Mark Rutte: Meet NATO's new secretary-general

The outgoing Dutch prime minister is a staunch critic of the Kremlin. His appointment foreshadows a ramping up of NATO support for Ukraine amidst its war with Russia.

Mark Rutte has been one of the driving forces behind Europe's military support for Ukraine.
Al Majalla
Mark Rutte has been one of the driving forces behind Europe's military support for Ukraine.

Mark Rutte: Meet NATO's new secretary-general

At a time when the NATO alliance faces its most daunting challenge since its creation 75 years ago, the appointment of former Dutch premier Mark Rutte as its next secretary-general should help to provide reassurance that the organisation is equipped for the challenges that lie ahead.

Apart from provoking the largest conflict Europe has faced since the end of the Second World War, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has provided NATO with arguably the most significant challenge it has faced since the end of the Cold War in the 1980s.

Prior to the Ukraine conflict, NATO’s main military focus had been on confronting militant Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda. NATO, for example, played a key role in supporting the decade-long US-led mission to Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

But as the alliance prepares to mark the 75th anniversary of its foundation at a lavish ceremony in Washington in July, the challenge presented by the Ukraine conflict has placed the alliance under enormous pressure in a conflict that will ultimately decide its worth.

Apart from providing Ukraine with military support, the alliance has had to undergo a radical transformation in its attitude towards Russia, significantly increasing its ability to defend NATO countries from any future act of Russian aggression. The Ukraine conflict has also led previously neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland to join the NATO alliance, thereby significantly increasing their ability to protect their northern flank from Russia.

Staunch Kremlin critic

Therefore, Rutte's emergence as the designated candidate to replace the outgoing Jens Stoltenberg in October comes at a vital moment in the alliance’s history—one that the former Dutch premier appears well-qualified to confront. Rutte’s appointment will undoubtedly be well-received in Kyiv, where he is highly regarded for his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and for leading international efforts to equip Ukrainian forces with US-made F-16 fighter jets.

The 57-year-old Rutte, who previously served 14 years as Dutch prime minister, has been one of the driving forces behind Europe’s military support for Ukraine and has argued strongly that it is vital for Russia to suffer defeat on the battlefield in Ukraine to safeguard Europe’s future security.

A soldier fires a missile from the Ukrainian army's Grad missile system towards Russian positions near Bakhmut.

Rutte’s personal antipathy towards the Kremlin is said to stem from his conviction that Russia was responsible for the downing of an airliner over Ukraine in 2014, in which 196 of the 298 victims were Dutch. This has led him to argue that NATO must expand its military ability to counter Moscow while warning other European Union leaders not to be naive about Putin's Russia, he says.

"He won’t stop at Ukraine if we don’t stop him now,” Rutte told the United Nations seven months after Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. “This war is bigger than Ukraine itself. It’s about upholding the international rule of law."

Rutte’s uncompromising attitude towards Russia certainly helped him to secure the nomination to replace Stoltenberg, as did his prominent role in co-leading an international coalition to deliver F-16 fighters to Ukraine and train Ukrainian pilots. Under his leadership, the Netherlands has increased defence spending to more than the 2% threshold of GDP required of NATO members, providing F-16 fighter jets, artillery, drones and ammunition to Kyiv and investing heavily in its own military. In his last months in office, he also signed a 10-year security pact with Ukraine.

Rutte regards himself as a strong backer of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom he has developed a close relationship in recent years.

"It was clear even then: this is a man with a mission,” Rutte recently recalled of his first meeting with the Ukrainian premier five years ago. “I am convinced that Ukraine's success largely depends on the mentality he conveyed from the very beginning."

He is less complimentary about Putin, who he claims is not as strong as he seems. "Don't mentally overestimate Putin,” Rutte warned the Dutch parliament in April. “I've talked to the man a lot. He's not a strong man; he's not a strong guy."

Other contenders

While Rutte’s track record of supporting Ukraine and opposing Russia undoubtedly contributed significantly to his campaign to replace Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, he has had to contend with serious competition from other leading European politicians.

Rutte has been one of the driving forces behind Europe's military support for Ukraine.

