November 24, 2019

Setting the pace: Career diplomat tackles latest role

Dutch Ambassador Peter van der Vliet on historical ties and marathons


    After Tokyo Olympics organizers moved the marathon to Hokkaido, Peter van der Vliet was among those disappointed. As a marathoner, the Dutch ambassador wanted to see the distance runners up close.

    The 56-year-old has about 14 marathons under his belt. Among them are eight New York City Marathons, including one at which he met the American who would become his wife. With a personal best of 3 hours, 27 minutes, he is keen to run in Japan — if his back will allow.

    “It’s the suffering, the endurance, the mental game,” he said of the appeal. “I just started running for recreation. You do a 10k, then you do a half-marathon, and then someone says ‘with that half time, you could do a full marathon.’ So I was tricked into it, but I enjoy it.”

    In terms of his time in Japan, so far, it’s been a whirlwind of activity. Since taking up his posting in August, he has accompanied King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, who visited for the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, and was among the first diplomats to present his credentials to the new Japanese head of state.

    As ambassador, van der Vliet is building on more than 400 years of relations between Japan and the Netherlands. Dutch traders were prominent in Kyushu in the early 1600s, and for more than two centuries the Dutch were the only non-Asian foreigners to maintain trade relations with an isolated Japan.

    Taking pride of place in the entry hall of the ambassador’s residence is a framed trade pass issued in 1609 allowing Dutch ships to disembark in any bay in Japan. “No offenses to them, whichever small, will be tolerated,” it reads.

    The trade pass sits among an array of Dutch art and ceramics on display in the light-filled residence, a space honoring the property’s history with its sleek Dutch minimalism, while also affording a view of the lush embassy garden. The embassy, at the foot of Tokyo Tower in Shibakoen, has been the site of the Dutch mission to Japan since 1883.

    Over tea at the residence, van der Vliet muses on what he wants the Netherlands to be known for in Japan.

    “I would like for Japanese people to see the Netherlands as a liberal democracy where people can live in freedom and enjoy their rights, as a country that scores high on the global happiness index, as well as on other rankings like transparency, ease of doing business and good governance. And as an open-minded and innovative country that is cutting-edge in key economic sectors,” he said.

    The Netherlands is a founding member of the predecessor to the European Union, and remains an influential voice in the organization. Van der Vliet argued that the EU has offered huge benefits to the Netherlands, allowing the country to amplify its global impact.

    “If you stick together, you’re stronger and your impact is bigger,” he said. “As a member of the EU, we co-determine the EU’s common foreign and security policy. You can have tremendous influence in shaping those policies and objectives. That involves a process of give and take.”

    The economic partnership agreement between the EU and Japan, in force since February, can expand trade between the two economies, but the ambassador cautioned that the impact was difficult to quantify. He said it would open export opportunities for Dutch producers, including the agriculture and life sciences sectors.

    As a nation of 17 million, the Netherlands has historically looked outward, including in its approach to languages. In a recent Education First survey on English proficiency, the Netherlands ranks No. 1, with Japan slipping to 53rd place.

    “Not a lot of people speak Dutch in the rest of the world, so you really have to learn English,” van der Vliet said. “We probably would not be able to thrive, or even to survive, if we were not speaking other languages. So for us it is a crucial asset, economically but also in science and international cooperation.”

    He said the Netherlands had benefited from teaching English in schools from a young age, and from subtitles rather than dubs of TV and movies.

    Like Japan and many countries of Europe, the Netherlands was a colonial power, formerly ruling what is now Indonesia, enabled by the Dutch East Indies Company. After Indonesia declared independence in 1945, the Dutch used force to attempt to re-establish their presence.

    Van der Vliet said the acts of violence put his country on the “wrong side of history.”

    “That global decolonization process was sometimes peaceful but more often was messy and violent. It is important to have the courage to confront one’s own history and to keep examining and discussing it. That is the case for the Netherlands, but is also true more generally.”

    Van der Vliet is joined in Tokyo by his wife, Joan Mitchell, whom he met at that marathon in 1986. The couple’s children — two daughters, ages 18 and 23, and a son, age 21 — are studying in the Netherlands and the U.K.

    The ambassador has toyed with the idea of writing a book about marathon running — or more particularly, the last eight miles (13 kilometers), when the mind and body are reaching their limits.

    “How can you prepare for that? In the run-up to a marathon, everyone does a 30k, but you can never train for those last eight miles.”

    Given Japan’s love of distance running and culture of ganbatte (do your best), it might just be a hit.

    UN roles span SDGs, humanitarian work

    A career diplomat, Peter van der Vliet graduated with honors in political science and international relations from Rotterdam’s Erasmus University in 1988. He interned at the United Nations in New York and later joined the staff of the Department of Disarmament Affairs.

    After serving as a military officer in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, he joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was a staff officer in The Hague and represented the Netherlands on disarmament issues at the United Nations in Geneva.

    He went on to take up a string of foreign postings: India (economic and commercial affairs), Jordan (deputy head of mission) and the U.N. (development, humanitarian affairs and human rights).

    Most recently he was the Dutch ambassador for the Sustainable Development Goals, before starting his posting as ambassador to Japan in August.

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