5 challenges of the new head of NATO, Mark Rutte

2024-06-21 18:41:17Fokus SHKRUAR NGA POLITICO
Mark Rutte

When Mark Rutte moves into his office at NATO, he will definitely not have a honeymoon period.

The outgoing Dutch prime minister's campaign to be Secretary General ended on Thursday when he secured the support of all 32 NATO allies (with Romania announcing its support). The current president, Jens Stoltenberg, will resign by October 1.

Rutte, who has led the EU's fifth-largest economy for 14 years, is widely regarded as an effective consensus-builder, while also showing firm support for Ukraine, including recent Dutch efforts to train Ukrainian pilots for flown in F-16 fighter jets.

But even for a seasoned politician, the next chapter of Rutte's political career will not be a walk in the park.

Here are the five main challenges he will have to face.

1- The possible return of Donald Trump

Four weeks after Rutte starts his new job, Americans go to the polls and could re-elect Donald Trump, a NATO skeptic.

During the campaign, Trump threatened to cut US aid to Ukraine if he returned to the White House.

If he continues, it could deal a severe blow to the credibility of NATO allies to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia, given that the US has been by far the largest donor of military aid to Kiev .

Trump's re-election will almost certainly derail NATO's plan to prepare Ukraine for its future membership, including efforts to complete the Westernization of Ukraine's initially Soviet-style military.

NATO countries last year promised that "they will be able to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when the allies agree and the conditions are met."

However, judging by Trump's recent characterization of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that commitment appears shaky.

2- Putin's winter attack in Ukraine

Once Rutte takes office, Ukraine will call on him for help as winter approaches.

In recent months, Russia has stepped up attacks against Ukraine's power plants and dams — infrastructure that takes months, if not years, to fully repair.

The Kremlin's playbook is not new. During the first wartime winter, between 2022 and 2023, Ukraine's power grid was heavily attacked.

The key, says outgoing NATO chief Stoltenberg, lies in more air defense systems that can protect energy suppliers as well as maintenance staff working to repair damaged facilities.

NATO countries are also scrambling to deploy – or, in the case of Rutte's country, build – air defense systems.

But Europe doesn't have as much to send, progress in the US was delayed in Congress, and countries close to Russia are less than willing to give up their air defenses at this dangerous time.

3- Forcing NATO members to pay

NATO this week celebrated a record number of allies reaching the 2 percent of GDP defense spending target.

Indeed, the Netherlands just crossed that threshold this year after several years of failure.

But a third of the alliance is still not up to the mark

Southern European countries are among the worst offenders.

In Italy, 2024 estimates see a slight drop from the 1.5 percent it was last year.

Spain will spend just 1.28 percent this year. Its neighbor Portugal committed 1.55 percent.

"The poor record from our Mediterranean friends is the perfect weapon for Trump," said a senior diplomat from the Baltic region, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the mood within NATO.

The region has been a strong advocate for a tougher approach to Russia.

Closer to Trump's turf, however, things are just as bad. Canada, a NATO member since its inception in 1949, is committing just 1.37 percent of GDP, registering 0.1 percent growth since the start of Russia's war against Ukraine.

4- Complaints of the eastern wing

Countries bordering Russia are not Rutte's biggest fans.

They were angry about low Dutch defense spending and are particularly upset that the top role in NATO has always gone to a western or northern European, even though the countries on the eastern flank have been in the alliance for a quarter of a century.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas did not enter the race for the top NATO post after being told she would not get the support of countries such as the US, France and Germany (she is now the frontrunner to be the next policy chief of the EU). They feared her appointment would be seen by Moscow as an escalation of hostilities. Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, who ran for the job, only got Hungary's support – purely for tactical reasons – to back him.

Eastern flank countries are now likely to seek better representation at NATO's secondary level: the Deputy Secretary General (DSG) and the various Assistant Secretary General (ASG) posts.

The distribution of jobs has been a sore point for eastern countries for some time. While the outgoing DSG is Romanian, all seven ASGs are from the West – two from the US, one each from Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Italy and France. Another position in ASG is vacant.

Indeed, one of Rutte's first tasks as NATO chief would be to appoint a deputy, and there will be pressure for him to appoint someone from an eastern country.

5- Putin-loving leaders of Europe

It's not just Trump that Rutte needs to convince to keep NATO alive and well.

Across Europe, NATO-skeptic and Putin-loving far-right parties are flourishing.

France, for example, is on the brink of parliamentary elections that could see big gains for the far-right National Rally - prompting Stoltenberg to make a rare plea for France to "keep NATO strong" in a interview with POLITICO.

Rutte, of course, knows this story all too well. In a way, he began to consider NATO's primary task when it became clear that his center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy would lose the Dutch election to Geert Wilders' far-right Party for Freedom, which happened

Wilders, asked last year about his view of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, told the Russian propaganda newspaper RT: "I applaud him as I applaud Mr Trump for being leaders who stand there on behalf of the Russian people and American"

One thing Rutte doesn't even need to worry about is that his new job won't be boring./ Politico.eu