When behind-the-scenes discussions first took place about Stoltenberg's potential successor early last year,  it was widely rumoured that former UK defence secretary Ben Wallace was being lined up for the job. But Wallace's combative style, especially his criticism of leading European powers such as Germany for not doing more to support Ukraine, upset a number of prominent  European leaders, with the result that the US, a key player in appointing the next NATO leader, withdrew its support. As a compromise, Stoltenberg, whose support for Ukraine has been vital to rallying NATO member states to maintain their military support, was asked to prolong his departure for another year.

Some NATO members had also hoped Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas would become the first woman to lead the alliance, but others saw her as too hawkish towards Russia.

In the end, the only serious competition Rutte faced during his seven-month campaign to secure the NATO job came from  Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, whose decision to withdraw his candidacy ultimately secured the Dutch politician's candidacy. Iohannis said he had notified NATO allies about the withdrawal of his candidacy during a meeting of the Supreme Council of National Defence.         

As all the other NATO members had already given their backing to Rutte, Iohannis's withdrawal enabled Romania to join the other 31-members of the alliance in endorsing Rutte's candidature. Stoltenberg, whose ten-year tenure ends on October 1, said Rutte was a "very strong" candidate to replace him.

Upbringing and personal life

Born in 1967 as the youngest of seven in a middle-class family in The Hague, Rutte's father Izaak's first wife died in a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia. The family fled the former colony and started again in The Hague, with Izaak eventually marrying his late wife's sister, Rutte's mother, and managing a car dealership.

A history graduate and former human resources manager at consumer products multinational Unilever, Rutte became prime minister of the Netherlands for the first time in October 2010. He resigned last July as his four-party coalition wrangled over how to limit migration.

He still lives in the same part of The Hague where he grew up, in a house he bought with friends as a student. He cycles to work, and when he handed in his government's resignation to King Willem-Alexander last year, he drove to the ornate royal palace in a battered Saab station wagon.

He likes to keep his private life private. It is known that he is a bachelor who holidays with his mother in the town of Putten in Gelderland. Rutte projects the kind of down-to-earth, no-nonsense, cautious image much admired by the Dutch. He once said that owing too much to a bank would keep him awake, and on another occasion, refused to let cleaners mop up his coffee after he spilt it in parliament, insisting on doing it himself.

Although he has become a prominent figure in European politics, Rutte remains remarkably modest. For several years, even as a government leader, he has taught social studies at a high school in The Hague once a week. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pose for a photo prior to the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin on June 11, 2024.

Securing the job of NATO chief, however, required all of Rutte's diplomatic skills as he convinced doubters, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to back his candidacy. "It took a very long time. It's a complicated process, but it's an honour that it appears to have happened," Rutte told reporters after the announcement in The Hague before riding his bicycle away from work.

A pragmatist with strong political connections

A former NATO  spokesperson said Rutte was a good fit for the job. "He is a pragmatist and one of the few European politicians to have developed a good working relationship not just with Joe Biden but also with Donald Trump. That could prove a key asset for NATO after the November US presidential election," said Oana Lungescu, a former chief NATO spokesperson.

Rutte's ability to forge good relations with world leaders will certainly be a valuable tool in his new job. Rutte will face the challenge of sustaining allies' support for Ukraine's fight against Russia's invasion while guarding against any escalation that could draw NATO directly into a war with Moscow.

He has previously developed good relationships with various British and American leaders and is widely seen as having been one of the most successful in the EU at dealing with former US President Donald Trump, who is standing for re-election. This could prove valuable experience, as Trump's possible return has unnerved some Western leaders since the former president called into question Washington's willingness to support other members of the defence alliance if they were attacked.

At the annual Munich Security Conference last year, Rutte said leaders should stop "moaning and whining about Trump" and spend more on defence and ammunition production, regardless of who wins the US election. Rutte's appointment will reassure those on both sides of the Atlantic who believe it is vital that NATO provides a united and effective front in its support for Ukraine and prevents Russia from embarking on any further acts of aggression on Europe's borders.

Ultimately a managerial rather than a visionary leader, Rutte's favourite quote is reportedly one of the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt's: "People with visions should see a doctor." On a personal level, his Dutch motto is  "meeveren,altijd meeveren", or "go with the flow, always go with the flow."

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