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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Cipher: Mark Rutte, the Next NATO Secretary-General 

If Rutte did such a sound job as leader of the Netherlands, why did his countrymen make such a clean break with his tenure?

European Council Meeting March 2024

The Netherlands. What is there to say? For most observers: not much. It was the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt, then tulip mania, vice on tap, and irrelevance all the way down. 

The French get all the guff, but eighty-four springs ago Hitler bombed Rotterdam and the Dutch folded their nation in one day. It was not the roughest of transitions. After all, the previous German head of state, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was already in residence. 

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Wilhelm had absconded to the Utrecht hamlet Doorn after blowing the First World War, a tenure commemorated in the tedious 2016 film The Exception, starring the late, great Christopher Plummer and Lily James. Besides inspiring questionable flicks, Wilhelm’s Dutch decades produced a noteworthy missive or two. 

On the German Führer, the defrocked monarch said from Holland: “There is a man alone, without family, without children, without God. He builds legions, but he doesn’t build a nation. … An all-swallowing State … sets itself up in place of everything else, and the man, who alone incorporates in himself this whole State, has neither a God to honor, nor a dynasty to conserve.”

In the present day, the Netherlands has a new administration, one widely advertised in the prestige press as “the most right-wing government” in ages (the symbiotic relationship between the fourth estate and the clonazepam industry continues apace). Dick Schoof, sometimes called “Tricky Dick” in the Dutch press—is everything American?—is slated to become prime minister after stints as a spook, immigration chief, and justice minister. 

Schoof is considered by some to be the technocratic mask in front of a silent coup d’état orchestrated by Geert Wilders, whom critics decry as an ash-blonde, anti-Islam psychopath. Whatever the truth, after three decades of hurling stones at the castle walls, Wilders at last achieved power after a shock surge at the polls in late 2023.  

Why did Wilders’ time in the wilderness end? After all, the man the new team succeeds, Mark Rutte, is perhaps the most revered mainstream conservative politician in Europe. But this time (the Wilders-Schoof experiment) came from that time (bespectacled putative statesmanship). Why this disconnect? 

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Answering that would be a trivial pursuit, were it not for Rutte’s likely next gig: secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance the president of the United States strikingly calls a “sacred commitment.”

Rutte came to power in 2010. He had worked, for years, for his predecessor Jan Peter Balkenende, another center-right politician who can only be described as “Mark Rutte 1.0.” He survived thirteen years atop the system and was long hailed as “Teflon Mark,” another copycat designation from America. 

The 2010s and early 2020s saw the collapse, or at least popular diminishment, of the careers and legacies of most of the stars of the European conservative constellation. Nicolas Sarkozy lost to the hapless François Hollande in France in spring 2012. David Cameron resigned 10 Downing Street after losing his legacy-breaking Brexit referendum in 2016. In 2023, Silvio Berlusconi died in relative obscurity in Milan; his last stint was as third wheel in a conservative coalition with far younger leading politicians. Angela Merkel is no longer the belle of the ball, seen, however unfairly, as the archangel of German naivete on the Russia question. 

Before all that, Merkel made perhaps the most momentous decision of any Western conservative leader in decades. Admitting 1 million refugees in the mid-2010s divided the right, and not just in Germany. The move separated the internationalists from the globalists, terms now cliche but they were not then. In the United States, the gambit cleaved the party of George W. Bush from what would become the party of Donald Trump. 

If the hard right ever gains power in Germany, Merkel’s decision on refugees ten years ago will one day be recalled as the move that set it all into motion. 

If the beneficiary is the Alternative für Deutschland party, whose menace is overrated, it could be remembered as the succession of events that liberated Europe’s greatest country from national masochism. If the future leadership is more gormless and ballistic, Merkel will be remembered as a modern Kurt von Schleicher, the conservative German chancellor who underrated the radical right, thinking he could roll them, and did so at the cost of millions of lives including his own.  

In the low countries, Mark Rutte avoided all this noise. 

As prime minister, Rutte seemed to embody the Dutch reputation for discretion, commerciality, and soundless competence. The new government’s spiritual leader, Wilders, is none of those things. Wilders is 6-foot-5 with Super Saiyan hair, has never had a real job outside of politics, and yet has never had a job in the government itself. 

Isn’t the dramatic changing of the guard in Amsterdam relevant for the members of the defense alliance, American taxpayers included, who are about to entrust so much authority to the man? If Rutte did such a sound job, why did his countrymen make such a clean break with his tenure?

Like many prestige European products, a look under the hood reveals a reality of complicated maintenance.  

“We don’t want to be Belgium!” goes a refrain heard now in Dutch politics. Cosa Nostra, the militarized merchants of Medellín, and faux-nostalgic gangster flicks about the late twentieth century suck up all the attention, especially in the era of forever-Boomer politics. But there is every reason to believe cocaine has captured the European heart like it did its American cousins’ a generation ago. 

A record 303 tons of cocaine were seized by EU member states in 2021. Europe is hardly a bastion of Moral Majority politics, but bigwigs in Brussels are increasingly making their anxiety around these issues known. 

