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26 June 2024

Nato’s Mark Rutte era

The Dutch politician’s ideological flexibility could be an asset to the alliance – or undermine it completely.

By Catherine De Vries

The Netherlands is the purveyor of Nato secretary-generals. In October, the outgoing Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is now widely expected to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as the head of the alliance. With his appointment, Rutte will become the fourth Dutchman to hold the post; no other country has produced as many Nato chiefs.  

This is perhaps not surprising given that the highly fragmented nature of the Dutch politics is a perfect training ground for the development of coalition-building and dealmaking skills. The Netherlands also has a strong commitment to transatlanticism, often stronger than its commitment to Europe. This is not uncommon for small European nations and might explain why many previous secretary-generals were of Dutch, Belgian or Scandinavian origin. Due to this continuation with the past, Rutte seems an obvious choice.  

Yet, when we look more closely at his legacy, Rutte’s appointment also constitutes a break with the convention. Unlike his predecessors, he has done self-interested deals with illiberal politicians and the hard-right both domestically and within the EU. This is not only a reflection of his own survival instinct (his nickname “Teflon Mark” signifies his ability to dodge scandals and keep coming out on top), but also telling of the ways in which the domestic politics of alliance members have shifted due to the rise of the hard-right. 

In his bid to become Nato general-secretary, Rutte’s willingness to engage in what Dutch commentators describe as “extreme ideological flexibility” was on full display. To secure his nomination, Rutte had to clear several hurdles, including rallying the support of leaders with whom he had been at odds during his tenure as prime minister. In the spring, Rutte flew to Turkey to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to patch up a relationship that was strained over the course of several diplomatic spats. For instance, when the 2017 Dutch parliamentary election was in full swing, Erdoğan had called the Dutch government “Nazi remnants” after authorities cancelled an event hosted by his foreign minister due to security concerns and fears over electoral interference. In October 2020, these tensions resurfaced after Geert Wilders, a hard-right politician who defected from Rutte’s party to found the Party for Freedom – which is now in government – tweeted an image of Erdoğan wearing an Ottoman hat shaped like a bomb emblazoned with the word “terrorist”. When the Turkish president accused Wilders of defamation, Rutte defended him. “In the Netherlands freedom of expression is one of our highest values,” he said at the time. While Erdoğan kept Rutte hanging for a bit after his trip to Istanbul, he ultimately backed his Nato bid.  

The second hurdle proved more challenging. To gain support of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Rutte needed to overcome years of hostility between the two. Pushed by left and centrist forces in Dutch parliament, Rutte had on various occasions openly attacked Orbán over his government’s illiberal policies. In 2021, following the announcement of Hungarian anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, Rutte claimed that Hungary had “no business being in the EU anymore”. This year, however, Rutte convinced Orbán to lift the veto on his appointment with a grovelling letter stating that his past remarks caused “dissatisfaction in Hungary” and that as Nato secretary-general he would “treat all Allies members with the same level of understanding and respect”. Even more significantly, Rutte agreed that Hungary would be allowed to opt-out of any Nato activities in Ukraine.   

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Rutte’s ability to unlock deals is his political trademark. He is the longest serving prime minister in Dutch history – serving for 14 years – which is an achievement at a time when both political fragmentation and political polarisation is rife. Rutte is also known for his coalition-building skills in Brussels, where he has been one of Europe’s most influential leaders of late. In 2015, at the height of Europe’s migration crisis, Rutte played a crucial part in negotiating the EU’s controversial migration deal with Turkey, in which the bloc paid the country to take in refugees. In Brussels, Rutte has a reputation of a tough negotiator that was often successful in protecting Dutch interests. 

As the head of Nato, Rutte will need to continuously mediate between members, keep them aligned, and represent their joint interests globally. This will not be an easy task given the enormous challenges ahead. Wars are raging in Ukraine and Gaza; the relationship between China and the US is increasingly tense; and interests of member states are diverging. Nato was founded to secure a lasting peace in Europe and North America. With geopolitical threats increasing elsewhere, the alliance must reinvent itself and increase its funding. This may prove especially challenging if Donald Trump, a vocal critic of Nato, were to become US president once again. Rutte himself seems much less worried about the prospect of a second Trump presidency. At the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, he said that everyone “should stop moaning, whining and nagging about Trump” because “we have to work with whoever is on the dance floor”. This nonchalance encapsulates the red flag of Rutte’s pragmatism: a considerable tolerance for accepting illiberalism that may ultimately undermine multilateralism. 

While Rutte likes to stress his managerial qualities and his opinion that politicians should not have an ideological vision, it is too simple to suggest that he has no discernible political beliefs. Under Rutte’s watch, the Netherlands embarked on an unprecedented route of austerity, affecting not only the poorest in Dutch society, but also involving discriminatory practices related to an enforcement system of testing people’s eligibility to a broader set of benefits. 

Even more importantly in the context of Nato, is the evidence, uncovered by a prominent Dutch journalist, Tom-Jan Meeus, that defence spending was dealt “the final blow” through Rutte’s direct decisions between 2010 and 2014. During the global financial crisis, the Netherlands, like Germany, slashed defence spending, putting it not only below Denmark, Finland and France, but also far below the Nato average. These cuts left Dutch security exposed and the army ill-equipped. Only during his fourth and last cabinet, did Rutte change course by bringing military spending in line with the Nato requirement of 2 per cent of GDP. This change was followed by Rutte announcing his exit from Dutch politics and declaring his ambition to become Nato chief. With an eye on his own future, he made yet another pragmatic decision. 

Though Rutte’s pragmatism seems a clear asset for the post of Nato secretary-general at the moment, it might look very differently if this pragmatism hews towards shoring up his own political fortunes instead of serving the purpose of the alliance itself. It is also difficult to see how Nato’s purpose of safeguarding the freedom and security of its member states is served without upholding freedom within its member states itself. In this light, cutting deals and potentially even enabling illiberal politicians looks very harmful, and could ultimately undermine multilateralism.   

The willingness to continuously adapt to changing circumstances, despite clear costs, is an important part of Mark Rutte’s legacy. At a time when Nato needs to reinvent itself to survive the growing fragmentation it faces both from within and from outside the alliance, it will find at its helm a master of reinvention. The world will be watching if Rutte can pull it off and at what price. 

[See also: How the far right seduced France’s Gen Z]

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