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From ‘merchants and ministers’ to ‘neutral brokers’: how the Dutch do water diplomacy

The Netherlands has been a leading participant in water diplomacy efforts due to a self-proclaimed water management expertise. An extensive discourse analysis of an advisory report finds that the Netherlands in framing itself as a ‘neutral broker’ pursues multiple objectives in its water diplomacy efforts. The article shows that these include much self-interest, and that this small nation’s mercantilist ambitions are alive and well. It also illustrates how to apply a linked series of discourse analysis methods to key policy texts in a way that is feasible for non-specialists.

Water diplomacy as a geopolitical tool

“An old cliché about who the Dutch really are – a mix of merchants and [religious] ministers – applies to foreign policy as well.” (Lechner 2008: 247)

Water conflicts loom large in the present world. Think about Israel/Palestine/Jordan, India/Pakistan, Turkey/Syria/Iraq, US/Mexico and conflicts in the Mekong and Nile basins. There are many more on a smaller scale. Water diplomacy seems to be the only solution to prevent bloodshed and ensure regional stability.

Two things are essential for understanding water diplomacy:

  1. There is no multilateral and universally accepted system in place to manage transboundary water conflicts and tensions. The two UN conventions (New York 1997 and Helsinki 1992) failed to build a global regime, although they partly succeeded in advancing some governance norms. This gave space for so-called ‘third-parties’ – states, NGOs, foundations – to try to mediate and resolve conflicts, including far away.
  2. Third parties explicitly pursue self-interest when engaging in water diplomacy. This means pursuing the goals of enhancing their own international prestige and authority, facilitating exports of goods and services, and shaping global governance norms. Merrill Lynch and the Bank of America estimated that the water industry market could be worth US$800–1,000 billion annually by 2030.Water diplomacy is one of the areas where countries compete to get a share of that huge pie. They do so by promoting their own private sector through technical cooperation and also promoting their own image through promoting and using venues and mechanisms of conflict resolution. The Netherlands is one such country with global aspirations in the water sector, including water diplomacy.

In search of a ‘niche’ for water diplomacy

Third-party water diplomacy offers opportunities for the Dutch water sector. It may win a lot of good will internationally and especially from some powerful riparian actors if successful mediation or prevention of conflicts in transboundary basins occurs. In some cases of strategic importance, such as the conflicts in the Nile and Mekong basins, technical cooperation is an important element of transboundary cooperation through services such as dam construction and maintenance, flood early warning systems or extraordinary releases, and exchange of monitoring and water flow information. Setting up these systems can generate revenues.

Furthermore, there are indirect ways of wielding influence internationally — for example through setting global norms of ‘good transboundary governance’ that would be more accepting of private involvement or that would allow for an internationally-funded river basin organisation to play an active role.

Another possible pathway to influence is by promoting particular venues where transboundary disputes can be discussed, such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice, both conveniently located in The Hague. If these courts can wield authority over transboundary conflicts and the Dutch government has some influence over the two courts (by virtue of being a host country), then there is a clear interest for the Netherlands.

Analysing seemingly contradictory objectives

However, aggressive promotion of own self-interest in water diplomacy raises questions. The aims of helping achieve peace on the one hand and pursuing economic self-interest and geopolitical influence on the other may, at least in some cases, be conflicting. This observation led us to research how the acceptance of the Netherlands as a third-party actor in water diplomacy by the riparian parties as well as the wider international community can be furthered despite such seemingly contradictory objectives.

We looked at an advisory report (van Genderen and Rood, 2011) to the Dutch government on water diplomacy, from a key phase of policy reorientation, to find out how the Netherlands positions itself as a leader in water diplomacy efforts globally in relation to its objectives to benefit economically. We looked at the different rhetorical tools used in the report to manage the seeming contradiction by applying a series of discourse analysis techniques: 1) content analysis (word frequency tables plus collocations for key terms, showing the terms that accompany them); 2) text and argumentation analyses, following the approach of Scriven-Toulmin-Gasper (e.g. Gasper, 2000; Gasper and Roldan, 2011); 3) metaphor analysis in the formats by Schmitt (2005) and Steger (2007); and 4), growing out of the previous three steps, a  frame analysis using the WPR format developed by Bacchi (2009).

We used these methods in sequence. The content analysis helped in initial orientation and sharpening questions, the argumentation analysis investigated key sections in detail, the metaphor analysis explored then how the central issues are finessed, and the frame analysis synthesised the findings that emerged from the preceding stages.

Here are some of the things we found:

The Netherlands frames itself as a water diplomacy expert. The word “diplomacy” (152 counts) featured more than the word “conflict” (112 counts); “the Netherlands” (138 counts) was mentioned more frequently than the “UN” (86 counts). Also using collocation analysis and concordance analysis, we concluded that the report is not focused on a deeper understanding of the conflicts in specific river basins and ways of resolving them. Instead, its primary concern is the promotion of the Netherlands as a diplomacy agent with a specific ‘niche’.

