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New NATO chief Mark Rutte faces balancing act

June 26, 2024

Mark Rutte, the Netherlands' acting prime minister, has been chosen as the next NATO head. He will replace outgoing Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg after his term ends in October.

Mark Rutte is seen cycling to work
Mark Rutte has been known to cycle to work, like many other Dutch peopleImage: Robin Utrecht/dpa/picture alliance

In July 2023, after 13 years as the Netherlands' prime minister, Mark Rutte announced he would resign from office, saying he was "retiring from politics." Rutte had been the longest-serving prime minster in the history of the Netherlands, a country of just over 17 million. So, why did he step down?

Rutte's liberal-conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy had deemed his approach to asylum-seekers too lenient, causing his fragile four-party coalition government to collapse. This was followed by snap elections in November, won by far-right populist Geert Wilders. Rutte had been unable to prevent this shift toward the right, arguably marking the biggest defeat of his political career.

Since his resignation, the 57-year-old has remained in office for nearly a year in a caretaker role as Wilders' complicated government talks have dragged on.

Retirement plans postponed

By October, Rutte had seemingly forgotten all about his vow to retire from politics and instead signaled his interest in succeeding NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, whose term ends in October.

For months, Rutte ran a discreet one-man campaign in an effort to win over various heads of state and government, whom he already knew from years of working with various international bodies. The trained historian is a staunch supporter of Ukraine and was quickly able to secure US backing for his campaign, soon followed by most other NATO member states.

Jens Stoltenberg (right) is seen laughing and talking to Mark Rutte (left)
Outgoing Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (right) is keen to see Dutch politician Mark Rutte take his place at NATO's helmImage: NATO

Winning over Hungary's right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with whom he is not on the best of terms, took a bit longer. Rutte had to promise Orban that Hungary would never have to participate in NATO activities supporting Ukraine outside of NATO territory, as long as Rutte led the alliance. Orban, who maintains friendly ties with Russia, has also ruled out arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Rutte's liberal politics and Orban's illiberal outlook often put them at loggerheads in their dealings within the European Union. When Hungary adopted an anti-LGBTQ+ law in 2021, Rutte told Orban he was free to leave the bloc if he disagreed with its policies.

That said, Rutte is known for his good humor and wit. As prime minister, he often cycles from his modest home to his office. He has put his musical talent on display, sitting down to play piano at The Hague Central Station.

Mark Rutte (second from right) walking next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an F16 fighter jet is behind them
Mark Rutte (second from right), seen here with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in August 2023, has been a strong supporter of UkraineImage: Piroschka van de Wouw/REUTERS

As NATO secretary-general, Rutte will probably have to become a bit more serious and diplomatic. His main task, after all, will be to balance out the conflicting interests of NATO's 32 members so it can speak with one united voice. His predecessor, Norway's Stoltenberg, is a stoic master of this balancing act. "Stick to your message" has been his key credo for ensuring communicative success.

Skilled crisis manager

"True leadership requires the ability to listen and understand different perspectives," Rutte once said in a speech. This attitude may serve him well as NATO head. After all, Rutte is "a successful crisis manager," according to journalist Sheila Sitalsing, a columnist for the Dutch daily Volkskrant, who has written a biography of the Dutch prime minister.

For a long time, many Dutch citizens were satisfied with the political stability that Rutte ensured during the financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic despite shifting government majorities. He also weathered minor scandals well — so much so that one of his nicknames in the Netherlands became "Teflon Rutte."

He should be prepared for the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the White House and setting his sights on NATO once again. Rutte and Trump developed a surprisingly positive relationship during Trump's first term as US president, with Trump even calling Rutte a friend.

But Rutte, as the leader of a historic trading nation, fiercely opposed Trump's protectionist economic policy.

US President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands in the Oval Office
How will Rutte get along with Trump if he becomes US president once again? Image: Olivier Douliery/CNP/AdMedia/picture alliance

Rutte supports arming Ukraine

Unlike Trump, Rutte has favored sending weapons to Ukraine, even providing Dutch howitzers and fighter planes. The Dutch army itself, however, was underfunded during Rutte's 13 years in power. Only this year, for the first time ever, will the Netherlands spend 2% of its GDP on defense, in line with NATO spending targets. 

Rutte has been critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin for years. After all, Russia was probably at least partly responsible for the downing of flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Almost 300 people, most of them Dutch nationals, died when the Malaysia Airlines plane crashed on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

One EU diplomat told DW that Rutte is seen as "Mr. No" in the EU because he has rejected the ambitious reform plans and ideas floated by French President Emmanuel Macron. Rutte does, however, get on well with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

He is also on good terms with Italy's right-wing populist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Together, Rutte and Meloni have suggested processing asylum applications outside the EU in third-party states.

Sitalsing has written in Volkskrant that Rutte's approach to politics has shades of Houdini. Like the famous escape artist, Rutte has been able to extract himself from almost any crisis. This skill might come in useful as NATO secretary-general.

This article was originally written in German. It was originally published on June 20, 2024 and updated on June 26, 2024 to reflect Rutte's confirmation as new NATO chief.

Correction, June 26, 2024: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Volkskrant journalist Sheila Sitalsing. DW apologizes for the error.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union