WASHINGTON - Dutch Ambassador to Washington Hendrik Jan Jurriaan Schuwer has had ample opportunities to indulge his U.S.-acquired fondness for American country and western music, thanks at least in part to the election of President Donald Trump.
It’s “no secret” that Trump’s election surprised most European governments, Schuwer explains in an interview reflecting on his four-year tenure in the U.S. capital, which ended this month. And in an effort to better understand the social dynamic behind that election, he has traveled more widely in the Southern and Western U.S. states where both Trump and country music are most popular.
Schuwer says he would listen to the car radio during those travels, ranging from the Smoky Mountains of the U.S. Southeast to the mountainous northwestern state of Idaho, as well as to Nashville, Tennessee, the country music recording capital.
“For some reason I was really taken by country and western music,” he says, beginning with his first assignment in the United States at the Dutch consulate in Los Angeles 20 years ago. “Country and western music tells a story; it’s a ballad, and I like story-telling.”
San Francisco and Amsterdam
Elsewhere on his travels, the ambassador says, he found San Francisco to be more like Europe than other American cities, and reminiscent of Amsterdam’s “artsy, slightly anarchistic” atmosphere.
“We have a saying in Holland that there’s a free state of Amsterdam; these guys have their own ideas and it’s often difficult for the government to get Amsterdam to toe the line; I think San Francisco has that,” he said.
Chicago, meanwhile, reminds him of the port city of Rotterdam — “hard-working, a bit more rough, sort of blue collar, which is typical Rotterdam.”
Charleston, he says, invokes the “romantic part” of America, and Schuwer takes pride in the bond his embassy has built with the South Carolina coastal city through the sharing of water management experiences.
Alaska saved for last
It was only near the end of his American sojourn that Schuwer traveled to America’s largest and least developed state — Alaska.
“We knew we would be leaving, so we looked at the map and asked ourselves: Where haven’t we been yet?” he said.
“Luckily we went, because it was overwhelmingly beautiful,” its natural state virtually “untouched,” in contrast to his densely populated and “totally flat” homeland.
In Alaska, he says, “there are these huge snow-capped mountains, these valleys are that 30, 40, 50 miles wide and there’s nobody on the road … you see moose, bear, or caribou over there … and the thought occurs to you that this might not have changed for the past 1,000 years. Let’s hope we’re wise enough to keep it like this, and preserve it for the next generation,” he said.
Schuwer was happy to share his observations not only on America’s physical features, but also on its political landscape, beginning with its two-party system in which almost all power is divided between the Republican and Democratic parties.
In comparison, “I think we have 64 political parties” in the Netherlands, he says, with no single party commanding a majority in parliament since sometime in the 19th century. The current ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, contains four political parties while a total of 13 parties hold seats in parliament.
That might sound hopelessly confusing to an American, but Schuwer sees it as a virtue, saying the parties are forced to make compromises that foster a social consensus.
In the American system, Schuwer observes, “you have in the Democratic Party now people very much to the left, people who are in the middle, and the same goes for the Republican Party — you have people who are very much to the right and people who look for the middle ground.”
What truly sets American politics apart, the ambassador says, is a campaign process that stretches for almost two years in the case of presidential elections and requires vast sums of money.
“In Holland, the political campaigns are limited to four weeks, right before the elections,” he says. “How much money can you spend in four weeks?”
Despite the differences, Schuwer believes he is leaving his post in Washington with relations between the United States and the Netherlands as strong as they have ever been.
He says recent highlights of the relationship include Prime Minister Rutte’s second meeting with Trump earlier this year and the recently concluded Global Entrepreneurship Summit jointly sponsored by the two governments.