NATO’s new boss: Affable, pragmatic and ready for Trump, if required

Then there is the strong possibility that Donald Trump, a vocal skeptic about NATO and aid to Ukraine, will return to the White House as the leading presence in what remains a US-dominated alliance.
Last Updated : 09 July 2024, 05:06 IST

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Berlin: Mark Rutte rode off into the sunset on his bicycle last week, making a carefully choreographed exit from Dutch politics, which he has dominated as prime minister for nearly 14 years. His next job will be even more challenging: He will be the new head of a NATO that is facing threats ranging from Russian aggression to the rise of right-wing nationalism across Europe.

Rutte, known as a flexible pragmatist, will bring his experience at conciliation to the 32-nation military alliance when he takes over as secretary-general from Jens Stoltenberg on Oct. 1.

As it celebrates its 75th anniversary with a summit in Washington this week, NATO, which was founded to deter the former Soviet Union from further expansion in Europe, has found renewed purpose in its support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. Beyond that challenge, NATO faces a Russian government forging stronger ties with China and Iran, even as Beijing tries to dominate Asia and Tehran expands its nuclear program.

Leading member states like France and Germany are dealing with the empowerment of far-right parties with clear sympathies for Moscow. Hungary and Turkey are authoritarian democracies. And there are new demands to spend more money on the military.

Then there is the strong possibility that Donald Trump, a vocal skeptic about NATO and aid to Ukraine, will return to the White House as the leading presence in what remains a US-dominated alliance.

But Rutte, 57, has managed four difficult and different ruling coalitions in the Netherlands with aplomb, putting the need for agreement before personal ideology. He is a known quantity for other leaders, and has been praised both by President Joe Biden, who pushed him to take the job, and by Trump, who once said after an Oval Office meeting, “I like this guy!”

Unlike Stoltenberg, a Norwegian, Rutte comes from a country fully integrated in both NATO and the European Union. “That is really substantively important now, because we really need both organizations to work more closely together,” said Camille Grand, a former assistant NATO secretary-general now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. That synergy will be necessary to enable Europe to do more for its own defense as Washington turns toward Asia, he said.

“He is a nice and easy guy, but also extremely tough, who does not suffer fools gladly,” said Robert de Groot, a former Dutch ambassador to the European Union who has worked closely with Rutte since 2011. “He’s extremely kind and loyal, but he will drive you like he drives himself.”

Stoltenberg said he was hesitant to give Rutte any advice, “but what is obvious is that the main task for NATO is to ensure that we are united.”

The 32 alliance members “have agreed on many issues,” Stoltenberg said in a wide-ranging discussion with a small group of journalists Sunday. “We will not agree on every issue in the future, either, but we have proven extremely resilient.”

Rutte, the son of a car dealer, is known for his big smile and has a penchant for finding common ground, rather than pushing his own point of view.

Despite his affability, he is a private person of regular habits who lives alone, does not cook, drives an old Saab and goes to the same summer house every year. Those habits limit what he considers to be distracting choices that divert him from his real love — politics and his job.

He is particularly fascinated by US politics and regularly sees Robert A. Caro, the author of a seminal biography of Robert Moses, the urban planner who helped create modern New York City.

In an interview, Caro described his friendship with Rutte and a childhood friend, Koen Petersen, now a Dutch senator. In 2015, the two men sought out Caro, who reluctantly agreed to have lunch with them at Patsy’s, a traditional Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, to quiz him about Moses.

Nearly every summer since, they have come to New York without security, rented a car and visited one of Moses’ landmarks, while reading the appropriate chapter in the biography, Caro said.

“These are some of the nicest days of my life, just the three of us,” Caro said. “I’m a lot older, but I felt like we were kids exploring New York.”

He described Rutte as a voracious reader who asks penetrating questions. “There is so much tension in Europe,” he said. “But if I ever met a person who could pour oil on troubled waters, Mark is that person.”

Well-known for riding his modest bicycle to work in his suit, and sometimes eating an apple while riding, Rutte has a meticulously curated image, said Wilma Borgman, a Dutch journalist who has covered him for decades and recently co-wrote a book, The Rutte Mystery. He keeps his private life to himself.

“He doesn’t let anyone get close,” Borgman said. “Of all the people we interviewed, nobody ever went to his home. By Dutch standards, that’s exceptional.”

Rutte declined an interview request given the proximity to the NATO summit meeting.

But after 14 years, he is also leaving his country with a lot of problems. The new government includes Geert Wilders’ nationalist far-right group, the Party for Freedom, which won the most seats in a November 2023 election and is known for its harsh stances on immigration and Islam.

There is criticism of Rutte’s own record on numerous issues, including a lack of new housing, consumers’ declining purchasing power and insufficient attention to the quality of education.

Rutte has also been accused of having been too slow to come to grips with the Covid-19 pandemic, too complacent about the earthquakes that resulted from the draining of a big natural gas field and too insensitive to an old scandal about child care benefits, when thousands of people were falsely accused of fraud.

With the challenge from Wilders, Rutte toughened his party’s stance on migration. At one point he urged what he called adherence to Dutch values, telling migrants: “Behave normally or go away.”

He broke up his last government because of disagreements on immigration, and then suddenly announced that he would not run again, leaving his party adrift and clearing the way to seek his new job at NATO.

Rutte has acknowledged his mistakes publicly and tried to learn from them, winning him broad leeway with the public and the nickname of “Teflon Mark,” said Matthijs Rooduijn, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. “The fact that he apologizes makes him a human being people can relate to,” Rooduijn said.

However, he added, “you can be of Teflon for a while, but at some point, after more than a decade, things do begin to stick to you.”

Rutte knew that “this was the moment to call it quits,” said Rem Korteweg, a senior fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a research institution in The Hague. “He felt he could only now be a piñata, that the party needed a new face and wanted someone more to the right.”

Jort Kelder became friends with Rutte in the late 1980s, in the youth organization of his party. They travel, sail and ski together. Kelder described his friend as “very energetic and almost laughably optimistic, but that is contagious.”

“When he is around, you feel guilty about getting angry about something,” Kelder said. “That would only disturb the party called life.”

At a 2020 European Union summit meeting to discuss the budget after Brexit, Rutte came prepared for a long night with a biography of Chopin and an apple.

Rutte’s view of Russia was deeply affected by the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, with 196 Dutch citizens among the 298 people killed by a Russian antiaircraft missile that had been provided to separatist forces by the Russian military. Two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he described Putin as “coldhearted, brutal, merciless.”

Kelder remembers days of stress following the MH17 disaster. “It was the first time he admitted to being dog-tired,” he said of Rutte. “He had to call Putin at the most impossible hours. Stress, sadness and anger were fighting for priority.”

At NATO, a major part of Rutte’s task will be to increase military spending, as Trump always demands, while making European security less dependent on America — to try to “Trump-proof” the alliance’s support for Ukraine while also pacifying the man who could be president and who has remained noncommittal about keeping the United States in NATO.

Korteweg said Rutte is known for not making issues too complicated. “He’ll be good at keeping everyone together, and if Trump wins in November that will help,” he said. “He’ll try to understand what the alliance wants, and that’s what he will deliver. But he believes strongly in the strength of the West and the United States as the leader of the Western world.”

De Groot said: “If he can’t bridge a new US administration with Europe, I don’t think anyone can.”

Published 09 July 2024, 05:06 IST

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