NATO's New Chief vs. Trump: Can He Keep Control?

NATO prepares for a pivotal leadership transition amid challenges

by Zain ul Abedin
NATO's New Chief vs. Trump: Can He Keep Control?
© Patrick van Katwijk/Getty Images

As NATO looks forward to its 75th anniversary summit in Washington, it appears ready for a new leader after nearly 14 years. The new NATO secretary general will be Mark Rutte, former Dutch Prime Minister who has dealt with Trump before the latter became president.

He replaces Jens Stoltenberg, Former Secretary General of NATO since 2014. His colleagues, diplomats, and officials refer to Rutte as a staunch trans-Atlanticist, a pragmatic deal maker. "He is indeed a very experienced political figure and this is crucial to maintain the unity of the alliance," a European official commented.

This makes Rutte as a person who can work with any U.S. president. Some believe that his connection with Trump might help to prevent the latter from destabilizing NATO in case of his victory in the upcoming elections. In his first term, Trump publicly attacked NATO and recently urged Russia to harm members who do not meet the defense spending threshold.

His position during the campaign has attracted international attention. "Trump likes people that will argue with him, especially if the argument is done in a very polite manner," said Trump’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra.

Hoekstra remembered a meeting in which Rutte discussed the trade deficit between the U.S. and the Netherlands with "a smile on his face." However, Hoekstra pointed out that they are good working partners for Trump who is still determined to follow his plan.

"Trump was never anti-NATO,” Hoekstra said, “but was against a NATO that the Europeans did not pay for." A European diplomat said that Rutte is "certainly not a superhero’ and highlighted that ‘NATO is all about real work and money." A senior NATO official argued that many allies are worried about a Trump second term but pointed that 24 of the 32 allies are funding 2 percent of GDP on defense, and six are funding more than 3 percent.

Rutte's NATO Role

It is also crucial to note that Rutte’s endorsement of NATO secretary general role goes beyond involvement with Trump. There is an expectation that he can mobilize the support of all 32 parties in the alliance.

Positive assessment of the war in Ukraine and the ability to find a middle ground between belligerent Eastern European states and financially austere ones – an advantage. NATO member states believe Rutte will continue to support the unity of the alliance as the fighting in Ukraine goes on.

He will also discuss matters such as how to deal with China, how to increase the production of weapons, and how to innovate in the area of security. That Rutte had served the longest time in the capacity of prime minister of the Netherlands as a leader of the various coalition governments is perceived by many as an added advantage.

"He knows how to forge alliances and support, which is what this is going to be all about," said a former senior U.S. diplomat. Rutte was seen as the favourite to take over the baton from Stoltenberg and he enjoyed immediate support from the United States.

President Joe Biden asked Rutte to run for the position about a year and a half ago. On China and Ukraine, Biden and Rutte are on the same page, and Biden was impressed by Rutte’s determination to help Ukraine and his understanding of the war’s situation.

"Rutte has been very realistic among European leaders for a long time about who exactly Putin is," a U. S. official said.