NATO’s New Leader Was Planning This the Whole Time

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Mark Rutte, a workaholic obsessed with routine, is about to take over the West’s military alliance.

Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, wearing wire-frame glasses, a suit jacket, and open-collared button-up shirt with no tie, furrows his brow as he looks to his right.

When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited U.S. President Joe Biden in the White House in January 2023, he told Biden: “You have asked me twice to become secretary-general of NATO, and I turned you down twice. If you ask me a third time, I will say yes.”

From that moment on, Rutte—who had been prime minister since 2010—started behaving differently. Slowly, methodically, he began working towards his goal: succeeding Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s current secretary-general, in October 2024. This week, after reportedly having secured Hungarian and Slovakian endorsements and the withdrawal of the candidacy of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, he is essentially there.

It’s only fair to wonder what kind of “sec-gen” Rutte will be—and whether he can steer the trans-Atlantic alliance through turbulent times. Some indications can be found in Rutte’s long career—both his 14-year premiership, during which he led four different governing coalitions in the Netherlands, and his careful preparations to secure the Brussels-based NATO job.

Probably the most important thing to know about Rutte, who was born in 1967 as the youngest of seven in a middle-class family in The Hague (his father managed a car dealership), is that he is a very controlled person. He often gives people the impression that he is spontaneous, taking things lightly as they come. But under the surface of the easygoing, smiling Dutchman who cycles to the office, apple in hand, there is a lot more going on.

Mark Rutte gestures with both hands, his mouth open, as he sits behind the wheel of a car as reporters with microphones and video cameras swarm the vehicle, some of them sticking microphones through the open drivers' side window. Rutte wears a dark suit and tie with sunglasses.Mark Rutte gestures with both hands, his mouth open, as he sits behind the wheel of a car as reporters with microphones and video cameras swarm the vehicle, some of them sticking microphones through the open drivers’ side window. Rutte wears a dark suit and tie with sunglasses.

Rutte is swarmed by reporters as he arrives at Huis ten Bosch Palace to offer his resignation in The Hague, Netherlands, on July 8, 2023. PATRICK VAN KATWIJK/GETTY IMAGES

As many people who have worked with him can testify, Rutte is a man of habits. He hates surprises, because they can make him lose control. When friends organize a surprise dinner for him, he is tense, unable to enjoy it. When a minister in his government jumps out of line, he can be annoyed or become extremely angry.

All his professional life, Rutte has worked in management functions—first as a human resources official for Unilever; then as a liberal party leader starting in 2006; and during the 14 years since 2010, managing both left-wing and right-wing characters in the governments that he led. Many who observes him in these roles say his management style is shaped, above all, by his desire to prevent surprises.

He does this first by trying to work with people he can trust. He is highly personable with staff, often asking them about family, hobbies, and holidays. And he remembers everything—from spouses’ names to a joke that someone made during a trip more than a decade ago. But this intimacy is also a way of managing his relationships with staff and getting a read on them, thus anticipating their thoughts and actions.

Trust, for Rutte, is the product of routine—both at the office and in his private life. Every year, he rents the same simple holiday house with family members. For 30 years, he has spent a few days each year in New York with the same friend, staying in the same cheap hotel in Chinatown, eating in the same restaurants, always meeting Robert Caro, the biographer of former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Rutte, a historian by training, is an avid reader of American political biographies.) In The Hague, he always takes coffee on Saturday morning in the same café, then gets his groceries at the same Albert Heijn supermarket. On Sunday morning at 10 o’clock, he meets other friends—again, always the same ones—at a sports club. During government meetings that run late, he tends to order the same food. The whole town knows about these habits, and many make fun of it.

In a new biography about Rutte, called Het Raadsel Rutte (The Rutte Riddle), Dutch political reporters Ron Fresen and Wilma Borgman quote his New York travel companion, who explains they never discuss where to eat “because we know it already. This saves us time and energy we can spend discussing more interesting things.”

So many rituals might drive other people crazy, but Rutte thrives on them. They help him make the world a little more predictable. He needs them to organize the world, eliminating background noises so he can focus on getting his job done.

“Rutte is never off duty,” a Dutch diplomat told me recently, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He is always on the phone, convincing somebody about something.” He hardly has a private life. A single man, he has lived in the same modest house with the same furniture for 30 years. As the aforementioned book describes, hardly anyone ever goes there; he never cooks, he does the cleaning himself, and doesn’t even own a coffee machine. He is a political animal whose life mostly consists of one thing: work.

