A View from Abroad

Posted by on Jul 12, 2009 in healthcare, Interviews, politics, WAR

A short interview with Roel Dalhuisen, a talented Dutch Graphic Designer I met through the interweb.  He lives in Utrecht, Netherlands.  This interview talks mostly about foreign policy, health care and how the United States is perceived by the Dutch and abroad.  I find his views on many issues very close to mine in many ways.  The one thing I completely envy is his affordable, mandatory health care.  Also, here are some photos of Roel’s beautiful apartment and more info on Utrecht if interested.

What does freedom mean to you?

Freedom means that I can do whatever I want, as long as I don’t hurt anyone.  Of course you can then discuss when exactly you are hurting someone else. For example, does insulting someone, or damaging their reputation count as ‘hurting’?

For me, the line which you should not cross is drawn where respect ends. I sometimes disagree with others (quite often actually), but when i vocalize this i make sure that i’m not disrespectful in my comments. It’s healthy to disagree, and to articulate this– freedom is about being heard, and more broadly, to be able to express yourself to the fullest, in words and in actions.

How is America perceived by your countrymen and peers in the Netherlands? I know there must be a diverse mix of opinions but what is the general consensus?

America is a lot of things to us: it’s the US government and its policies, it’s a travel-destination, it’s where Joey, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Rachel and Phoebe live, it’s a symbol of freedom, it’s still the most powerful nation on the globe, and many other things.

Sometimes we identify with the US, because it is a symbol of the Western way of life (but painfully super-sized).

To start with the US government and its policies: the Dutch are not big supporters. The image most people have is that the US do whatever they like, and although they probably prefer consensus, they don’t let this become a factor in the equation.  The US has a reputation of serving only it’s own interests, and although all other countries make policy based on self-interest, occasionally these countries commit to something which serves the greater good, like signing the Kyoto-treaty.  Your process of legislation is a painful illustration of this, on a national level: every bill that starts out good arrives at the finish-line with one or more amendments and riders attached to it, because all the individual States want their own interests served, or re-election is more important than making the right choice.

We enjoy your Presidential election, but we dislike all the money that is required to run for office nowadays, all the negative campaigning, the hypocrisy in some policy-positions that are so transparent but usually serve a certain demographic, and the list goes on. It’s like a soap-opera: the acting is bad, the plot is predictable, the characters one-dimensional, but it’s still great fun to watch and quite addictive.

Still most Dutch like to visit the US; it’s big and beautiful, and makes for an interesting destination. The weird thing is that most people feel like they know America already, after seeing so many American TV-shows. As it turns out not all Americans are tall and slim, and the crisp and glamorous America that the TV shows is only a part of the American reality.  They don’t show the boarded-up abandoned Detroit suburbs on ‘Frasier’ or ’30 Rock’. America is the dream-factory, but like anywhere else these are sometimes bad dreams in everyday reality for some. The back of the Hollywood-letters are made of steel pipes that don’t sparkle and shine.

The war in Iraq and the ‘war on terror’ in general damaged the image of America a great deal. The Patriot Act, water-boarding, Guantanamo-bay and Abu Ghraib have made ‘1984’-fiction reality. We see this and marvel: how can Americans let their government do this? Maybe we don’t understand the 911-trauma well enough to comprehend.  In the last opinion-poll about 90% of the Dutch would have voted Democrats if they would be US-citizens. The fact that about half of the American voters could vote for someone like Sarah Palin is incomprehensible to me.

But America does have the best universities in the world, is home to some of the best writers, painters, musicians etc. There is a lot of positive things to say about the US, and although the political and economic centres of gravity are shifting, America still remains the most powerful nation. This commands respect with some, and suspicion with others. Being a small country, The Netherlands knows that it will never play a big role in contemporary history, and we look at America with mix of respect and a little bit of envy.

America is the country you love to hate.

What is the health care situation like for you in the Netherlands? How much do you pay for health care?

I pay about 120 USD per month, and that covers all my medical costs: my doctor, hospital-costs, surgery, recovery-programs, physical therapy, psychiatric treatments, medicine, etcetera.  It is mandatory to get insured, but you choose your own insurance-company. The government decides what the policies have to cover, and the insurance-companies can add additional coverages for an additional fee.

