11stedentocht-frieslandEvery year, at first sign of heavy frost, the Netherlands is holding it's breath. Will an eleven city tour take place? The weather report becomes cautious. The heavy frost has to continue for at least 2 weeks for the ice to become thick enough. In this period there is no snow allowed. It could cover parts of the track and become an obstacle for ice formation. The members of the organizing committee come together. They measure the thickness of the ice along the 200 kilometer track. Every day the press interviews them. It is possible? The tension rises when the organizing committee is in session for a longer time. It's like waiting for white smoke to rise from the chimney. Is it possible?

What are the Dutch waiting for? It is the eleven cities tour. A skating event through the province of Friesland that connects 11 old Frisian cities. These cities are often very small by current standards, but they are part of an old tradition. It began in 1909 and although not very often organized (only 15 times) it has achieved a mythical kind of status. The 12th tour in 1963 took place under such difficult circumstances that was passed on as example of Dutch sisu for many years. The winner Reinier Paping became a legendary hero. When the 13th tour took place in 1985 (yes, 22 years later) people rushed to take part in it.

elfstedentochtThe importance of this event cannot be underestimated. It rarely happens, but when it happens the whole country is watching. More than 16.000 people take part. They start at midnight in the provincial capital Leeuwarden and they are given 24 hours to reach the finish. When they do complete strangers will hug them and give flowers. And while skating the 200 km track they find many watchers along the channels cheering at them. It is a winter folklore at it's best.

To Dutch speed skaters it is one of greatest honors they can achieve to win a race like this. When a Dutch team was in Nagano at the world championship, they were asked what they would do if an 11 city tour would start tomorrow. The answer was, we return immediately. A world championship is not that special. The 11 city tour is. The Japanese reporter was shocked to hear that. His next question was how many days it would take to do these 200 km. When they answered him that the fastest skater did it in just under 7 hours he looked incredulous.

elfstedentocht2Speed skating has always been important in the Netherlands. And especially on the longer distances we are hard to beat. In the allround championship we specialize on the 5.000 and 10.000 meter. Skaters who are good at these distances we call “stayers”. They are very adept in maintaining a constant speed during the race. This as an opposite to the sprinters (500 and 1.000 meter specialists). Sprinters need go as fast as they can from beginning to the end. For stayers it's important to divide your strength so that you don't collapse. It's this feature that makes the Dutch good at speed skating.


Finland Ice MarathonBecause the 11 city tour cannot always take place the Dutch have invented alternative tours. One of these alternatives is the Finland Ice Marathon in Kuopio. It usually takes place in the last week of February. You can see some Dutch speed skaters there and some Finnish skaters who give them strong competition. It is fun to watch. And afterward is fun to have a warm drink in the restaurant where the awards are given. The skaters are great company and the atmosphere is informal. It is always worth a visit.

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Henry_Kissinger_2009Today a review about Kissinger's book “World order” that saw the light in September last year. It's book that draws notice as much because of the writer as the subject itself. Kissinger, being the most famous secretary of state that the US ever produced is a “real politiker” pur sang. When the world seems to be increasingly in disarray it makes sense to listen what someone of his stature has to say about the subject. What solutions are there for the problems the current world is facing? Kissinger looks at the historical perspective bypassing many historical developments and keeping to the red thread of power and balance.

That begins with the peace of Westphalia (1648, which also recognized the independence of the Dutch republic). Born out of necessities that were shaped by the 30 year war. It seems to me that historical landmarks like that are always the product of necessity. The penalty for breaking the compact being far higher than the gain. People of that era knew why the treaty was formed and had good reason to abide it's terms. In later times it might have become a habit, but not then. Kissinger sees the treaty as a landmark because it recognized national states as an entity instead of royal houses and set rules of conduct between those entities. A system he notes that still is in force today.


