Rutte’s Agenda: The Future of NATO During the Tenure of the New Secretary General

On June 26, 2024, the NATO Council decided to appoint outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as the new Secretary General, effective from the beginning of October 2024. He succeeds Jens Stoltenberg, who led the alliance for ten years, taking charge of the world’s largest security organization at a critical time for European security, with the war in Ukraine intensifying and uncertainty surrounding the future stance of the United States towards the alliance following the upcoming presidential elections. Rutte will be the fourth Dutch Secretary General of NATO, following the withdrawal of his only Romanian competitor from the race after the Romanian Defense Council announced that President Klaus Iohannis was no longer a candidate for the position.

Key Directions

Rutte’s management of political alliances to form his previous governments, and also on the international level, where he led negotiations on issues such as increasing support for Ukraine, are among the significant capabilities that the Dutch leader brings to managing NATO. These skills will play a crucial role in shaping his approaches during his tenure, summarized as follows:

Leveraging His Political Experience for the New NATO Mission: Rutte is a seasoned statesman with extensive political experience, having led several Dutch coalition governments since 2010, which endowed him with a wealth of diplomatic skills and global communications. Over more than twelve years at the helm of Dutch politics, Rutte managed to find consensus among divided coalition partners by focusing on steering disparate alliances toward governmental decisions, a skill that could be instrumental in managing NATO’s internal divisions. Hence, Rutte received support from many NATO members to lead the alliance, partly because he is seen as a candidate capable of countering Donald Trump’s isolationist tendencies if he reaches the White House later this year. Internationally, Rutte’s tenure as Prime Minister has honed his global skills, notably in the European Union, where he developed strong relationships with leaders such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and enhanced transatlantic relations with American leaders Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Attracting Opposing Alliance Leaders: After expressing his interest in the position last year (2023), Rutte received early support from key alliance members, including the United States, Britain, France, and Germany. However, several other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, argued that the position should go to someone from their region for the first time. Therefore, securing the NATO Secretary General position required all of Rutte’s diplomatic skills to convince skeptics, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to support his candidacy. Rutte successfully reached an agreement with Orbán, accepting the latter’s request not to obligate Hungary to provide personnel or funds for NATO’s new support plans for Ukraine. This agreement, published by the Financial Times after months of Orbán’s refusal to endorse Rutte, angered the United States and other major NATO allies. This agreement follows current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s agreement with Orbán, which allowed Hungary to withdraw from NATO activities supporting Ukraine, such as the alliance’s plan to intensify military supplies to Kyiv and training Ukrainian forces, as well as long-term financial support.

Strict Adherence to NATO’s Principles and Goals: Unlike far-right movements in Europe and the United States, Rutte is a staunch supporter of the transatlantic alliance, aligning with the prevalent norm in small Northern European countries. This may explain why most NATO Secretary Generals have historically been from the Netherlands, Belgium, or Scandinavia. Stoltenberg commented on Rutte’s selection, writing on X that “Mark is a true transatlantic supporter, a strong leader, and a consensus builder. I know I am leaving NATO in good hands.” Oana Lungescu, former NATO spokesperson, said, “Rutte is seen as a safe pair of hands to lead NATO in turbulent times, just as Stoltenberg did over the past decade.”

Intense Military Support for Ukraine: Rutte has been a vocal critic of Russia’s attack on Ukraine since February 2022 and a strong supporter of Kyiv in its war. He was a key proponent of providing Ukraine with various weapons, including Leopard tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and Dutch howitzers, despite the Dutch military itself facing funding shortages. Therefore, it is expected that Rutte will continue to press all member states to provide the necessary military aid to Ukraine without directly confronting Russia. Rutte stated that the war on Europe’s eastern flank was one of the reasons for his pursuit of the NATO leadership role. Consequently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his delight at Rutte’s appointment to this crucial position and congratulated him on X, writing, “I know Mark Rutte as a strong leader who has shown determination and vision on many occasions in recent years,” adding, “We expect our joint work to continue ensuring the protection of people and freedom throughout our entire Euro-Atlantic community.”

Outspoken Critic of Putin’s Policies: When he first became Dutch Prime Minister, Rutte admired Putin and his approach, welcoming the opening of the Russian Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline in 2011, which led him to adopt austerity policies that reduced Dutch military spending. However, this view changed in 2014 after Russian separatists in Crimea shot down the “MH17” passenger plane, killing about 196 Dutch citizens. Since then, Rutte has been a staunch opponent of Putin. For instance, in an April 2024 parliamentary debate, Rutte said, “Do not overestimate Putin mentally. I have spoken with the man many times. He is not a strong man.” He consistently provokes Moscow by intensifying Dutch military aid to Kyiv and signing a 10-year security agreement with Ukraine, ensuring Dutch support despite criticisms from far-right leader Geert Wilders, who won the last election.