Would you be covered if you could not pay for health care?

To get insured is mandatory, but if you’re not able to pay then you are still covered. If you are already in a position that you can’t pay for your insurance, it would be impossible to pay for major surgery, and the deeper you are in debt, the harder it is to get out of it.

A hospital that treats an uninsured patient gets reimbursed from a fund that all the hospitals contribute to, so the costs are evenly split among them, and a hospital has no financial motive to deny treatment – actually, they’re legally obliged to provide health care if it’s urgent.

How long does it take you to get in to see a doctor?

Usually two to three days if you want an appointment at a convenient time, but you can go immediately if it’s something that you feel can’t wait, or if you don’t mind going early in the morning.

If you needed a very expensive surgery do you have to pay more for those services?

No, the whole system is designed to have no financial obstacle to get the best care and surgery you require. Everybody pays the same every month for their insurance, even those who would need to have surgery every month (although i hope that there are few who need to).

Are you able to shop around for the best doctor?

To some degree you can. Some hospitals deal with certain types of procedures more often than others, so if it’s a risky operation you can go to a specialized facility. Your insurance-company and your doctor usually assist you.  You can also go abroad for surgery if you think that you will get better treatment or if the waiting-list is shorter, and you’ll get reimbursed just the same, with some restrictions i guess. Shopping around isn’t necessary most of the time though, because most hospitals offer about the same quality of care.

What type of input have you gotten from other friends in Europe about their health care systems?

None, although i think the Scandinavian system is also very good.

Which one do you think is the best model for the United states to follow since we are currently debating health care reform?

I know too little about the American system. I know just about enough to know that it’s not that great, unless you’re rich.

However i do think it’s wise to make coverage mandatory, and let the government decide what the minimum is that insurance-companies should cover, and make it illegal for these companies to deny coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, or of those who are more likely to require a lot of care.

You should prevent a situation in which people will have a financial incentive to postpone treatment, or not get it at all. That’s not socialism, but calculated thinking: if someone will wait before he or she gets treatment, their condition will worsen and treatment will ultimately cost much more. In The Netherlands this is why your insurance-company gives you a discount to join a gym, because in the long run you will require less treatment, and they make a better profit. It’s in their interest to keep you healthy, and to get you to the doctor as soon as you feel that’s something might be wrong.

What is your opinion of America’s involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Without America’s involvement there would not be an Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of course nobody liked Saddam, but the way the entire operation was handled was wrong; there was no plan to rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq, or to be more accurate: there was no good plan. If the first two months after the invasion were handled more carefully we would have a very different situation right now, and a lot of Iraqis and American soldiers would still be alive.

In the period leading up to the invasion America really abused its power, and has continued to do so ever since. Most Dutch see the invasion as one that was started under false pretenses. Of course there were no weapons of mass-destruction, but there is strong believe that Iraq’s oil and the domination of the region were the actual reasons to fight this war, and the prospect that Halliburton would make some money out probably encouraged them some more.

All the mistakes that were made are quite hard to understand: how can you let something like Abu Ghraib happen? The first mistake was to use a prison that was the symbol of Saddam’s brutal reign. To destroy it would have made much more sense.  Why wasn’t there a military force in the streets of Baghdad to keep the peace right after the invasion? I read only the buildings of the Department of Oil were properly guarded by US-troops, while the rest of the city was pillaged and the Iraqi museum of National History was plundered.

If i read about the thousands of US-soldiers that die in the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities i feel for their families, and i can only imagine what anger their family and loved-ones must feel, knowing that a more thought-through approach could have saved thousands of lives, including that of their son, brother, husband, father.  As we speak, America is pulling out of the cities of Iraq, and i think that’s a good start. Iraqi’s will be more willing to accept Iraqi troops to keep the peace. I hope they are up to the challenge. Too many have died, too many children will grow up with scars on their souls.  Iraqi Freedom came at a price.

What is your opinion of North Korea and Iran?

