New NATO chief’s biggest challenge could be Trump

The incoming secretary-general of NATO, Mark Rutte, will have no shortage of issues to confront, but his biggest challenge may be managing a relationship with the alliance’s de facto leader, if former President Trump takes the White House in November.

A second Trump presidency looks increasingly likely after President Biden bombed at last month’s debate, leading to Democratic infighting over his candidacy. That has only fueled concerns in Europe about the U.S. under Trump weakening or leaving NATO.

Those possibilities are hanging over a summit this week in Washington — where NATO leaders are gathering for the 75th anniversary of the alliance — along with the big question of how Rutte will manage a potentially volatile Trump presidency.

While Rutte is seen as a smooth operator adept at managing competing factions as the former Dutch prime minister, managing Trump’s demands and ongoing support for Ukraine will test his diplomatic chops.

Outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who played a cool, diplomatic hand during Trump’s presidency, expressed his “absolute confidence” in Rutte during a media roundtable on Sunday.

Rutte, who is assuming NATO’s top position in October, will confront two major issues if Trump wins: defense spending across the alliance and how to address the war in Ukraine.

Rutte will not start with a blank slate. Trump’s foreign policy adviser and potential State Department pick, Richard Grenell, does not support his leadership.

“The President of the United States in January 2025 will pick the NATO [secretary-general]. I’m a hard NO on Rutte,” he wrote in June on the social platform X.

In a February post, Grenell said that Rutte has not spent enough on defense as Dutch prime minister. “The very idea of wanting to reward Rutte with a top NATO job is a slap in the face to the American taxpayer.”

Rutte has more than a decade of experience as the prime minister of the Netherlands, where he managed an array of coalitions and different political parties. The Dutch leader is known as “Teflon Mark” because political controversies never manage to stick to him.

Rutte is also sometimes referred to as the “Trump whisperer” after he managed to placate Trump in a 2018 backroom meeting. At the time, the former president expressed a desire to leave the alliance because defense spending was not high enough among European allies, but Rutte assured him that it was going up.

Rutte that year also showed he can stand up to Trump. In a separate meeting, when the then-president said it would be “positive” to not resolve a trade dispute with the European Union, the Dutch leader countered they had to work something out.

Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, said during a press call that Rutte is a skillful diplomat and that was “good news for the United States and good news for the NATO alliance.”

Max Bergmann, director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Rutte is a “known figure” in European politics and a “consensus choice” to manage a wide range of characters.

“He is seen as an exceptionally talented and likable politician, one that gets along pretty much with everybody,” he said in a separate press call. “Which is, I think, probably one of the most crucial factors or crucial assets in this job, because secretary-general is, in some ways, a job about herding cats and getting 32 members to kind of be on the same page.”

One area in which the two leaders may find agreement is defense spending. NATO has for years been moving to ensure all 32 members of the alliance are paying at least 2 percent of gross domestic product, or economic output, on defense and security.

A record 23 allies have now reached that goal, something both Trump and President Biden have taken credit for.

But that still leaves nine allies who are not at that benchmark, and NATO has also said the 2 percent target is the floor, not the ceiling, leaving room for Trump or other leaders to push for even higher spending quotas. Trump has threatened to not defend allies who don’t pay up.

Erwan Lagadec, associate research professor at the George Washington University who specializes in Europe and NATO, said most of the hard work on defense spending has already been done and is unlikely to be a major issue next year, but Trump might still complicate things.

“We might find out that Trump’s opposition to NATO was always ideological,” Lagadec said. “That’s a different problem than the ones Stoltenberg had to face.”

Still, he said Rutte has shown he can “keep his nerves when faced with Trump’s trolling” and knows how to handle the former president’s intricacies.

“If anyone can manage a messy, complex situation that requires him to walk on eggshells and think outside of the box, he is a great choice,” Lagadec added.

The war in Ukraine sets up a more likely confrontation. Trump in his June debate with Biden pledged that he would end the war before he takes office in January 2025 should he win the election.

It’s not clear how he would manage to do that, with Russia casting doubt on the possibility, but Trump’s advisers handed him a plan this year that would halt military aid to Ukraine unless Kyiv enters peace talks with Moscow. Military aid would flow if Russia refuses to negotiate.

Trump’s vow to end the war quickly has spurred fears that he may cede occupied regions of Ukraine in return for a peace agreement.

Rutte has been a strong supporter of Ukraine while in office and is likely to continue pushing the NATO line that allowing Russia to win in Ukraine would be a devastating blow to future security.

In a post this week on his social platform Truth Social, Trump also set up another potential clash, saying European allies should pay more for Ukraine’s defense.

“The U.S. is paying most of the money to help Ukraine fight Russia,” he wrote. “Europe should at least EQUALIZE!”

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said at the NATO summit Wednesday it was unclear what Trump’s peace plan was but that he believes Ukraine support will continue regardless of the election outcome.

“People should not be wringing your hands on this,” he said, noting most of Congress supports Ukraine. “This is the right thing to do, America generally does the right thing.”

John Deni, a nonresident senior fellow with the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said he expects allies at the summit to move toward the “institutionalization of the relationship between NATO and Ukraine.”

“You can’t escape the political overtones of this summit,” he told reporters, citing the June debate performance from Biden.

Other analysts say European allies need to demonstrate at the summit that they are strong on defense and Ukraine to protect against a Trump presidency.

“Trump is a guy who likes to hang with winners, let me put it that way,” said Ian Brzezinski, an Atlantic Council resident senior fellow. “And if NATO is seen as a losing institution and Ukraine is seen as losing, he [will] want to drop them like a hot potato.”

Allies have already taken steps to reportedly “Trump-proof” the security alliance, which may make Rutte’s job a little easier. Even in the U.S., Congress included a provision in the fiscal 2024 defense bill that forces a president to seek the approval of the legislature to withdraw from NATO.

Stoltenberg announced at the Wednesday summit that NATO agreed to create a command structure in Germany that will oversee the coordination of military aid to Ukraine, effectively taking the current U.S.-led effort out of the equation. Allies also locked in $40 billion in funding for Ukraine for at least another year.

Europe could also try to secure its own defense on the continent amid fears that Trump will not defend his allies. The European Union has already moved to bolster its own defense spending since the war in Ukraine began.

A European-led army, even with some U.S. financing, could play to both sides if Trump views the effort as allies standing up for their own defense, said Alp Sevimlisoy, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council and an expert on NATO.

“It’s not just about one country meeting the 2 percent target or exceeding it,” he said. “It’s about having a cohesive military force which is able to be deployed at speed.”

Rizzo, from the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, said the concerns go beyond Trump after far-right Republicans blocked U.S. aid to Ukraine for months earlier this year.

“Europe needs to … work on its own defense and its own strengthening of its military and increasing its defense spending no matter who is in the White House because at the end of the day,” she said, “these are all things that Europe needs to do anyways.”

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