Can Mark Rutte save NATO?

It’s been more than five years since Mark Rutte earned the nickname “the Trump whisperer.”

It was July 2018 and Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, had ushered everyone but the leaders, ambassadors and a handful of staff out of the room at the military alliance’s headquarters. Minutes earlier, Donald Trump had derailed a discussion about Georgia and Ukraine with a tirade warning the United States would “go our own way” if other countries didn’t start spending more on their militaries.

The mood was, to put it mildly, tense. French President Emmanuel Macron and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to reason with the U.S. president, complaining that defense budgets couldn’t be simply upped overnight.

But according to Timo Koster, a former director of defense policy at NATO who was in the room, it was Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, who “rescued” the situation, assuring the U.S. president that spending had gone up — and, more importantly, it was Trump who deserved the credit.

As far as facts go, that was at best a debatable claim. Spending among NATO allies has crept up since the Obama administration. But the argument seemed to hit its mark. By the time Trump addressed the press later that day, he was ebullient, citing “a very amazing two-day period in Brussels” during which he had achieved “tremendous progress.”

“The pin was back in the hand grenade,” said Koster.

Today, it looks likely Rutte’s whispering skills will be put to the test once again. The Dutch leader is the far-away favorite to replace Stoltenberg as the alliance’s secretary-general when his term ends in October.

Meanwhile, Trump is romping his way to securing the Republican nomination for president, giving him a solid chance to depose President Joe Biden in November. And he’s already threatening to leave America’s allies in the lurch, going as far as to say he’d “encourage” Russia to attack NATO countries that don’t meet their financial obligations.

“Amongst Western European leaders, Rutte … acknowledged the radical shift in European security,” said former NATO Assistant Secretary-General Camille Grand, now a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “As one of the longest serving prime ministers in Europe, Rutte experienced the rise and fall of Trump 1 and is well placed to handle a possible Trump 2.”

Goldilocks candidate

The process of picking a NATO secretary-general makes the election of a new pope seem like the epitome of transparency. But it is generally understood to be dictated by two rules: First, the decision must be unanimous among the alliance’s 31 members. Second, it’s the U.S. that ultimately calls the shot.

A number of other names have also whirled around the sorting hat — including Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Latvian Foreign Minister Krišjānis Kariņš and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (until she announced her desire for a second term at her current job). But Rutte is by far the top contender.

Two senior officials told POLITICO this week that Rutte had secured the support of two-thirds of NATO country leaders; a U.S. official said Joe Biden was among them. Germany, France and the United Kingdom have also declared their support.

The 1.94-meter (6-foot-4-inch) Dutchman is seen by many at the alliance as the Goldilocks candidate: Cool, charming, a skilled dealmaker, and hailing from country that is neither too big nor too small. On Russia, too, he’s neither too soft nor too hawkish.

At home, Rutte is coming to the end of 13 years in power — making him the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history and the second-longest sitting leader in Europe after Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. At the same time, though he’s known in the Netherlands as the “Houdini prime minister” for his ability to dodge political peril, Rutte seems to be finally running out of rope. He stepped down last year ahead of an election in which the far-right politician Geert Wilders took first place.

Rutte’s time in power has given him face time with both likely contenders for the White House. Dutch media have reported that both Trump and Biden have previously gauged his interest in the post.

The most recent occasion was in January 2023 during a one-on-one visit with Biden in Washington, in which the U.S. president granted Rutte the rare honor of sitting behind his desk in the Oval Office. A photo of the occasion captured Rutte — in a display of Dutch spontaneity — picking up the president’s phone to Biden’s apparent bemusement.

Biden, according to a U.S. official, found Rutte “passionate” and a “good communicator” who, as the leader of a small country, has proposed “innovative” ways to shore up the alliance.

Former NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu confirmed that the U.S. “twice asked Rutte” if he was interested in the job. Rutte was not available at the time due to the domestic situation in the Netherlands, added Lungescu, now with the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Lodewijk Dekker, a longtime friend, confirmed that Rutte seriously considered the NATO job around that time, but was held back by two reservations. The first was that he would have to step down as prime minister and leave behind what he perceived as a job unfinished. The second was that he would have to uproot his regimented life in The Hague, where he was born, raised and spent his political career.

The first obstacle fell away last summer after Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) forced a government collapse over asylum policy, and he unexpectedly stepped down. At first Rutte dismissed speculation about his future, insisting he “wasn’t in the running” when asked about replacing Stoltenberg at a July summit in Lithuania.

