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Top NATO countries back Holland’s Mark Rutte to be the next Secretary General

The acting prime minister of the Netherlands, who has openly applied for the post, has the support of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France, while Hungary and Turkey have not commented

Mark Rutte
Acting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte greets Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenski during the Munich Security Conference on February 17 in Munich, Germany.PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE HANDO (EFE)

On Thursday, acting Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, gained a major boost in his efforts to become the next NATO Secretary General, after receiving the support of the United Kingdom, Germany and France and, especially, the United States. Representatives of Joe Biden’s administration have confirmed that he supports the Dutchman’s candidacy — although the U.S. president has not yet made a public statement — for a post that will require the incumbent to manage the Alliance’s support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion. In addition, in the event of Donald Trump’s return to the White House, the NATO secretary general will need to navigate the foreseeable tensions between the organization’s main partner and the rest of the member countries.

“President Biden strongly supports Prime Minister Rutte’s candidacy to be the next NATO secretary general,” a senior official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Prime Minister Rutte deeply understands the importance of the Alliance, is a born leader and communicator, and his leadership will serve the Alliance well at this critical time.”

Rutte received a similar British vote of confidence. “Rutte is highly respected within the Alliance, has significant defense and security experience, and will ensure that NATO remains strong and ready to defend itself and deter attacks,” said a representative of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government, also on the condition of anonymity. In addition, a senior French official expressed Paris’ support of his candidacy, adding that the president, Emmanuel Macron, was an early supporter of the Dutchman and sounded him out about the position last year. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, a German government spokesman also expressed the backing of the chancellor, Olaf Scholz.

Rutte, 57, is garnering support to replace Jens Stoltenberg. Only the Dutch politician has openly applied for the post, and he already has the backing of a majority of the Alliance’s 31 members. As with everything else, Hungary is dragging its feet and has not stated its position on Rutte’s candidacy. Turkey has also refrained from expressing its position, but it is moving to make its support conditional on the Dutch leader promising the country a more prominent role in the alliance and trying to get Ankara to join the NATO-EU partnership, according to allied sources. Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999, but its accession process has been stalled for years because it does not meet the requirements to progress on the path to membership.

The NATO secretary general is elected unanimously, and so far no member has vetoed the Dutchman, diplomatic sources say. Stoltenberg has been in office since 2014 and has extended his term several times, most recently last year, as Russia’s war against Ukraine raged and none of the candidates had support from all 31 members.

Officially, Stoltenberg’s term ends in October, although NATO wants an earlier appointment so that the election does not coincide with the elections for the most important EU posts after the European Parliament elections in June. Rutte’s appointment would come at the NATO summit in Washington next July. At that time, the organization will commemorate the 75th anniversary of its founding, and the Biden administration is determined to celebrate the occasion: it is a symbolic gesture, but one with which it wants to underscore Washington’s support for the institution and distance itself from the attacks by Trump who, first as president and now as a Republican candidate, has threatened to do away with the principle of mutual defense.

What will happen within the Alliance if the former Republican president returns to the White House in November is one of the main problems that Stoltenberg’s successor must address. Trump set off alarm bells in Europe when, two weeks ago, he declared at a campaign rally that he would let Russia “do whatever the hell it wants” with NATO countries that do not devote at least 2% of their GDP to defense. “I’m not going to defend them,” he maintained; he has continued to repeat those comments on social media.

Rutte has been blunt about those comments. During his participation at the recent Munich Security Conference, the acting prime minister urged Europe to “stop whining and complaining and protesting” about Trump. “We have to work with whoever is [there],” he observed, calling on Alliance members to focus on their main task right now: what can be done to help Ukraine, whose troops were withdrawing last week from the city of Avdiivka to avoid being encircled. Washington, the main provider of aid to Kyiv, has attributed that Ukrainian decision to an increasingly pressing ammunition shortage, caused by the U.S. Congress’s delay in approving new funds for economic and military assistance to the invaded country. NATO is considering how to fill the gap created by the impasse in the United States.

Biden knows Rutte well; for the past 14 years, he has been at the helm of the Dutch government. Following elections in the Netherlands last November, Rutte has visited the White House five times, and the two met in the Oval Office in January last year to discuss issues such as aid to Ukraine and responding to China’s rise. “We look to you to make sure that we have a coherent response from Europe, from all of Europe, for Ukraine,” the president told his guest at the start of the meeting.

NATO wanted the next person to lead the organization to be a woman, and preferably someone from the southern members (the secretary general has always been a man, and the last few have all been from the Nordic countries), but at this point that seems unlikely.

Last year there was talk of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas filling the position, although some allies considered her to be too hawkish on Russia. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen was another option, but she did not have unanimous support either. Both ended up withdrawing their names from consideration and supporting Stoltenberg’s mandate for another year. There was even talk of Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, filling the position but, according to allied sources, in her own country, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz balked. France was also reluctant. As EL PAÍS reported, von der Leyen is running for a second term at the head of the Commission and never made an official statement or took a step toward candidacy.

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