Pending Issues

Rutte’s appointment comes at a crucial moment in NATO’s 75th year, with the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war. He will need to continue rallying allied support for Ukraine’s defense while preventing any escalation between Moscow and the alliance. Additionally, he must prepare for the potential return of Trump to the US presidency, with Trump promising to reassess America’s role in NATO and threatening to cut aid to Ukraine. These developments highlight several pending issues awaiting Rutte during his tenure:

Dealing with the Potential Return of Donald Trump:

Just weeks after Rutte starts his new role in October, Americans will go to the polls, potentially re-electing Trump, a known NATO skeptic. This is likely following his success in the recent debate with current President Joe Biden, increasing doubts about future US commitments to NATO. This could make Rutte’s task of rallying allied support for Kyiv more challenging, especially given Trump’s strained relationship with NATO allies during his first term, where he repeatedly pressured European allies to increase their defense budgets to avoid placing most financial burdens on Washington. Moreover, Trump has threatened during his campaign to cut US aid to Ukraine, which could severely undermine NATO allies’ credibility in helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia under Rutte’s leadership, as the US has been the largest donor of military aid to Kyiv. However, Rutte may possess the skills and abilities necessary to persuade Trump to continue fulfilling his country’s security commitments to the alliance, especially given the recent threats facing NATO, whether on Europe’s eastern front or towards the east to counter China’s growing military rise in East Asia. This is attributed to Rutte’s success in developing a good working relationship not only with Joe Biden but also with Donald Trump, as confirmed by former NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu, saying, “Rutte’s appointment can be a major asset for NATO after the US presidential elections in November.”

Responding to the Prolonged Ukrainian War:

With the war in Ukraine intensifying and Russia gaining ground, his immediate priorities will include maintaining any momentum from the upcoming NATO summit in Washington, particularly regarding increasing NATO support for Kyiv while protecting the alliance from direct confrontation with Moscow. The alliance is also considering providing long-term financial commitments of at least 40 billion euros annually to Kyiv, institutionalizing long-term support. Once Rutte takes office, it is expected that Ukrainian officials will urgently seek his help as winter approaches, especially since Russia typically intensifies strikes against thermal power plants and dams in Ukraine during this period, as happened over the past two years, aiming to pressure Ukraine.

Challenge of Ukraine’s NATO Membership:

Trump’s re-election would almost certainly disrupt NATO’s plan to prepare Ukraine for future membership, including efforts to transition the Ukrainian military from the Soviet model to the Western model used by NATO. Last year, NATO countries promised they would be ready to invite Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met. However, based on Trump’s criticism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s actions, this commitment seems unrealistic. Trump stated in a campaign event that Zelensky “may be the greatest salesman for any politician ever. He just left with 60 billion dollars (after signing a 10-year security agreement with President Joe Biden) and returned home announcing he needs another 60 billion dollars. His requests never end.” These statements reveal Trump’s outright refusal to provide any aid or security guarantees to Kyiv, including Ukraine’s NATO membership. Therefore, it is unclear if Rutte’s tenure will ultimately see Ukraine join the alliance, given the numerous practical and political obstacles.

Ensuring NATO’s Defense Spending Levels:

Despite NATO celebrating a record number of allies reaching the 2% GDP target for defense spending in 2024, NATO estimates that the Netherlands will spend 2.05% of its GDP, up from around 1.2% a decade ago when allies pledged to increase their military budgets after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. However, about a third of NATO members are still unable to meet this target, despite the pledge made ten years ago, particularly Southern and Eastern European countries. The last NATO summit in Lithuania last summer failed to achieve unanimity among leaders in obligating all members to adopt a minimum defense spending rate of 2% of GDP. This means that Rutte must continue to push all member states to fulfill their financial commitments to increase their military spending, not only to counter Russian aggression but also to address other threats facing NATO, especially from China in the East.

In summary, Mark Rutte’s appointment as NATO Secretary General comes at a challenging time for the alliance, facing numerous security threats from various directions. His success in managing the alliance depends on leveraging his diplomatic experience, maintaining strict adherence to NATO’s principles, and rallying support for Ukraine while addressing the challenges posed by potential changes in US leadership and other member states’ defense spending commitments.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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