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NATO front-runner Mark Rutte faces flak over low Dutch defense spending - Scrapoid


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BRUSSELS — Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is emerging as the front-runner to be the new NATO chief, but faces resistance in Washington from lawmakers who accuse the Netherlands of underspending on defense on his watch, and from others who think it’s time for a woman at the top.

In what’s shaping up to be at least a three-person race, Rutte is considered a strong favorite, according to two European officials and a diplomat granted anonymity to talk about internal deliberations.

“He’s certainly a heavyweight, he’s a very good candidate,” Poland’s Ambassador to NATO Tomasz Szatkowski said at an event hosted by POLITICO Pro Defense on Tuesday.

One of the officials said the longtime Dutch leader had won the support of “senior U.S. and German officials.”

France, another crucial decision-maker, is also favoring Rutte, driven primarily by his personal rapport with President Emmanuel Macron, who was one of Rutte’s earliest cheerleaders in his quest for the NATO top job.

“That Macron and Rutte appreciate each other is no secret,” said a French diplomat.

However, some American lawmakers adamantly oppose Rutte, as the Netherlands has consistently failed to meet NATO’s defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product.

That pits him unfavorably against Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who signaled interest in the NATO job while in Washington last week. Her government agreed to raise defence spending to 3 percent of GDP for 2024-2027, from 2.85 percent this year. Tallinn has also been an outsize supporter of Ukraine in terms of weaponry.

The underdog is Latvia’s Foreign Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, whose announcement on Sunday that he was running was even a surprise to some in Riga, according to a diplomat.

The candidacies of Kallas and Kariņš ruffle some Western European feathers — still smarting from the intense criticism they faced from Baltic nations that they are insufficiently supportive of Ukraine and too fearful to challenge Russia.

The White House was coy when asked whether U.S. President Joe Biden prefers Rutte.

“We’re not going to get into internal deliberations over the next secretary general,” said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. “We look forward to working closely with allies to identify a secretary general who can lead the alliance at this critical time for transatlantic security.”


For some, though, the record of burden sharing in a secretary-general candidate’s home country does matter politically, and Washington is scrutinizing that closely.

U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska and senior of member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Rutte “should be unequivocally disqualified” over his country’s record on NATO burden sharing. He said there is “deep bipartisan frustration in the U.S. about NATO members not pulling their weight.”

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas signaled interest in the NATO job while in Washington last week | Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Netherlands has a poor track record. In 2014 it spent only 1.15 percent of its GDP on defense, while the alliance has a 2 percent spending goal. This year, The Hague will spend 1.7 percent of GDP and has agreed to spend 2.03 percent in 2024 and 2.01 percent in 2025.

Ahead of July’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Sullivan led a bipartisan group of 35 senators in writing a letter to Biden urging him to ensure NATO countries meet their defense spending commitments. That tally — which amounts to more than a third of the U.S. Senate — hints at the potent politics of burden sharing in Washington.

Congress’ ongoing negotiations over its annual defense legislation include a provision from Sullivan that would require the Pentagon to prioritize NATO members that hit the 2 percent target when making decisions about U.S. military basing, training, and exercises.

Some in Biden’s own Democratic Party also believe it’s time for a woman to run NATO.

“I’ve long thought it was time the allies appoint the first woman NATO secretary general,” Senate NATO Observer Group Co-Chair Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said in a statement.

“That said, it’s critical that support for NATO remains strong and bipartisan in the Senate and for that to happen, the successor for this important position should hail from a country that is meeting the 2 percent defense spending commitment, or has a robust plan in place to meet that goal, which was agreed to by all allies in Vilnius,” she added.

With NATO helping coordinate members’ efforts to help Ukraine fight Russia, there are also calls for someone from the eastern flank of the alliance to become the next leader.

“Maybe at some point it is also [the] right time for the alliance to look at the region of Eastern Europe,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to NATO Natalia Galibarenko told POLITICO. “So my preference … would be at some point to see [a] secretary-general representing Eastern Europe.”

Such as Kallas?

“Why not?” said the Ukrainian envoy.

With additional reporting from Clea Caulcutt. and Joshua Posaner. Joe Gould and Alexander Ward reported from Washington.

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