Rutte’s Prospects as Next NATO Chief Strong Despite Iohannis Challenge

February 2024
By Maximilian Powell

Reports emerged this week that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s bid to become the next NATO Secretary-General has garnered the support of two-thirds of NATO countries, including powerful members such as the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France. One of the main reasons Rutte is seen as a strong choice is his perceived ability to deal with the increasingly erratic behaviour of Donald Trump, earning Rutte the nickname “the Trump whisperer” – a skill considered vital if Trump were to re-enter the White House, especially after his recent statements undermining the military alliance.

However, it appears that not all is smooth sailing, as the biggest threat to Rutte’s Secretary-General bid comes from Romania. Reports emerged on Thursday (22 February) that Romania has notified allies of President Klaus Iohannis’s consideration to challenge frontrunner Rutte for the NATO top job. Iohannis’s decision reportedly stems from complaints by Eastern European countries bordering Russia, alleging that Rutte has not reached out to them since campaigning for the position. This last-minute twist is likely to add to the bilateral ill-feeling between the Netherlands and Romania given Rutte’s government’s historical refusal to endorse Bucharest’s entry into the Schengen area.

Under NATO protocols, the appointment of the Secretary-General hinges on achieving “consensus,” thereby necessitating Rutte to secure the support of all member nations. With the impending leaders’ summit scheduled for July in Washington, there is growing pressure on NATO members to endorse Rutte’s candidacy so that he can succeed Jens Stoltenberg, who has steered NATO since 2014. However, approximately 10 countries remain undecided, including some Eastern European nations sharing Romania’s strategic concerns surrounding Russia.

Other countries that could prove problematic for Rutte include Turkey and Hungary – two nations that have increasingly posed challenges within the defence alliance. Turkey has previously demanded that Rutte not show favouritism towards EU countries in the alliance. Meanwhile, Hungary has had longstanding disagreements with Rutte over his harsh criticism of the country’s democratic backsliding. Nevertheless, openly challenging the preferred candidate of U.S. President Joe Biden will prove difficult for them.

There is increasing certainty, however, that Hungary is shifting its stance regarding Sweden joining NATO. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson will travel to Budapest today (23 February) to meet his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, ahead of Hungary’s parliament vote on Sweden’s bid for NATO membership next Monday. Hungary is the only NATO member yet to ratify its accession, with Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party having repeatedly delayed a vote, citing grievances over Sweden criticizing Budapest’s rule of law track record.