“If we want to characterize the drug situation, there are three main trends,” Alexis Goosdeel, the director of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said in spring 2023. “The first is that drugs are everywhere. Everything can be used as a drug today. And everyone can be confronted, either directly or indirectly, with any addictive behavior. But what is also new are the consequences of drug-related violence. Ten years ago, when we were talking about drug-related violence, we were talking about Central America. Today, we are talking about the European Union.”

He added, “We also observed that the purity of cocaine has increased by 43 percent in the last ten years.” Wastewater residue analysis—now a proud science in Brussels—reveals the most blitzed cities in Europe to be: Antwerp (Belgium), Tarragona (Spain), and Amsterdam. 

In a much different moral landscape twenty years ago, the Netherlands occupied either a bogeyman or utopian perch in the American mind, depending on one’s perspective. Lax drug and prostitution laws made it seem a portal into the future. And it was. And in the age of mass de facto cannabis legalization and terms of art such as “sex work,” the mad Dutchmen are less of a standout. 

But the reputation obscured more than it revealed. At this time of national Las Vegasization, staid tacticians like Balkenende and Rutte were the rulers in the Hague. At a summit in Ottawa in 2018, standing alongside Justin Trudeau, Rutte said, “The marijuana that you can buy today is so much stronger. … which is bad for the health, especially for the young. … The best policy on drugs for yourself is no first use. It sounds conservative, but I would urge you: don’t try at all. … If you do, at least make sure that you don’t move from this stuff to other drugs.”

But such disconnects are not so difficult to digest. After all, most American readers have just lived through nearly ten years of Donald Trump, right-wing menace, as the biggest news item of the day, and during that time the boundary between man and woman became porous and something tantamount to black nationalism was mainstreamed. 

There is, however, a price for nuance. The reality is that the Netherlands has neither full legalization nor a totaler Krieg on vice. Into any such breach come criminal organizations.  

There are concerns in Rutte’s homeland that the situation could get as bad as in southern Spain. Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe. Last August, Netherlands customs officials requisitioned 8 tons of cocaine stashed with bananas. This past April, drugs arrived in Rotterdam with pineapples from Costa Rica. The stories go on and on. Ahmed Aboutaleb, the city’s longtime mayor, says Rotterdam is “drowning in cocaine.” 

An hour’s drive over in Amsterdam, Mayor Femke Halsema said this year in an op-ed that the Netherlands “risks becoming a narcostate.” In January she called Rotterdam the “global transit hub for cocaine” and claimed her city of Amsterdam “now serves as a marketplace where the demand for drugs is being determined, and negotiations and payments are being made from all over the world.” 

This may all sound like a right-wing fever dream. But such sentiment is coming from Aboutaleb, who is of Moroccan heritage—which is no small thing since many in the country blame North Africa criminal gangs more than any other culprit for the status quo. And it is being brought to the fore by Halsema, who is a member of the Green Left party, an outgrowth of a political merger in the 1990s that included the old Communists. 

Doubtless few would agree on solutions. Ahmed Aboutaleb would be loath to condemn the immigration approach of the last few decades. That does not change the fact that it is common in Europe nowadays to regard the Moroccan mob as second in power on the continent only to the Italians. 

Halsema argues that “the challenges we now face in the Netherlands are not an indictment of our liberal drug policy, rather the opposite,” that “this means that alternatives should be urgently debated in local governments, national parliaments, and especially in international assemblies,” and that it is incumbent on all to forge “a global environment where innovative, health-centric drug policies can be implemented,” whatever that means. 

The right to libertinism was largely secured in recent years. But one suspects the old guard editors at High Times were too interested in “innovating” a “health-centric policy,” because the right to be left alone, the spirit that led to the founding of our own country and inspired and hopefully still impels the world, has very much not been secured. 

Which gets to a subject that would seem salient and yet has vanished from Western debate: What is NATO for?

President Biden was evasive in his 75th anniversary statement in April, merely namechecking “democracies” and passing the buck to Harry Truman. Concluding his (short) statement, Biden cited the 34th president at the occasion of NATO’s founding. Said Truman: “If there is anything certain today, if there is anything inevitable in the future, it is the will of the people of the world for freedom and for peace.”

But are freedom, or peace, being secured by the current maximal NATO strategic posture? It’s an argument that demands blind faith.  

Men are diced into blood and guts in fruitless trench warfare redolent of the tsar. President Volodymr Zelensky of Ukraine has suspended elections, including for his own office, as an alleged wartime necessity. The Democratic Party led by Biden allowed his political opponent to be convicted of 34 dubious felonies (Biden could have called for a pardon; Governor Kathy Hochul could still do it; District Attorney Alvin Bragg could have declined to bring the case; all are elected Democrats). Tens of millions of Americans want to make Donald Trump president again anyway. 

If Biden totters to reelection, or if an indignant Trump is vaulted back to power, Rutte the affable technocrat will have to answer a question his career would indicate he is deficiently equipped to answer: What are we doing?