefits did not weigh up to the long-term disadvantages. Europe’s strength is that we do keep the long-term effects in mind, and that we invest in human rights, sustainable development, and democracy. This is also appreciated by African leaders. And it works the other way around too: in Europe we discovered that it is better to keep your neighbors close, and to invest in good relationships. That is why I think we should invest more in development cooperation and diplomacy, to build good relationships not only with governments there, but also directly with citizens. Their fate and ours are closely linked. 

You are a determined advocate of disarmament, particularly regarding nuclear weapons. How realistic is this aim in a time of increasing threats from an increasing number of countries, as well as our dependence on alliances with other countries for our security?

Let me start by stressing the importance of alliances. EU and NATO are of course security alliances, but also democratic ones. They matter not only for our safety but also for protecting democracy all over the world. With the election of President Biden NATO will get into calmer waters again, however the US still expects the EU to take more responsibility for their own security, as well as for international security. How do we do that? I think it is short-sighted to just call for pumping billions into our defense sectors. Instead, NATO and the EU should prioritize conflict prevention, and address the root causes of conflicts. This involves democratization, poverty prevention, and doing this together with a group of like-minded countries. This involves strengthening the multilateral system, cooperating with the UN as well. Within this, I am an advocate for a more assertive Europe. As Europe, being the largest economy and the largest market in the world, we have a lot of power. We should use this power to support a fairer and more inclusive world. Our alliances also matter as democratic unions, based on the rule of law. Consequently, we should not tolerate EU member states to abandon these important values and take away their EU subsidies if they do not adhere to these criteria. 

And what about nuclear weapons? 

Currently, more and more frictions between countries and their values become visible, China and Russia have, for instance, become more articulate and aggressive. When there are more geopolitical frictions, people feel less secure. Therefore, we should keep investing in military capacities and defense, but also in creating unity and promoting democracy. In my opinion, nuclear weapons are more a safety hazard than a safeguard mechanism. Many of these weapons are outdated, which comes with safety risks. And then there is also a risk that they can be stolen, or sold by corrupt officials. That is a doomsday scenario, as these weapons do not just hit the enemy, but instead hit an entire population. With President Biden there is more hope for disarmament and the reduction of the number of nuclear weapons. I hope that this will convince Russia to do the same, and that the INF treaty will be restored. And countries like the Netherlands should put their weight behind the Nuclear Ban Treaty that came into force earlier this year. 

During your work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now as consultant, you focused a lot on using data for conflict prediction and prevention, why is that important according to you?

First of all, I think that there is a lot of potential in the field of digitalization. With data we can predict wars in a much earlier stage and prevent them. Digitalization brings the Netherlands a lot, we are at the forefront of the developments in this field and this is something we should make use of. Already there are a lot of headquarters and offices of important tech companies based in the Netherlands. But we should be careful that this technology is not being sold to dictators that can use it to violate the human rights of their citizens. This is for instance the case with the surveillance equipment that is used by the Chinese authorities to repress the Uyghurs, which is also sold by China to other countries. Therefore, we need to increase our capacities regarding export control on technology. And this is not only about privacy, but also about the safety of vulnerable groups here and in these countries. For instance, if the data of human rights activists are made public, they will not be safe. And this can also harm the freedom of movement of our diplomats and representatives of companies in these countries. 

Regarding the national context, I think that we should not forget the risk that the use of data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) pose. We can observe that for instance in the affair about the allowances for childcare in the Netherlands. In this case, the use of algorithms led to the discrimination of people with a migration background. Because algorithms can lead to the enhancement of inequalities that exist in the real world to the digital world, the government should be more transparent when they use them. 

Talking about cyber and its threats, what should the Netherlands do about that? 

We can observe a trend in which the Putins of our world use cyber to undermine our democracy, for instance by interfering in our elections. I think it is important in this regard to publicly expose these crimes, such as was done with the Russian cyber attack on the OPCW headquarters in The Hague. Additionally, we should work harder to ensure that international law is applied to these crimes, so we can hold the perpetrators accountable in court. In addition, if we invest more in our defense capacities, we should put this money to improving our cyber capacities and high-tech systems. 

Foreign policy is a topic that does not directly appeal to most people; I am sure many JASON readers recognize the blank look they get when they say they study or work on international affairs. How do you aim to make these complex topics attractive to people?

What motivates me, is the realization that the freedom and prosperity of someone else is a guarantee for my own. Because of technological developments and the interconnectedness of our economies, the foreign sphere has increasingly become the domestic sphere and the other way around. I am talking about issues we talked about before, such as mass surveillance in China that harms our companies operating there, cyber threats and autocratic leaders that become more aggressive. That also affects us. This amplifies my motivation to commit myself to international affairs and standing up for people that have been less lucky, and also doing this for people that did not study international relations or security studies. As long as there are people being oppressed, nobody will really be free. 

Last but not least, what is the role of young people in politics and how can we have an influence in it? 

I think young people are extremely important in politics, therefore I am proud that there are many twenty-somethings on the list of the PvdA. It is important that their voices are heard. Take for instance the Covid-19 crisis. Besides elderly and vulnerable people, it hits young people disproportionally hard. Last week, I talked with some students that noticed many friends of them suffering from depression and loneliness. The Covid situation makes it more difficult to chat with professors and fellow students, and to build up a social life in a new city. This is very problematic. And then there are other issues that affect young people more, such as the shortage of affordable houses and the future impact of climate change. These are all issues we should take very seriously. 

And finally, my suggestions for what you can do to shape politics? Become a member of a political party. Organize yourself in groups and associations. If you collaborate with other young people, it becomes easier to make yourself heard. Don’t be afraid to make your unvarnished opinions heard, and pressure politicians and candidates, like me, to do the right thing. 

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