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Mark Rutte: The next NATO chief knows how to deal with Trump, but will he be able to keep him in check?

Mark Rutte: The next NATO chief knows how to deal with Trump, but will he be able to keep him in check?
Mark Rutte: The next NATO chief knows how to deal with Trump, but will he be able to keep him in check?

Patrick van Katwijk/Getty Images

Former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is set to take over as NATO Secretary General, is seen during an official lunch at Noordeinde Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands, on June 24.



CNN

As NATO prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary at this week’s summit in Washington, it is also preparing to welcome its first new leader in a decade: a man with experience dealing with former President Donald Trump who many hope can preserve the alliance’s unity in the face of a range of challenges, including a possible second Trump presidency.

Former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was officially appointed as the next NATO Secretary General at the end of June and will take office on October 1. He takes over the role from long-time NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who has led the alliance since 2014.

Diplomats and politicians told CNN that Rutte is seen as a staunch transatlanticist and consensus builder.

“He is truly an experienced political official and his role is crucial to maintaining the cohesion of the Alliance,” said a European official.

Rutte is also seen as someone who could work with the future US president, government officials told CNN. And some hope that Rutte’s previous relationship with Trump from when they led their respective countries could deter the former president from undermining the alliance if he is re-elected.

The former president publicly railed against the alliance during his first term and did so again recently during the election campaign, even going so far as to suggest that Russia could “do whatever it wants” with members that do not meet their defense spending targets. Trump’s campaign statement that his entry into the alliance would be conditional has raised concerns in the international community.

“Trump likes people who fight back, especially when they do it in a very respectful way,” said Pete Hoekstra, Trump’s ambassador to the Netherlands.

At a meeting where Trump spoke about the “trade deficit,” Hoekstra recalled, Rutte replied “with a smile on his face” that the trade deficit between the United States and the Netherlands did indeed need to be addressed.

“It was just a very polite, slightly humorous way of dealing with Trump, and Trump appreciated that,” Hoekstra recalled to CNN. “There was no ‘You bastard’ or anything like that. It was just ‘Touche, Rutte, you got me.'”

However, just because the former president and Rutte “have a good working relationship … because they really like each other,” does not mean that Trump will be dissuaded from “his agenda,” Hoekstra said.

The former ambassador argued that “Trump was never against NATO,” but rather “against a NATO that the Europeans did not support,” pointing to the fact that many European countries at the time spent less than two percent of their GDP on defense.

A European diplomat told CNN that Rutte was “certainly not a superhero,” adding: “You can try to please Trump, but you can’t deceive him. So in the end, what matters in NATO is real action and, above all, real money.”

A senior NATO official said that “many allies are concerned” about the prospect of Trump’s re-election, “but the situation is positive.” 24 of 32 allies meet the two percent spending target; six spend more than three percent.

“We’re not there yet, but it’s better than after Trump left,” the official told CNN.

Rutte was celebrated for the post of NATO Secretary General not only because of his experience with Trump. He was seen as someone who could win the support of all 32 members of the alliance and strike a balance between the more belligerent Eastern Europe and the more frugal Western Europe, partly due to his more “middle” position in the war in Ukraine.

As the war drags on – and there is little sign of a quick diplomatic or military victory for Kyiv – NATO member states will look to him to maintain the unity of the alliance. He will also work to ensure that states maintain the unity of the alliance on issues such as countering the threat from China, increasing weapons production and innovating in the cyber domain.

Diplomats and officials who spoke to CNN pointed to Rutte’s tenure as the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister – a post he left in early July after 14 years.

“He has had to lead several coalition governments in his country’s parliamentary democracy, which is certainly not an easy task,” a US official said.

A former senior US diplomat described him as “a very good politician who knows how to build coalitions and consensus, and that’s what this is about.”

Rutte was widely considered the favorite to succeed Stoltenberg this year and quickly received the support of the United States.

According to the US official, President Joe Biden even encouraged Rutte to run for the post of Secretary General about a year and a half ago when Stoltenberg was ready to resign, but Rutte signaled that he was not interested at that time.

Biden likes Rutte personally, they get along well and the US president sees them as people who share the same values, the official told CNN. The two view the challenge from China in a similar way and Biden was “very impressed by his commitment to supporting Ukraine from the beginning” and his immediate understanding of the significance of the war in Ukraine.

“Rutte has long been a very realistic man among European leaders about who exactly Putin is,” the official said.

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