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Why We Should Be Alarmed at Mark Rutte for NATO Secretary-General

State of the Union: If anointed, the Netherlands’ politician will triple down on the status quo.

Close,Up,Mark,Rutte,At,The,Kings,Reception,At,Amsterdam

It appears that the quintessential tall, frugal, and stoic (albeit scandal-ridden) Dutchman, the former Dutch PM Mark Rutte, is on course to be the next NATO secretary general. Rutte apparently has gained the support of Joe Biden, and, in the arcane games of NATO bureaucracy, the tacit approval, if not the active support, of NATO’s hegemon and largest spender matters. Think of an executive board where one person or entity spends more for the organization than the rest of the board members combined and you’ll get the idea. 

Rutte is an interesting character, sort of a 19th-century Dutchman of the northern Yankee mold. Think of the Vanderbilts. His opponents obviously criticize the Netherlands defense spending. In 2014, the Hague spent 1.15 percent of its GDP on defense. In 2023, that increased to a whopping 1.7 percent. But Rutte is best (or most infamously) known for his opposition to unionizing European spending during the economic crisis in Greece. A strong advocate for austerity and protestant frugality and self-sufficiency—again, par for the course—Rutte, as David Cameron said, “was the future once” of European conservatism. He rides bicycles in the capital. He is close to French President Emmanuel Macron, and talks a big game about European autonomy. But he understands geopolitics better than his American counterparts do, and he rightly sees no threat of a Russian tank brigade gamboling through the Dutch meadows anytime soon. 

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His prime opponent for the job was Kaja Kallas, the firebrand prime minister of Estonia and daughter of Siim Kallas, a scion of the Baltics’ former communist royalty. Estonia spends over 3 percent of its GDP on defense, and the Balts constantly mention that. They do have a point. West Europe wants to buck-pass its security burden to the U.S., just as much as East Europe wants to chain-gang the U.S. to its ethnic wars. What is not often mentioned is that Estonia’s GDP is around $39 billion, compared to around $1 trillion for the Dutch. 

It is unlikely that there will be much change in Western European defense spendings as a result of Rutte’s installation. That is by design of the current security arrangement. As long as Western Europe is guarded by American men and armor placed to its east, the Europeans see no need to spend more. President Trump was correct in his instinct to remove troops from Germany, but undermined his purpose by planning to place them in Poland and removing Germany and the Netherlands’ incentive to spend more. 

Rutte obviously understands the difference, just as he understood the spending habits of the Southern Europeans compared to the Northerners. Once again, the structure of the entity (the EU or NATO) makes it impossible to have a mutually beneficial compromise due to differences in spending cultures, interests, and threat perceptions. The only way to reverse that, at least towards the benefit of the United States, would be a whole new security arrangement; let’s just call it a sleeping, no, dormant NATO, where the American armor and infantry are not on the European continent. Only the American naval and nuclear umbrella would loom over the continental landmass and seaways, with the rest of the security burden squarely on the shoulders of the rich Western Europeans. But that is a separate conversation to have. 

The reality is, that if this news is true, then President Biden, for all his deteriorating cognitive ability, has made an interesting calculation here by tacitly backing old Europe to lead the continent, rather than the ex-communist East. It is a power play, a signal to the East to pipe down. To have a NATO sec-gen like Kaja Kallas, or worse, like Chrystia Freeland from Canada, would have invariably resulted in more confrontation with Russia. Their rhetoric is apocalyptically binary and manichaean. It would be like having Hillary Clinton as POTUS. 

Rutte will of course talk a big game, but will ultimately consider ad stabilitatem as his motto. His instinct is similar to the Dutch bankers during the times of Medici, or the Utrecht guilds during the Renaissance: financial frugality, profit, and social stability and equilibrium above all. In a weird way, this was a very conservative choice. We could do a lot worse. 

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