Asked by schoolchildren on the Dutch television program Schooltv in 2016 what he wanted to become when he was little, Rutte answered: “Work for the fire brigade or become a pianist.” Perhaps—but it’s instructive that his mother already called him “de directeur” (the boss) when he was a boy. And when he became politically active for the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) when he was still a teenager, he would play “prime minister,” letting himself be interviewed by a friend playing a journalist.

For a politician, Rutte has a remarkably small ego. Politicians are often solo players with a strong urge to shine. Rutte, however, functions differently. He is uneasy with luxury, routinely asking ambassadors to book him a simpler hotel the next time that he visits their countries. When a suit is not required, he wears jeans, a hoodie, and sneakers.

He is also a team player. A pragmatist, he wants to solve people’s problems. In the fragmented Dutch political landscape, with numerous prima donnas, compromises are essential to get anything done. So he tries to forge them, and he has no trouble giving others credit for an achievement. During the four Dutch governing coalitions he formed—both with left-wing and very right-wing parties—insiders were often struck by the ease with which Rutte made compromises, especially when negotiations were at breaking point. To him, compromises were often preferable to principles and agreements were preferable to content.

One could say that everything Rutte does is functional. Asked whether he has a vision, one of his former advisors told me: “No. I don’t remember him rejecting one piece of advice I gave him, in all those years, ever. For vision, he would say, you visit an eye doctor.”

Eight men and one woman in formal attire, all politicians, gather around Mark Rutte in a cluster. Two men point and lean in toward Rutte, who is laughing. They stand under a EU23 logo.Eight men and one woman in formal attire, all politicians, gather around Mark Rutte in a cluster. Two men point and lean in toward Rutte, who is laughing. They stand under a EU23 logo.

European leaders—including French President Emmanuel Macron (left, front) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (third from left)—gather around Rutte during a meeting of the European Council in Granada, Spain, on Oct. 6, 2023. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Dutch journalist Petra de Koning writes in her book Mark Rutte that one of the key tactics that Rutte has used as prime minister is “meeveren,” meaning “bouncing and stretching along” with whomever he needed to govern. This explains the ease with which Rutte works with political groupings both on the left and the (extreme) right—so much so that in The Hague, they gave him the nickname “Teflon Mark.” Bouncing along, de Koning writes, is something he learned when he headed his party’s youth wing, the JOVD. At NATO, which now has 32 member states and a strong consensus culture, he will probably need to bounce and stretch along a lot.

Another tactic that Rutte uses often is to never set himself a deadline, instead letting time do its work whenever possible. He seems to have done exactly this with his NATO candidacy, moving cautiously to de-mine the road ahead and forcing Stoltenberg to accept an extension of his mandate from Oct. 1, 2023, to a new end date in October 2024. Some feared in recent weeks that it would have to be extended yet again, into 2025.

For Rutte, there was only one NATO-related deadline, a personal one: July 2023, when, to general surprise, he pulled the rug from underneath his fourth government following a clash over asylum policies. For many, it was a strange spectacle for a man known for bending over backwards to save his governments from collapsing, including on migration issues. This time, he suddenly confronted his coalition partners with an ultimatum for an agreement on family reunification for asylum-seekers, a relatively minor issue.

Weirder still was that when an agreement was within reach, Rutte got very annoyed, dug in, and then dissolved the government. Others were stunned: This was both unnecessary and very unlike him.

For once, apparently, Rutte actually wanted the government to fall. During the drawn-out period during which elections would be held and negotiations organized to form a new government, he would continue to run the country as a caretaker—and meanwhile, he would be campaigning and diplomatically de-mining the long and winding road to the NATO job. It was vintage Rutte. He had it all planned and mapped out in advance.

Insiders in The Hague told me Rutte initially wanted to become president of the European Commission. That story did the rounds in Brussels, too, for several years. But in 2019, other European Union heads of state and government asked him to become president of the European Council, which represents member states in Brussels. Rutte said no. The country still needed him, he argued. He also considered it a part-time job. The 26 member states (the UK was technically still a member but did not take part in the decision-making) then appointed liberal Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel instead, a decision that many came to regret afterwards because he is not seen as very effective.

The presidency of the European Commission, which basically runs the EU, is extremely demanding. Former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen got the job in December 2019, as her party—the main center-right political grouping in Europe—finished first in that year’s European elections. This year, the center right won again. Rutte’s political family, the liberals, lost many seats and would never have been in a position to claim this post. This is why von der Leyen is running again, for a second mandate, and Rutte never made a pitch.