I have visited Iran two years ago, and read a lot about it. What struck me most was the difference between the regime and it’s citizens: the anti-American rhetoric that we hear from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not represent the general opinion on the streets of Tehran. Many people talked to me, and expressed their dissatisfaction with the Ayatollahs and a lot of them asked me if i knew how they could come to Holland to work and live here. Next to the mosques you will find stores with neon lights, selling digital cameras, car-stereos, and bootlegged DVD’s with the latest Hollywood-movies.

Everyone was very welcoming and friendly, and when we talked about America they made a clear distinction between the Bush-administration and the American people. But although many Iranians don’t like their government, they would decide to defend their country against any foreign invader in a heartbeat. It’s hard to see a solution for the current problems the West has with Iran; internal reforms will take a lot of time due to the institutional arrangements put in place to secure significant influence from the religious elite. Military steps to change the regime would be even less effective than in Iraq. I think working with leaders in the region to try and contain the status quo would be the only feasible strategy, and hope for internal changes the coming decade.

The only possibility for the US to bring stability to the region would be to press Israel to allow the Palestinians to have their own state, within the borders of 1967, and allow them to have East-Jerusalem as their capital, and work out a solution for the many Palestinian refugees.  Many Dutch don’t understand why America supports everything Israel does, even though it’s clear that it violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian and helps to escalate the conflict. The attack on the WTC wouldn’t have happened if the Palestinians were granted to have their own state, i would argue. One of the best argument used to recruit jihad’s is the maltreatment of the Palestinian people, and thanks to the uncritical support of the US for Israel, America is blamed for this almost to the same extent as Israel.

Everyone wants the Jewish people to be safe, but there are solutions that ensure this safety as well as granting the Palestinians the right to control their own destiny within an Palestinian state.

North Korea is hard to figure out: it’s unclear where their power is concentrated. Is it just the leader, or an elite of generals? The North-Koreans are almost dying of starvation, and are oppressed much more than the Iranian. I don’t see a solution for the North-Korean situation, although military invasion would be less of a problem here than in Iran, not that i would advocate this. China is the only agent of change i think, and as we speak we see China become more critical of North-Korea. Maybe that Chinese pressure and a reform from within the power-brokers’ circle could work. The US could play a role by making clear that a reformed North-Korea could have a prosperous future and significant influence within the region.

What is your opinion of the United Nations. Do you feel the U.N. has been successful in its mission?

I really like the idea behind the U.N., and i think they have been successful on a number of issues. Key to the success of the U.N. is that is seen as impartial, and not as an puppet of the rich and powerful nations. A lot of UN-programs are run very well, and much has been accomplished. These programs are usually the ones where none of the major world players have much to lose. In a changing world where power shifts from a select few to a more diverse and larger group of players, the number of issues that fit that description is likely to decrease.

The Security Council is seen by many as too political, and China, the US and Russia regularly block solutions to pressing problems because of a sometimes minor self-interest.  The veto-system is crippling this body, and the fact that certain countries aren’t allowed to become a permanent member of the council is unjust. The whole permanent- and non-permanent member-system should be changed, but since the permanent members have to agree to this it’s unlikely to change very soon.

Are you happy living in the Netherlands? Are you proud of your country?

Yes, i’m very happy living in The Netherlands. It’s a prosperous country, with a lot of freedom and opportunities. I wouldn’t say that i’m proud of my country, because it feels weird to be proud of something like a country. I feel more of a connection with other progressive like-minded people in other countries than i do with conservatives in The Netherlands.  Borders are artificial, and yet i sometimes catch myself rooting for the Dutch team when a soccer-match is played. That’s both weird and understandable. Everyone wants to belong to a group, but one should never be uncritical of that group. That’s the attitude you should have towards your country – appreciate it, and be critical, so it can be improved.

Are your countrymen and women proud of the Netherlands?