The detailed text and argumentation analysis confirmed that there is an effort to establish the Netherlands as a credible, authoritative, capable and willing actor to be involved in conflict prevention. We examined the meanings communicated and the logic in the report’s ‘Conclusions’ section where it turns to recommendations for the Dutch government. There, the authors openly but carefully contradict the Minister of Development Cooperation (in 2011 this was Ben Knapen, now Minister of Foreign Affairs) and argue that the Netherlands is better suited to engage in conflict prevention than conflict resolution.

One of the possible benefits of this, along with smaller risks compared to mediation, is the larger role for the Netherlands water sector in all kind of activities that may go under ‘conflict prevention’. We also observed that the water engineering and management prowess of the Netherlands at home is treated as a prerequisite to engage in water diplomacy internationally – which is not self-evident.

Most importantly, neutrality is presented as a key enabler of the Dutch water diplomacy efforts. Using a metaphor analysis, we explored the report’s presentation of the Netherlands as a “neutral broker” in water diplomacy efforts. We looked at three key types of metaphors in the report – “neutral broker”, “conductor of an orchestra”, and games metaphors such as “win-win”, “zero-sum game” and “player” – and observed that the “neutral broker” metaphor (11 uses) dominated. This metaphor links from a source domain of business deals to a target domain of promoting peace (Kövecses, 2002). “Neutral broker” aptly hints at a desired combination of minister/preacher and merchant: a state that will act as an ”international hub”, “enabler”, “norm entrepreneur” and “mediator”, promoting peace (roles that are all suggested for the Netherlands in the report) while at the same time actively promoting its own country’s business.

Finally, we performed a frame analysis to synthesise findings and understand how the report frames the problem that it addresses, what solution it offers, and how this solution is legitimised. The earlier three techniques provide inputs and background to this. We use the format designed by Carol Bacchi called “What is the Problem Represented to Be?”. We found that the report produces three key effects of representation:

  1. The representation of attempted water conflict resolution as risky prompts a focus on conflict prevention. This steers the Netherlands’ external involvements away from conflict mediation towards a larger field with more economic opportunities, both technical and governance-related, namely conflict prevention.
  2. The perception that there are many developing countries in the world without technical knowledge and expertise in water governance and diplomacy leads to the promotion of Dutch assistance – with ‘economic spin-offs’ for the Netherlands.
  3. The presentation of the Netherlands as having a reputation for neutrality, which is foundational to use of the “neutral broker” concept, facilitates the efforts to secure its participation in water diplomacy.


The report that we studied framed the Netherlands as capable, neutral and willing to engage internationally (with partners in the Hague and around the world). At the same time, it implicitly framed the world (Global South river basins) as lacking expertise and in need of third-party mediation/involvement — hence the ‘niche’ for the Netherlands that has something to gain from such involvement. No serious engagement with counterarguments on these fronts was detected. The report’s orientation is in line with a business-oriented world order within which globally competing nations are there to uphold self-interest (in the competition between “Global Hydro-hubs”). The report seems to continue the historic trajectory of Netherlands’ foreign policy by combining its two paradigmatic roles: the “merchant” (pursuit of self-interest) and the “(religious) minister” (provision of advice and aid).

This post presents findings from our recent article in International Journal of Water Resources Development. The article is open access and can be accessed via the link.


Bacchi, C. (2009). Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to Be? Pearson Press.

Gasper, D. (2000) “Structures And Meanings – A Way To Introduce Argumentation Analysis In Policy Studies Education”. Africanus 30(1), 49-72.

Gasper, D., and Roldan, B. (2011) “Progressive Policy Framing: Kofi Annan’s Rhetorical Strategy for The Global Forum on Migration and Development”. African Journal of Rhetoric, vol.3, pp. 156-195.

Kövecses, Z. (2002) Metaphor: a Practical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lechner, F. J. (2008). The Netherlands: Globalization and National Identity. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Mukhtarov, F., Gasper, D., Alta, A., Gautam, N., Duhita, M. S., & Hernández Morales, D. (2021). From ‘merchants and ministers’ to ‘neutral brokers’? Water diplomacy aspirations by the Netherlands–a discourse analysis of the 2011 commissioned advisory report. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 1-23.

Schmitt, R. (2005). Systematic metaphor analysis as a method of qualitative research. The Qualitative Report, 10(2), 358-394.

Steger, T. (2007). The Stories Metaphors Tell: Metaphors as a Tool to Decipher Tacit Aspects in Narratives. Field Methods, 19(1), 3-23.

Van Genderen, R., and Rood, J. (2011). Water diplomacy: A niche for the Netherlands. Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Water Governance Centre.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dr. Farhad Mukhtarov is Assistant Professor of Governance and Public Policy at International Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Des Gasper is professor of Human Development, Development Ethics and Public Policy, at ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

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17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van Bergeijk in this article show how close and intensive cooperation across the artificial borders between the sciences can be made possible and argue for a methodology acknowledging that only a combination of qualitative and quantitative research can create the type of knowledge that’s required to move forward together.