By fall he had become less coy, telling Dutch radio that in light of the war in Ukraine, it made sense for him to “do something international.” But when he was asked about the NATO job, he once again played down his prospects, saying “the chance was very high” that it would go to a woman.

Though Rutte later called the moment of disclosure a “mistake,” those who know him say it reflected a clear desire. “He’s long taken a decision, that much is clear,” Dekker said.

“The devil is in the detail with Rutte, he might give a formal answer to a question and then mumble some additional words while he walks away, which carry the real message,” said Alexander Kolks, a political adviser at the European Parliament from Rutte’s party.

“I think he really wants [the NATO job] and that’s why he’s being so nonchalant,” said Ton Elias, a former Dutch lawmaker from Rutte’s party.
‘Stop moaning and whining’

If Biden comes out on top in November’s election, the next secretary-general’s job will be challenging enough. If Trump wins, it will fall to that person to keep the U.S. president onboard or be left to pick up the pieces.

At first glance, Rutte would have his work cut out for him. For the entirety of his tenure as prime minister, the Netherlands was among those countries that didn’t meet its commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. (It has pledged to reach the goal this year.)

And yet, the Dutch leader has proved himself adept at handling the volatile U.S. president. During a visit to Washington in 2018, and with the press watching, he interrupted Trump after the latter suggested that a failure to agree on tariffs could be “positive.”

“No, it’s not positive,” Rutte interjected, deploying one of his trademark political weapons: a broad smile. “We have to work something out!”

Journalists later overheard him telling Trump: “Your desk is tiny!” To which the U.S. president responded: “I know,” later adding: “I like this guy!”

“He can deliver a message that’s as tough as nails but with a velvet smile,” said Elias, the former lawmaker.

Most of the time, however, Rutte chose the path of non-collision. “He made it a point of pride to have a normal relationship with Trump even though in the Netherlands at the time he was seen as the devil himself,” Elias said.

During a visit to Washington in 2019, Trump said the two of them had become “friends.” Rutte nodded in agreement, responding: “Certainly.”

The only time Rutte let his guard slip was in 2021, when — presumably assuming Trump had been relegated to the dustbin of history — he told journalists that working with Biden was “more natural.”

“Eventually we were able to get along and maintain a good relationship,” Rutte said of Trump. “Of course, it was a little embarrassing sometimes.”

He has struck a much more generous tone recently, saying Trump was always “right” in demanding more of the EU.

“Stop moaning and whining and nagging about Trump,” Rutte exclaimed at the Munich Security Conference.

“We have to work with whoever is on the dance floor,” he added, deploying a phrase he has often used when speaking about the former U.S. president.
Creature of habit

Given that Rutte has openly flirted with the possibility of leading NATO, he seems resolved not to be held back by his second obstacle to the job: a reluctance to leave home. Those close to him say he’s unlikely to find that easy.

The youngest of six children, Rutte was born into a family that had sought its fortune in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, but returned home impoverished. His father survived a Japanese labor camp during World War II but lost his wife; he then married her sister, Rutte’s mother, who herself had narrowly survived a Nazi-orchestrated famine.

That family history, rarely discussed at home, and his older brother’s death from AIDS in the 1980s, seem to have predisposed Rutte against dwelling on the negative. “He is always rushing forwards, and is not someone for contemplation or soul-searching,” said a person in The Hague who worked closely with Rutte for years and was granted anonymity to speak freely.

In any event, his upbringing seems to have left Rutte uninterested in material possessions. He spent his time as prime minister living in an apartment in The Hague, and for years used an old Nokia phone; he drives an old Saab or rides his bike, famously cycling to the royal palace to be sworn in.

When he first became prime minister in 2010, his justice minister tried to convince him to accept a security detail, said longtime friend Dekker. Rutte refused — only reconsidering in September 2021 following two high-profile assassinations in the country.

Elias, the former lawmaker, described how Rutte arrived for dinner at his house by bicycle in the summer of 2022, a time when sometimes violent farmer protests were spooking the political class. “I told him: ‘Cut it out!’” Elias related. “But he just answered, ‘it’s fine,’ and continued cycling around with a beanie on.”

By Rutte’s own account, his mother was thoroughly unimpressed by her son’s political career. Until her death in 2020, during the pandemic, he did her weekly shopping. He continues to teach at a local school every Thursday morning — no matter what else is going on in the world.

