Rutte Clinches NATO Top Job After Romanian Leader Drops Bid

(Bloomberg) -- Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte secured the unanimous support of NATO members to become the next head of the military alliance after Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he was withdrawing as the only other candidate still in the running.

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Iohannis said he had flagged to allies last week that he would drop out, according to a presidential statement published on Thursday, which also said that the Black Sea nation now supported the outgoing Dutch leader to helm the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Rutte now has the support of NATO’s 32 members to succeed current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, whose mandate is set to expire in October. Allies had hoped to select the next head of the military alliance before a NATO leaders summit in Washington next month.

The change of NATO leader comes at a critical moment in the alliance’s 75th year and as Russia’s war with Ukraine drags on. The NATO chief will have to continue corralling allies’ support for Ukraine in defending itself against Russia, while also preventing any escalation between Moscow and the military alliance.

That job may be made more challenging if Donald Trump returns to the White House after US elections in November. Rutte has been seen as the best candidate to manage the former US President, who had fraught ties with his NATO counterparts in his first term, as he repeatedly pressed European allies to increase their defense budgets and questioned the value of remaining part of the alliance.

Trump was right to complain about the shortfall in defense spending from his European allies, Rutte said in an interview with Bloomberg TV in January, adding that “we have to dance with whoever is on the dance floor,” when asked about a potential Trump victory.

Rutte’s path was cleared when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban backed him after receiving a written pledge to respect a deal made with Stoltenberg, giving Budapest an opt-out from the alliance’s commitments to Ukraine. Slovakia also backed Rutte earlier this week, in exchange for assurances that NATO would protect Slovak airspace.

While Rutte had early backing from a majority of the alliance, Romania’s surprise move in March to put Iohannis forward delayed the process, even as many officials said his candidacy came too late to dent support for Rutte.

Rutte is stepping down as the Netherlands’ longest serving leader now that a new coalition government has been agreed, with Dick Schoof, a former head of the Dutch intelligence service, due to replace him. The Dutch leader announced his departure last year, after his government collapsed over an internal row on migration policy.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins both expressed interest in the NATO role last year, but Rutte emerged as the favorite due to broad support from countries like the US, France and Germany.

--With assistance from Lina Grau, Ellen Milligan, Natalia Drozdiak, Cagan Koc and Marton Kasnyik.

(Updates with statement in second paragraph, background throughout.)

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