Some are, some aren’t. What bothers me if people are proud of a misconception: they are proud of their version of The Netherlands, and everything that doesn’t have a place in their idea of what Holland should be has to be forced out of the picture.  A country should be a collection of ideas about that country, not a monochromatic still life – it’s a dynamic and ever developing. Some people are proud of The Netherlands as it was 50 years ago. Others are more proud of the way that we nowadays allow and facilitate people to be themselves and applaud diversity, instead of promoting assimilation, like some are advocating.  I think most Dutch are very happy to be living in The Netherlands, but just wish it would rain a bit less often.

What global foreign policy issue impacts the Netherlands the most?

Holland is a country which prosperity is tightly interwoven with the global economy, so i would guess that issues concerning trading would affect us most. But even if the global economy takes a dive, we have a healthy buffer to survive. I think therefore that there are not many policy issues that really effect us in a significant way. Other countries are not that fortunate, and it saddens me that some of the poorest countries suffer the most from a crisis that we, the Western world, are responsible for.

On an average day in Utrecht what global foreign policy issue is most discussed between your friends and family?

I think at the moment the protests in Iran are discussed most often, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a much discussed topic, and will continue to be so for a long long time i’m afraid. Iraq is still discussed, but less than before, and since there are Dutch troops in Afghanistan we also talk about Afghanistan from time to time.  Apart from these conflicts there also global environmental issues which are discussed, and the issue of the developing countries – discussing world hunger over a good meal.

What advice do you have for the new President of the United States?

Keep your promises, and continue the dialogue.
I’ve said some bad things about US-policies, but that was mostly or exclusively directed at the Bush-administration. The Dutch like Obama so far. I loved his speeches and his way of thinking. I hope he will keep trying to create international consensus on pressing issues, and use dialogue instead of military might.  His speech at the DNC in 2004 gave me chills (in a good way), and i was very fond of his Caïro-speech as well.  He is a president that is pragmatic and empathic, and is a breath of fresh air after eight years of Evangelical Neo-conservative fundamentalism.

Obama understands the way the world works, and has a sharp mind. I hope he has surrounded himself with critical minds that challenge him to keep seeing all sides of the issues, and not just the convenient one.

By the way why are you traveling to Indonesia? Just wondering. Sounds exciting.

When i travel i like to go to countries that differ substantially from the one i live in, to get a better sense of the world and see it in all its colours and shapes. I think it helps me to see things in perspective, and better appreciate my own and those other countries.  So far i’ve traveled to Iran, Chili, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Israel and Palestine, so i wanted to see an Asian or African country next, and i choose Indonesia because of the diverse mix of cultures (i’m visiting different islands with different religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Animism).

But apart from that it makes for good pictures as well, and the weather is great over there.

Here you can find my photo’s from Iran, South America, and Palestine/Israel:

By the way how many languages do you speak?

Just Dutch, English, and a bit of Spanish. I took French and German in high school, but that’s a long time ago.



  1. Candace Fasano
    July 13, 2009

    This is an amazing interview. Roel is intelligent, articulate and thoughtful in his responses to Byron’s great questions. I am so full of joy to read Roel’s like-minded progressive thoughts from so far away! Thank you so much for this wonderful piece, can’t wait to look at his pictures as well.

    Candace Fasano

  2. Akbar Lightning
    July 14, 2009

    this is top quality Globatron, wonderful interview, great probing questions, but i want to especially thank Roel for taking the time to answer thoughtfully and thoroughly, so that we have the benefit of an outside perspective on our country. I love how he was both critical of American policies and at the same time critical of that way other countries relate to the power of America. We all live with this paradox of empire, and in this we are united.

    5 out of 5 lightning bolts!


  3. Globatron
    July 14, 2009

    Thanks guys but first and foremost thanks to Roel who really put some time and thought into answering these questions.

    After reading this interview I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. I had no idea how closely Europeans watch the United States.

    And the health care they have is absolutely amazing. One question I forgot to ask was how much their income is taxed.

    This was definitely a learning process.

  4. Logocentric
    July 16, 2009

    thank you globatron and thank you Roel for doing this interview. it confirms that much of the information that americans get from their news sources and that many opinions that form in an embarrassingly closed environment such as the u.s. quite often are at odds with the opinions of informed, intelligent people in other parts of the world.


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