Rutte’s routine hasn’t changed for the better part of a decade. He sips his weekend cappuccino at the same café, visits the same hairdresser, eats at the same handful of restaurants, and tends to order the same meal. “We joke that you can’t take Mark to the same place more than once because if you do, you’re stuck to it to life!” Dekker said.

He has had no serious relationships to speak of and only a select few make it beyond his front door; more than a decade of public scrutiny has unearthed not a single out-of-control dance party. Visited in The Hague by Emmanuel Macron, he invited him to his favorite Indonesian restaurant, treating the French president to a €32.50 rijsttafel, a tapas-like meal of small dishes.

Every year, Rutte goes on the same holidays with the same group of friends: once to go skiing in the Swiss Alps in February, and once in the spring to New York (preferably on a flight arriving in the afternoon), where he walks the same 20-kilometer route around the city.

When he visits Brussels, Rutte doesn’t just stay in the same hotel — he books the same room, an EU diplomat who works closely with him told POLITICO. He reportedly even buys his paper from the same homeless person.

“In Bach [piano music], the left hand gives you structure, and the right plays the melody,” Rutte, а passionate music lover, told the Dutch radio presenter who asked him about his NATO ambitions, referring to his dedication to routine.

“It appears to give him the mental space to deal with chaos,” the EU diplomat said.

Teflon Mark

Like any long-serving political leader, Rutte’s time in office has been marked by crisis and scandal, but each episode has seen him dance away unscathed. “He’s like an ibex that manages to make his way over a steep peak by finding a trail that’s invisible to others,” said Kolks. Rutte’s political bible, famously, is “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” a four-part series by the American writer Robert Caro that’s both a biography of the former U.S. president and a study of the exercise of power.

One of the first things Rutte did as leader of the VVD was to expel his more popular rival and critic Rita Verdonk; the move plunged his party into crisis, and Rutte barely held on. In the years since, allies and opponents have risen and fallen. At one point his entire government resigned over a scandal in which the Dutch tax service profiled thousands of families based on their ethnic origin or nationality, and wrongly accused them of tampering with child benefits. But Rutte always emerged standing.

“My entire political career has been a string of miscalculations,” he told parliament in 2018, facing a barrage of criticism for keeping silent that a close ally of his, then-Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra, had lied about meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zijlstra resigned; Rutte easily survived a subsequent vote of confidence.

“He doesn’t make himself a problem owner,” said the person in The Hague who worked closely with Rutte. “He’s happy to think along and accompany someone [in trouble] to the threshold of the door, but not beyond it.”

On the European stage Rutte has emerged as a key dealmaker, working with Merkel to broker a deal with Turkey to help stem the flow of migrants, and joining a group of like-minded smaller countries to oppose extra spending by Brussels. More recently, in July, he traveled to Tunisia alongside von der Leyen and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni to secure another migration deal.

Though usually genial he’s been known to plant the occasional bomb, showing up for instance at a 2020 European summit with a biography of Frédéric Chopin and an apple — to show he was ready to sit through a long meeting to cement his opposition to a proposed budget. The episode reportedly earned him a scolding from Merkel for “childish behavior.”

Those close to Rutte say he was shocked by the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, but on a personal level it was the downing of commercial airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 that really left a mark on him. The strike, in an area controlled by Russian separatists, killed all 298 people on board, most of them Dutch citizens flying to Malaysia.

Ben Verwaayen, Rutte’s political godfather, saw him field the phone call in which he was given the news. “It was really, really intense,” he said. Until then, by Rutte’s own account, the Dutch leader had had a “good” relationship with Putin. But MH17, Verwaayen said, caused a “rift,” for the first time giving the easygoing Rutte an issue “that could not be bargained over.”

For days he badgered the Russian president to allow the bodies to be retrieved. “You’re the one who has to do it now!” he supposedly told Putin in one of their conversations. In a later interview, Rutte said the only moment he cried during his years as prime minister was when he received the news that a train carrying the bodies from MH17 had set off for Kharkiv.

Rutte didn’t let go of the matter. In October, several months later, he said he cornered Putin on the sidelines of an international summit in Milan to remind him of “the almost sacred obligation of a country to bring everyone back.”

“I remain furious. And told him that,” Rutte recounted at the time. Even now, almost 10 years later, Verwaayen said, MH17 “still … gets to him.”

The episode has left Rutte with the reputation of someone who — while less hawkish than some leaders whose countries border Russia — won’t be intimidated by Putin and other authoritarian leaders.