Ratification of the Peace of Münster (Gerard ter Borch, Münster, 1648)Kissinger also discusses the Chinese, the Russian and the Islam as components of world order. Africa and South-America are not discussed. Their influence on the world order is perhaps for him to small to matter. I think this is a mistake. Although not historical relevant these continents can still play a role in the future. For example, as much as Africa has problems, it also has potential. A potential we nowadays explore by mining and digging. We are not colonizers any more. However others can see it differently. Chinese and Indians are also interested in Africa. Not only for it's natural resources, but for agriculture and migration. Islamists are trying to spread their belief by conquest past the Sahara. This sets the stage for a new 'battlefield' which could upset the world order again if it's not properly contained.

We are also facing the threat of Russian expansionism. Kissinger asserts, rightly, that problems on the border of the Russian empire always have been solved by conquest. Conquer a new part and bring it under control. It explains more or less Putin's behavior towards Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine. Even Afghanistan during the Brezhnev period would fit in this paradigm. It is all too well that Putin refers to the Russian bear as “master of the taiga”, but where does the taiga begin and where does it end? Maybe it is up to us to draw the line. Till here and no further.

Drawing lines in the Islamic world is more difficult. The Islamic world had the Westphalia system imposed without being part of the developments that created the necessity. Because it does not recognize the need it has questioned the system since the founding of the Muslim brotherhood (1928). The Islam does not recognize states that are don't embrace it's belief. They might grant you peace, but that's temporary. Not a natural state of things. The natural state of things is that all are united in the same belief. However this “universal truth”, does not prevent them from being hopelessly divided. The Arab League is widely known to be a paper tiger. It cannot act because it's members never seem to agree on anything in spite of professing the same belief. It's the experience of the 30 year war and it's consequences that is lacking and it's the fragmentation in the Muslim world that is the source of current instability in the world order.

It's president George W. Bush who bears much responsibility for this. Kissinger is very diplomatic towards him (more than I would be). Calling him a freedom loving President, but he condemns the size and scope of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless. Engaging the US in two wars in order to bring peace and democracy to the middle east has brought about a state of anarchy that is hard to contain. Also the deep recession in the economy has brought about crisis amongst almost every state in the world. In Europe we had to respond to the banking crisis it brought about. In Muslim countries the Arab spring toppled governments and brought civil war. Surviving governments have responded by increasing oil production in order to quench the flames of revolution. The low oil price is a result and a big problem for Russia whose economy is simply too dependent on that one product. It is not inconceivable that the soft power of the EU could bring Russia to it's knees, but somehow I have a hard time believing that. It's more likely that dictatorial Russia finds more in common with dictatorial China and becomes the loyal follower of the Chinese Emperor (Chairman). Chinese technology married with Russian natural resources. How would that affect the world order?

The_New_Republic_magazine_February_11_2013_coverKissinger provides no clear answers. I had hoped for such when I started to read the book, but there are none. At least he formulates the basic questions. In an review of “The new republicthese questions are answered by President Obama in a West-Point speech.

Kissinger:What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort?”

Obama: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.”

Kissinger: “What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance?”

Obama: “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake—when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us—then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”

Kissinger: “What should we not engage in, even if urged by a multilateral group or an alliance?”

TNR: That last question is the one Obama answers by omission. Obama’s speeches during his first term, as well as his National Security Strategy, championed the principle of “responsibility to protect, endorsed by all members of the United Nations at their sixtieth anniversary in 2005.” As Obama’s own White House described it, the principle recognizes that the “primary responsibility for preventing genocide and mass atrocity rests with sovereign governments.” But when “those governments themselves commit genocide or mass atrocities,” or when they are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from outside forces committing such acts within their borders, “this responsibility passes to the broader international community.” That responsibility can be exercised by many means, including the use of force.

It seems to me that Obama's answers are sensible for all of us (Hillary Clinton would surely follow in his footsteps). If you would substitute EU for US the answers would be the same. Does that solve all our problems? No, these principles are no guidelines for global issues like mass migration, nuclear proliferation, climate change, the role of the internet and other issues that demand answer from the international community as a whole. Maybe it's from challenges in those areas that ultimately a new world order will arise. Or better yet a reinvention of the old, because we should forget that a new world order (like the peace of Westphalia) is always build upon the ashes of the old.

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