Hans-Peter Gauster (unsplash)

We start with a proposition: that both social and natural sciences are good at boxing, but not as good at wrestling. They ‘box’ by telling themselves stories about where they and researchers in the respective fields ‘fit’ into the scaffolding erected around the supposedly chiasmic divide of natural and social sciences. We all seem to know what side of this divide we want to be on, and a lot of time is invested in delineation, often drawing distinctions without differences. For too long, specialisation and deeper knowledge, both applied and theoretical, have been seen as the royal road to academic success.

But there are limits to what any science can do on its own. We’ve seen this during the current pandemic. As in any context, COVID-19-related health problems cannot be tackled from a purely medical angle; the exploitative social and economic structures that make people sick must also be challenged. Indeed, the validity of medical solutions to a large extent depends on social and economic conditions of time and place. The pandemic does not provide a new insight – it simply makes it clearer.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that by boxing in the disciplines and keeping them apart, we fail in a monumental way to ‘wrestle’ with multi-faceted problems, like global pandemics. We avoid the intellectual battle inherent in engaging with what the other side thinks. To deal with COVID-19 or to understand what is happening, we need less boxing and more wrestling! A mono-disciplinary perspective, however sophisticated, cannot help us design and evaluate policy interventions, or grasp the wider meaning and significance of COVID-19 in specific contexts. A lot of time is now being invested in delineation with other strands and lines of thought based on high principles of epistemology and ontology. Our point is that that energy would be better spend on truly working together.

A physician and an economist…

We write from different sides of a supposedly chiasmic divide, a divide we each try to bridge and straddle in our own ways. C. Sathyamala is a public health physician with a Master’s degree in Epidemiology who opted to do her PhD in development studies at the ISS. In the process, she developed a strong interest in class and state power and in the history of the biopolitics of food and hunger. As a medical doctor concerned with action for social justice, the Bhopal gas leak disaster proved a crucial turning point in her life as corporate interests in collusion with the state effaced people’s lives. The COVID-19 pandemic created similar tendency, displacing the migrant working class across India and subjecting them to what Giorgio Agamben has called ‘bare life’.

As an agnostic Dutch economist, Peter van Bergeijk is the first academic in a family of South Holland-based bakers, carpenters, and farmers. As a policy maker at the OECD, he was frustrated by the impossibility to engage major developing countries in discussions on environment and health. This motivated his move to the ISS, where he is equally happy to employ a neo-Marxist or a ‘empiricist’ framework as a toolkit, depending on what analytical toolbox is most suitable for the problem at hand.

…together critically examining the COVID-19 pandemic

Each of us has written on COVID-19 – on the urgency of communicating our concerns – in the form of  books or a range of Working Papers. Writing from different social and professional positions, we now also write…together. A common interest around COVID-19 has bridged our science-social science divide.

Primarily, we agree that if at all a silver lining is to be found in the COVID-19 situation, it is that we can learn a great deal, especially with mixed disciplinary backgrounds, with science, social sciences, and the arts (we have also worked together artistically: you will find Sathya’s poetry and Peter’s lithography alongside at the exhibition Broken Links).

And we both agree that we will only truly understand pandemics and their consequences, and what to do about protecting human societies from their fallout once social scientists and natural scientists stop practicing social and intellectual distancing by boxing themselves into their own disciplines.

This is more urgent than often recognised: the next pandemic is a certainty, only its timing is uncertain.

The WHO hopes to forge solidarity and encourage the sharing of knowledge across disciplinary and global divides. The purpose is to generate greater consensus around COVID-19.

But while lip service is paid to medical opinion, it is powerful political and economic elites that continue to call the shots.  State interventions provide selective care in the matter of making live and letting die, and even in making die in the Foucauldian biopolitical sense. Academics find themselves struggling to keep up in real time with the pace of the pandemic, with its spread, recurrence, changing pattern, and often its gross mismanagement.

Huge as the problem is, we are pleased to have started our own dialogue, right here at the ISS, and based on our own published and ongoing research on the subject. How COVID-19 affects us now, and what kinds of ‘pandemic futures’ we face, are questions all of us can contribute to answering once we learn to wrestle across our disciplinary divides.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

C. Sathyamala is a public health physician and epidemiologist with a PhD in Development Studies. She is currently a postdoc academic researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Den Haag, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her areas of interest include food security and politics of food, political economy of health, medical ethics, reproductive rights, and environmental justice. She has been active in both the health and women’s movement in India for some decades. She has authored and co-authored books and published in journals, peer-reviewed and otherwise, and in newspapers on wide-ranging topics. 

Peter van Bergeijk is professor of international economics and macroeconomics at the ISS.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.