“If Putin showed up with a dog,” said Kolks, referring to the time the Russian president brought a large labrador to a meeting with Merkel, “even if he were scared, Rutte’s reaction would be to stroke it and say: ‘Cute! What’s its name?’”

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Netherlands has positioned itself among Ukraine’s staunchest allies, providing Leopard 2 tanks and promising F-16 fighter jets — earning Rutte the endorsement of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who threw his weight behind the Dutch leader at the Munich Security Conference: “I know him, he will save the unity of NATO.”
Campaign trail

Before Rutte can test his Trump-charming skills, he’ll first need to get the job.

Addressing reporters earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith confirmed the alliance’s ambition to name a successor to Stoltenberg by spring — or, at the very latest, before it celebrates its 75th anniversary in Washington in July.

Asked about Rutte, she said he was “one person that the alliance is looking at.” While no ringing endorsement, the mere mention of Rutte’s name by the biggest power in the alliance suggests he is the favorite to win.

A senior European official said Washington has pressured Rutte not to take the top job for granted, and instead to make his case to eastern flank countries that share a border with Russia, and which are eager to know his strategy.

“At least somebody has to ask: ‘OK, Mark, how are you going to deal with Russia?’” an Eastern European official said. Another diplomat from the region described Rutte as “taking the top job for granted” thanks to “the clear support from Washington.”

At home in the Netherlands, critics already suspect Rutte of using Dutch foreign policy to boost his chances for the job. In December, after more than a decade of resistance, the Netherlands suddenly dropped its reservations about allowing Bulgaria and Romania, both NATO members, into the EU’s free-movement Schengen zone.

Dutch support of Israel and participation in anti-Houthi strikes in Yemen have also been denounced by some as a transparent attempt by Rutte to score points with Washington.

Yet despite the dominance of the U.S., the appointment will need to be signed off by all NATO members, two of whom — Turkey and Hungary — have previously thrown spanners in the alliance’s works, or at least tried to leverage important decisions.

A senior European official told POLITICO that Rutte had been trying to secure a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — so far without success. According to European diplomats, Turkey wants assurances that Rutte will follow in the footsteps of Stoltenberg, who comes from non-EU Norway, and not favor EU members within the alliance.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, one person Rutte has failed to charm, could prove more difficult to please. The two leaders have clashed in the past over rule-of-law violations and LGBTQ rights in Hungary, with Orbán accusing “the Dutch guy” of “hating” him and his country, and Rutte daring the Hungarian strongman to leave the EU.

Other factors could work against Rutte. As he has suggested, there is a broad consensus that the time has come for a woman in the post. He would also be NATO’s fourth Dutch secretary-general. With the most recent, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, serving until 2009, some might argue it’s not yet time for another one.

And then there’s Trump’s favorite subject: defense spending. Rutte’s transformation into a military cheerleader will raise eyebrows in the Dutch military establishment, which for years tried to convince him of the need for additional resources as defense spending reached a decades-long low of 1.1 percent of GDP in 2015. Rutte’s long tenure means he has nobody else to blame.

Opposition is also mounting from those who think it’s time to give the job to one of the countries bordering Russia. Estonia’s Prime Minister Kallas, who wanted the NATO top job herself, criticized him for being frugal on defense. “Our fear is that he was prime minister for a long time, and the Netherlands has not lived up to this commitment of 2 percent of GDP in defense,” she told French media, lamenting that top jobs in Europe were “still reserved for a small number of countries.” On Thursday, Romania’s Klaus Iohannis threw his hat into the ring, notifying allies he’d challenge Rutte for the top job.

Finally, there’s the question of Rutte himself: Will he really be able to adjust to life in Brussels? “There’s zero doubt that The Hague will remain the epicenter of his life,” Dekker said.

“He’s absolutely not moving from his apartment to live in that NATO house,” Elias added.

Kolks suggested Rutte might “pull a von der Leyen” — the German Commission president who lives on the top floor of her Brussels office — dividing his time between Brussels and his hometown, a two-hour train ride away.

It’s unlikely, however, that Rutte would enjoy the freedom he did as prime minister if he were to become the head of the world’s largest military alliance. NATO’s official residence in Brussels is located in a gated street with heavy security.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of space to scrap those requirements just because Rutte likes being informal or says: ‘I’ll just come by bike,’” said Koster, the former director of defense policy. “If he continues to go to the same vacation spots, I suspect next time the bodyguards will go with him.”

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