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Dutch PM Mark Rutte set to become NATO chief after lining up support

The outgoing Dutch prime minister is tipped to replace Jens Stoltenberg, who will step aside at a summit next month.

A meeting of defense chiefs at NATO headquarters in Brussels
A meeting of defense chiefs at NATO headquarters in Brussels (AN/NATO)

BRUSSELS (AN) — NATO's next secretary general will be the outgoing Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, after he gained the backing of all 32 members of the military alliance.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis withdrew from the race on Thursday, leaving Rutte as the sole candidate to head the world’s biggest military organization. Iohannis said he notified NATO allies about the withdrawal of his candidacy.

His decision followed on the heels of Hungary and Slovakia lining up behind Rutte's candidacy. Rutte is now tipped to replace Jens Stoltenberg, who planned to step aside at the NATO summit in Washington next month after a decade at the helm.

Stoltenberg's term, which began with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and escalated into a full-scale war on NATO's borders, was extended multiple times amid the conflict in Ukraine and disagreements among allies on a successor.

During his tenure, four countries – Montenegro, North Macedonia, Sweden, and Finland – joined the now 32-nation military alliance.

The Dutch prime minister, who announced last year he would not run for a fifth term in office and is the longest-serving government leader in Dutch history, has been vocal in his belief that nothing short of a Russian military defeat on the battlefield in Ukraine is needed to secure peace for all Europe, NATO countries, and their allies.

Rutte's animus against Russian President Vladimir Putin is personal: he blames Putin for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, which killed all 298 passengers on board, including nearly 200 Dutch civilians.

Hungary, NATO's most pro-Russia member, agreed to support Rutte after securing a pledge that its military personnel and funds would not be involved in NATO activities in Ukraine, which its foreign minister described as a "crazy mission."

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose close ties to Russia recently led to discussions about Hungary's possible exclusion from the Bucharest Nine, a group of Eastern European NATO allies, announced the decision on Twitter.

"In light of his pledge, Hungary is ready to support PM Rutte's bid for NATO secretary general," Orbán wrote, alongside a photo of a letter signed by Rutte acknowledging Hungary's conditions.

Slovakia, whose government also has pro-Russia tendencies, indicated its support after discussions with Rutte in Brussels on the protection of its airspace, as its own capabilities are currently insufficient due to donating air defense systems to Ukraine. Iohannis had been the sole holdout, but he received little support.

Rutte's selection also means that NATO will pass on the chance to appoint Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister who was backed mainly by Eastern European countries, as its first female leader.

"I think it is obvious we are very close to a conclusion in the alliance for allies to select a next secretary general," Stoltenberg said after Orban's announcement.

Letter from Mark Rutte to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the use of Hungarian personnel and funds in NATO military efforts in Ukraine, posted by Orban on Twitter.

Record spending as specter of Trump return looms large

The selection comes at a pivotal time for NATO as it seeks to sustain support for Ukraine, while guarding against any escalation that could draw the alliance directly into the conflict.

NATO defense spending data shows a record 23 members spending at or above the 2% of GDP target, with the average across the alliance also surpassing 2% for the first time following a surge in spending over the past couple of years.

"Across Europe and Canada, NATO allies are, this year, increasing defense spending by 18%. That's the biggest increase in decades," Stoltenberg said at a White House press briefing alongside U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. "That's more than twice as many as four years ago."

Poland led NATO members in defense spending last year, allocating 4.12% of its GDP, followed by Estonia at 3.43%, the United States, 3.38%, Latvia, 3.15%, and Greece, 3.08%, according to the data. Several key allies, including Belgium, Canada, Italy and Spain, continue to fall short of 2%.

As president, Donald Trump suggested NATO allies should spend as much as 4% of their GDP on defense, double the current target of 2% by 2024. His suggestion sowed confusion, however, between members' direct funding for NATO's €3.8 billion budget and the allies' military spending target of at least 2% of their GDP.

Defense spending within the NATO alliance has surged since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Scramble to secure long-term aid for Ukraine

Despite the record spending, the future of NATO remains uncertain as allies brace for the possibility of Trump's return to the White House. A second Trump term could severely damage Ukraine and Europe's ability to withstand Russian aggression.

Trump, who recently criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as "the greatest salesman of all time," has said he would quickly cut American aid to the country if elected.

“He just left four days ago with US$60 billion, and he gets home, and he announces that he needs another US$60 billion. It never ends,” Trump said at a rally in Detroit over the weekend. “I will have that settled prior to taking the White House as president-elect."

The prospect of a second Trump term has Ukraine's allies rushing to secure long-term aid for Kyiv, including a US$50 billion loan backed by frozen Russian assets that was agreed upon at last week's Group of 7 meetings. The loan's frontloaded structure aims to ensure continued financial assistance for Ukraine, even if Trump were to win the presidency.

"Support to Ukraine is not charity, support to Ukraine is in our own security interest," Stoltenberg said, adding that much of the NATO money invested in Ukrainian defense "is actually spent here in the United States."

"NATO is good for U.S. security," he added, "but NATO is also good for U.S. jobs."

This story has been updated with additional details.