The Race for NATO’s Top Job: Mark Rutte

May 2024

Nika van Gelder

THRI Researcher

NATO exists for 75 years this year and it is in need of a new Secretary General. The role of the Secretary-General has changed after the end of the Cold War and they “have increasingly become policy entrepreneurs: independent initiators of policy ideas and directions for the allies in leading NATO towards the end they desire” (Hendrickson, 2014). This means that member states have a vested interest in supporting a candidate that will push for policies that serve their interests.

There is no official procedure or requirements, except that all 32 member states need to agree on the new candidate. The term of Jens Stoltenberg, the current SG, will end in October this year and the hope is that a new Secretary General will be appointed during the NATO summit in Washington in July. It will be a challenge to reach this deadline, since every member state has to agree on the candidate and that agreement has not been reached yet with the resistance of several member states to the prime candidate.

The name that has been mentioned most often is Mark Rutte, the current prime minister of the Netherlands, however there is still significant resistance against this appointment, most notably from Eastern. European allies. This article will outline the challengers of Mark Rutte and what the impact on East-Europe is.

The idea of Mark Rutte as successor of Stoltenberg had been flowing around a while after Rutte announced his departure from Dutch politics in July last year. He is considered as an experienced leader by his colleagues who realizes the importance of the alliance in this time. Furthermore, during his time as the Dutch prime minister, he has build-up good relationships with various British, European Union and US leaders, including Trump. Especially this latter relationship could be of significant importance with the real possibility of Trump winning the 2024 US Presidential election (Gray & James, 2024).

The possibility of Rutte as the new Secretary General became more concrete when he announced his interest in the position during a radio interview in November (Hekster, 2023). During that interview he mentioned that he expected a woman would be selected for this role, which he supported. However, over the last few months it has become clear that this will probably not be the case with Mark Rutte receiving the support of 28 member states and his only opponent being Klaus Iohannes, the current Romanian president.

He has taken a less hostile stance on Russia compared to other leaders, but he has been a staunch supporter of NATO from the start of his presidency, increased Romania’s military spending and made his support of Ukraine clear after the Russian invasion (Nuttall, 2024). Iohannes announced his candidacy in March this year and explained his choice to enter the race that it is time for a Secretary General from a Central or Eastern European country (Lau, 2024).

A majority of the NATO states had already expressed their support for Rutte when Lohannes announced his bid, but some experts think it was meant as a signal to consider East European candidates since there are other high-level European positions opening up this summer.

there is also the worry that the issues concerning Central and Eastern European countries will not be addressed or taken seriously.

This sentiment has been repeated by the current prime minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas. She has also expressed her interest for the position and was mentioned as a possible candidate, but has not submitted an official bid and there are worries she would be too controversial with her anti-Russia rhetoric (Hickman, 2023). She told POLITICO: “If we think about a geographical balance, it’s going to be the fourth [NATO] Secretary-General from the Netherlands. And then there is a question [of] whether there are first-rank and second-rank countries in NATO” (Lau, 2024c).

Besides the regional representation there is also the worry that the issues concerning Central and Eastern European countries will not be addressed or taken seriously. Multiple Eastern member states had been ringing the alarm bells about Russia and the futileness of the West’s strategy of appeasement (Lau, 2024b) before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, on 2 April Kallas announced her support for Rutte, which “is a major win for Rutte, who has been struggling to get support beyond Western Europe and North America” (Kayali, 2024)

The countries holding out their support are supposedly Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Türkiye. Mark Rutte knows who he needs to convince and it is clear that he has started his campaign. On 26 April Rutte visited Türkiye, arguably the most important state among the four because of its size, and the country announced three days later that it will support Mark Rutte’s bid for Secretary General (NOS, 2024). It is not clear what has been discussed but the assumption of diplomats is that Erdogan wanted reassurances of Rutte that NATO will take Türkiye’s concerns about terrorism serious in the future (Nazar; 2024). With the support of Türkiye it is expected that Iohannis will withdraw his bid soon and that Romania will speak out in favor of Mark Rutte.

That leaves Slovakia and Hungary, with the latter being the most vocal in its opposition and no sign of changing this stance soon. Hungary’s opposition is of a more personal level, because Mark Rutte has been very critical of Hungary during his time as the prime minister of the Netherlands. He has condemned the strict LGBTQ-laws that Hungary adopted in 2021 and has also been vocal on the decline of the rule-of-law in the country.

Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, declared “We certainly can’t support the election of a man to the position of NATO’s secretary general, who previously wanted to force Hungary on its knees,” (Gyori, 2024). Experts think that a similar visit to Hungary as the one Rutte made to Türkiye would help to gain him the Hungarian support for his bid for the Secretary General and that Slovakia would follow their lead (Reuters, 2024). It is not yet known what Hungary would receive for its support.

The next few months will reveal if Mark Rutte is successful in his attempt to achieve unanimous support of the NATO members or not. With 29 out of 32 openly supporting Rutte it seems more likely than not and the question is more what Orban would request in exchange of his support. He also stalled Sweden’s bid to join NATO for 21 months and only approved the accession when the Swedish prime minister visited Budapest and promised to sell more fighter jets to Hungary (Lau, 2024a). Rutte should draw lessons from this.


Gray, Andrew & William James. “Dutch PM Rutte in strong position to lead NATO with US, UK, French and German backing.” Reuters. February 22, 2024.

Gyori, Boldizsar. “Hungary cannot support Mark Rutte for NATO chief, minister says.” Reuters. March 05, 2024.

Hekster, Kysia. “Wordt Mark Rutte de nieuwe NAVO-topman?.” NOS. November 04, 2023.

Hendrickson, R.C. (2014). The Changing Role of NATO’s Secretary General. In: Mayer, S. (eds) NATO’s Post-Cold War Politics. New Security Challenges Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Hickman, Joel. “Who Should Be NATO’s Next Secretary General.?” CEPA. June 5, 2023.

Kayali, Laura. “Estonia’s Kaja Kallas backs Mark Rutte for NATO top job.” POLITICO. April 02, 2024.

Lau, Stuart. “Stroking the ego: Hungary’s Orbán gives his nod to Sweden’s NATO bid.” February 23, 2024a. POLITICO.

— “In race for top EU, NATO jobs, Eastern Europe asks: ‘Are we equals or not?’” POLITICO. March 04, 2024b.

— “Romania’s president launches bid for NATO top job against Mark Rutte.” POLITICO. March 12, 2024c.

Nazar, Mitra. “Rutte bezoekt Erdogan in de hoop op steun voor NAVO-baan.” NOS. April 26, 2024.

NOS. “Turkije is om: Rutte mag van Ankara NAVO-chef worden.” NOS. April 29, 2024.

Nuttall, Clare. “BUCHAREST BLOG: Can Romania’s Klaus Iohannis take the Nato helm?.” BNE IntelliNews. March 26, 2024.

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