Dutch PM Rutte in Strong Position to Become NATO Chief After U.S., U.K. Backing

Prime Minister of Netherlands Mark Rutte. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) – The United States and Britain on Thursday backed outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as the next secretary general of NATO, putting him in a strong position to clinch the post.

Stoltenberg’s successor when he steps down in October will take office at a crucial juncture, tasked with sustaining NATO members’ support for Ukraine’s costly defense against Russia’s invasion while guarding against any escalation that would draw the alliance directly into a war with Moscow.

“President Biden strongly endorses Prime Minister Rutte’s candidacy to be the next secretary general of NATO,” a U.S. official said. “Prime Minister Rutte has a deep understanding of the importance of the alliance, is a natural leader and communicator, and his leadership would serve the alliance well at this critical time.”

Depending on the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election, the next NATO boss may have to deal with a second term for Donald Trump, who recently once again called into question his commitment to defending NATO allies.

Trump drew fierce criticism from Western officials earlier this month for suggesting he would not protect countries that fail to meet the alliance’s defense spending targets, and would even encourage Russia to attack them.

But Rutte, who was already considered the favorite to get the top NATO job, said on Saturday that Europe should “stop moaning and whining and nagging” about Trump and focus instead on what it could do for Ukraine.

“We have to work with whoever is on the dance floor,” Rutte told the Munich Security Conference.

The Netherlands’ longest-serving leader, 57-year-old Rutte unexpectedly announced his departure from Dutch politics in July, but remains in post as a caretaker leader while coalition negotiations continue following a Nov. 22 election.

NATO leaders are appointed by consensus requiring the support – or at the least no opposition – from all its 31 members. Two diplomats said Rutte has the backing of about 20 NATO members so far.

Sweden is currently set to become the Western alliance’s 32nd member – a move precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Also backing him for the job, the British Foreign Office said on Thursday that Rutte was a well-respected figure across NATO with serious defense and security credentials, and someone who would ensure it remained strong and prepared for any need to defend itself.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, has served as NATO chief since 2014. His term was extended in July last year for a fourth time as the alliance opted to stick with an experienced leader rather than try to agree on a successor with Russia’s war in Ukraine raging on NATO’s doorstep.

Diplomats say Rutte is currently the only official candidate for the post. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins have also signaled interest but have not been presented formally as candidates, diplomats say.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whom some had mentioned as a possible successor, ruled it out on Thursday, saying she would turn down the job if it were offered to her.

Under Rutte’s leadership Dutch defense spending was cut during years of fiscal austerity. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, the Netherlands has increased spending, taking it to around 2% of GDP in 2024.

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