Because of the war in Ukraine, which Russia frames as a war with the West, the top job at NATO seems increasingly challenging. It is probably more suitable for Rutte than an EU job. Rutte comes from a country that is totally focused on trans-Atlantic, not European relations. Dutch career politicians speak English, not French. They tend to call the EU “a market,” preferring to ignore its political origins and nature. As I saw first-hand in Brussels, Rutte felt uneasy at EU summits during his first years as a prime minister. That only changed in 2016, when then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked him—when the Netherlands had the six-month EU presidency—to convince other EU leaders to accept a migration deal that she was preparing with Turkey.

Rutte went to work, doing what he does best: talking to people, shaking hands, cementing relationships, and getting the job done. He did get it done. The agreement, committing Europe to take up to 200,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey in exchange for Ankara’s help blocking illegal crossings into Europe, was and still is much criticized. But people who work with Rutte agree this was the first time they ever saw him enjoy EU deal-making.

A grid of six pictures shows Mark Rutte at official meetings and public appearances, shaking hands or interacting with other world leaders.A grid of six pictures shows Mark Rutte at official meetings and public appearances, shaking hands or interacting with other world leaders.

Rutte on the world stage with (top row, then bottom row, left to right) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Joe Biden in 2022; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2023; U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019; Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2017; Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in 2023; and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2016.GETTY IMAGES

Afterward, Rutte played an active role during the Brexit negotiations and steered his country more to the center of EU decision-making. For example, he became more vocal on maintaining so-called European values, combating corruption, and protecting the rule of law in Europe. At European summit meetings in Brussels, insiders say, he heavily criticized Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—not just in the press room but also behind closed doors. It should not have come as a surprise that Orban, who also relies heavily on personal contacts and never forgets anything, later opposed Rutte’s candidacy for NATO, along with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Rutte, however, has a thick skin: Since his professional persona is so dominant, he rarely takes criticism personally. Very carefully massaging Erdogan and Orban toward accepting him without making excuses became his new mission. Traveling all over the world to lobby peers and explore ways to overcome the hurdles towards the NATO job, Rutte visibly got back some of the enthusiasm and drive that he once had as a young prime minister but had lost by his fourth, most difficult government.

He had become tired of being prime minister, and the country had gotten tired of him. A housing crisis, rising environmental and economic problems, and a nasty social child benefits scandal that hit some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in the country—these and other issues were too profound and serious to be managed away with yet another round of Ruttian compromise-making. A fresh look at things was required in the Netherlands—and perhaps more structural solutions were required, too.

In Brussels, interestingly, one hears very little concern about Rutte’s capability to run NATO. Even Donald Trump, when he was the U.S. president, approvingly said of him: “I like this guy.” Rutte knows what is at stake for the alliance. Under his tenure as prime minister, Russian forces shot down the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 with 298 people on board, of whom 196 were Dutch, in the summer of 2014. Rutte, who was on one of his ritual short holidays when it happened, flew to The Hague immediately and started to manage one of the largest crises of his tenure.

At first, because of the element of surprise and chaos and the total lack of cooperation by the Russian authorities, he became extremely angry. But when he calmed down, he got to work: He formed a team, assigned tasks, offered comfort, and tried to control the situation. Many political insiders who worked with him say he did this well. Rutte, a staunch Ukraine supporter, knows by now what Russian President Vladimir Putin is capable of and how serious the challenges to Europe’s defense and security have become and may yet become.

Rutte, wearing an open suit jacket, button-up shirt, and no tie, carries a bag in one hand as he walks through an arched stone entrance. The cobblestone courtyard that Rutte just crossed is visible through the doorway.Rutte, wearing an open suit jacket, button-up shirt, and no tie, carries a bag in one hand as he walks through an arched stone entrance. The cobblestone courtyard that Rutte just crossed is visible through the doorway.

Rutte arrives at the Binnenhof for a weekly cabinet meeting in The Hague on Nov. 20, 2020. NIELS WENSTEDT/BSR AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

The hardest thing to imagine is not Rutte being surprised by the strategic challenges that he is about to face, nor the chairing of endless meetings with 32 hardheaded ambassadors, week after week. No, the hardest thing to imagine is Rutte living in the gated community in Brussels where NATO secretary-generals are generally housed.

De directeur, in an elegant, colonial townhouse, with a cleaning lady and a cook and a handful of bodyguards, locked up behind a thick, wrought-iron gate. That will likely always seem out of character.

Caroline de Gruyter
Bya columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.


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