Five Challenges Await: Mark Rutte's Tough Road as NATO Chief

Mark Rutte, the outgoing Dutch Prime Minister, is set to face a series of formidable challenges as he assumes the role of NATO Secretary General

by Sededin Dedovic
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Five Challenges Await: Mark Rutte's Tough Road as NATO Chief
© Phil Walter / Getty Images

When Mark Rutte moves into his NATO office, he won't have much of a honeymoon period, writes Politico. The outgoing Dutch Prime Minister's campaign for Secretary General ended on Thursday when he secured the support of all 32 NATO allies (with Romania, the last holdout, announcing its support).

Current President Jens Stoltenberg is expected to step down by October 1. Rutte, who has led the EU's fifth-largest economy for 14 years, is widely praised as an effective consensus-builder while also showing determination in supporting Ukraine, including recent efforts by the Netherlands to train Ukrainian pilots to operate F-16 fighters.

But even for an experienced politician, the next chapter of Rutte's political career won't be a walk in the park. Here are five of the toughest issues he'll have to address.

1. Possible Return of Donald Trump

Four weeks after Rutte starts his new job, Americans go to the polls and could re-elect Donald Trump, a NATO skeptic.

During his campaign, Trump threatened to cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine if he returns to the White House. If he does, it could deal a severe blow to the credibility of NATO allies in helping Ukraine defend against Russia, given that the U.S.

is by far the largest donor of military aid to Kyiv. Trump's re-election would also almost certainly disrupt NATO's plan to prepare Ukraine for future membership. NATO countries last year pledged to “be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met”.

Judging by Trump's recent characterization of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, that commitment looks shaky. Zelensky is “perhaps the greatest salesman of any politician who ever lived,” Trump said during his campaign last week.

“He just left four days ago with $60 billion after signing a 10-year security agreement with President Joe Biden, and he went home and announced he needs another $60 billion. It never ends”.

2. Putin’s Winter Assault on Ukraine

As soon as Rutte takes office, Ukraine will be calling for help as winter approaches.

In recent months, Russia has stepped up attacks on Ukrainian power plants and dams – infrastructure that takes months, if not years, to fully repair. During the first winter of the war, between 2022 and 2023, Ukraine’s power grid was fiercely attacked.

The key, says outgoing NATO chief Stoltenberg, lies in more air defense systems that could protect energy suppliers, as well as maintenance personnel working to repair damaged facilities.

Jens Stoltenberg© Omar Havana / Getty Images

NATO countries are also struggling to send – or, in Rutte's own country's case, build – air defense systems.

But Europe doesn’t have much to send, progress in the U.S. is stalled in Congress, and countries close to Russia are less than willing to give up their air shields at this dangerous moment.

3. Getting NATO Members to Spend More

NATO this week celebrated a record number of allies reaching the target of two percent of GDP on defense spending – the Netherlands just crossed that threshold this year after years of decline.

But that means a third of the alliance still isn’t meeting the target, despite making that promise 10 years ago. Southern European nations are among the worst offenders. In Italy, estimates for 2024 show a slight drop from an already low 1.5 percent last year.

Spain will spend just 1.28 percent this year. Its neighbor Portugal gave 1.55 percent. “Our Mediterranean friends' poor performance is perfect ammunition for Trump,” said a senior diplomat from the Baltic region who was given anonymity to speak freely about the mood within NATO.

The region has been a strong advocate for a tougher approach to Russia. Closer to Trump’s turf, however, things are equally bad. Canada, a NATO member since its inception in 1949, allocates only 1.37 percent of GDP, marking a 0.1 percent increase since Russia’s war against Ukraine began.

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte© Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

4.

Complaints from the Eastern Flank and Choosing a Deputy

Countries bordering Russia do not favor Rutte. They were angry about the Netherlands’ low defense spending, and are particularly upset that the top NATO role always goes to Western or Northern Europeans, despite Eastern flank countries being in the alliance for a quarter of a century.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas didn’t enter the race for the top NATO job after being told she wouldn’t get the support of countries like the U.S., France, and Germany (she is now a favorite for the next EU foreign policy chief).

They feared Moscow would see her appointment as an escalation of hostilities. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who ran for the job, received only the support of Hungary — briefly and only for tactical reasons. Eastern flank countries will now likely seek better representation at the secondary level of NATO: the Deputy Secretary General (DSG) position and various Assistant Secretary General (ASG) positions.

Job distribution has been a sore point for Eastern countries for some time. While the outgoing DSG is Romanian, all seven ASGs are from the West — two from the U.S., and one each from Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, and France.

One ASG position is vacant. Indeed, one of Rutte's first tasks as NATO chief will be to appoint a deputy, and he will be under pressure to name someone from an Eastern country.

5. European Leaders Who Love Putin

Rutte will have to convince not only Trump to keep NATO alive and well.

Far-right parties that are skeptical and pro-Putin are flourishing across Europe. France, for instance, is on the brink of parliamentary elections that could lead to big gains for the far-right National Rally — forcing Stoltenberg to make a rare appeal to Paris to “keep NATO strong”.

Rutte, of course, knows this story well. In a way, he began thinking about the top NATO job when it became clear that his center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy would lose the Dutch election to the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which it did.

Wilders, asked last year about his view of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, told Russian propaganda outlet RT: “I applaud him as I applaud Trump for being a leader, who stands there on behalf of the Russian and American people”. One thing Rutte need not fear: his new job won’t be boring.

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