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Mark Rutte won’t save a crumbling Nato

Hardly a new-look Nato. Credit: Getty

June 21, 2024 - 10:00am

It is the night of the living dead once again at a Western institution. Just as in Eighties horror movies the monster seemingly dies only to reappear after the credits, so it seems that the mediocre European politicians of yesteryear pop up again and again.

The most recent has-been to stage a successful comeback is former Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who has just been confirmed as the next secretary-general of Nato. After four terms as PM, Rutte threw in the towel last summer, claiming that the different views on immigration between him and his coalition partners were “unbridgeable”. Unable to mend the gaps within the Dutch government, he almost immediately started to position himself as a possible successor to Jens Stoltenberg, the current head of Nato who was asked to extend his term last year when capable replacements were hard to come by.

But if Rutte found it impossible to bridge division within the Netherlands, will he have any more luck when it comes to the growing rifts in Nato? The alliance is not as unified as it once was, with several members trying to chart their own course. Turkey, for example, is more interested in playing the role of a middle power between the West and Russia while expanding its own influence in the Middle East, often openly sympathising with Islamists groups such as Hamas whose fighters have been receiving medical treatment in Turkey.

This is quite remarkable, considering that Nato’s original purpose was as a defence against the Soviet Union, and that Article 5 (stating that an armed attack against one member state shall be considered an attack against all member states) of the North Atlantic Treaty has only been invoked once in the 75-year history of the alliance. In that case, it was against the violent Islamism of al-Qaeda after 9/11.

But it is not only Istanbul which diverges. In order for Rutte to get the needed approval of all 32 member states, he had to give Hungary written guarantees that Budapest can opt out of future military support for Ukraine. There are some signs that Rutte was not chosen because he is the best candidate to knit the alliance closer together, but instead because he can make deals and exceptions for an alliance whose members are drifting apart.

This is one reason why neither Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas nor Romanian President Klaus Iohannis were able to make the cut for the top job at Nato. Both are uncompromising supporters of Ukraine’s war effort and, contrary to public displays of unity, this position has come under fire from several members, including Slovakia, Turkey, and Hungary.

Rutte’s appointment is therefore not the beginning of a new era for Nato, but a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo within an alliance unsure about its future role. Some members would like it to play a more active role in global conflicts, while others would like to see it limited to a purely defensive alliance which doesn’t participate in conflicts like it did during the Kosovo War in 1999, the 2011 intervention in Libya, or the current support for Ukraine. We will see if Rutte turns out to be the right person to bridge these divisions, but for now his appointment is showing just how much trouble the alliance is truly in.

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JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 month ago

Rutte is good at managing decline. Perfect choice for the job.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago

Isn’t he the man that said ‘What did Holland even need tanks for ?’. (Might as well sell them off – to build immigrant housing).

So no problems there, then.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

So NATO kicks out Hungary and Turkey then. And keeps Finland and Sweden who do actually want to be in NATO. There’s no point in having countries in NATO who don’t accept the basic rules.
If getting Finland and Sweden into NATO is “crumbling”, then bring it on. Ridiculous assertion.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Seems unclear why the author thinks NATO is crumbling when it is actually expanding.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The basic rules were that NATO is a defensive alliance.
At the end of the Cold War there was nothing to defend against, so lacking any raison d’etre it quickly repurposed itself as the world’s policeman and focused, as do all bureaucratic organisations, on expanding its own power and influence.
It was goaded by US neocons into poking the Russian bear and pushing further east, in direct breach of commitments given to Gorbachev. The current plan appears to be regime change in Russia. Hardly surprising that some members do not accept the new rules.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

It’s still a defensive alliance.
Remind me – who started the conflict in Ukraine ? Or for that matter, which two countries started WWII by invading Poland in 1939 ?
Just laughable to suggest that Putin was “forced” to invade Ukraine.
Or that Russia should hold some sort of veto on what its nieghbours can and cannot do to defend themselves (neighbours still recovering from decades, sometimes centuries of mainly disastrous Russian colonisation). Should we try to tell the French how to run their defence policy ?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

And the USA wasn’t “forced” to seek the removal of missiles from Cuba…

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

The analogy doesn’t hold and it can only be held by those who don’t really grasp the fundamental differences. NATO was not about to roll short range cruise missiles up the Ukrainian/Russia border was it. In fact Ukraine wasn’t getting into NATO anytime soon until Putin invaded.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Not actually the point; the Russians, understandably, don’t believe there won’t be missiles there and have acted accordingly.

Missiles were put in Poland to protect against “Iranian missiles”…and if anyone believes that I have a bridge in London they can buy.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

If France had threatened to join the Warsaw Pact, allow Soviet troops to be stationed on their territory and install missiles pointing at us, I suspect we would have told the French in the strongest possible terms how to run their defence policy.
You simply have no perspective on history if you believe the conflict in Ukraine started in 2022.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Struggling with the coherency of this argument. Not sure of point you are making RM. NATO troops weren’t in Ukraine when Putin invaded. Nor was Ukraine about to be admitted to NATO. Putin increased that momentum that otherwise may have taken years and may never have been necessary.
The fundamental problem with, I think, your sort of view, is it just doesn’t get the danger of appeasing Totalitarians. Totalitarians and Autocrats can’t stop there. Any vibrant State adjacent or nearby has to be undermined as they represent a threat just through their mere existence to an Autocrat paranoid about their position. The question perhaps you need to ask is where would you stop rolling over?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

The operative word was ‘threatened’. Ever since Bush and Co. snubbed Putin in the early 2000s and decreed Ukraine would join NATO this endgame was inevitable.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Twaddle. There was no decree. What happened is Ukraine showed it wanted get out from underneath the Russian imperial yoke. You’d force them back.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

There was deal on the table in April 2022, accepted by both sides, based on Ukrainian neutrality. The Boris flew to Kiev and scuppered it. Now the only deal available is for the eastern part of Ukraine to remain under the Russian imperial yoke. Progress, eh?

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Fact you think Boris had that much say in the matter shows you’re prone to believing what you want to believe.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Boris was clearly just the messenger, no doubt well paid…

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Please remind me which NATO country was being ‘defended’ from Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011 when NATO attacked both countries.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Remind me which NATO countries were being defended when NATO attacked Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011?

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Putin and FSB couldn’t have put it better RM. They don’t need Bots anymore if they have you and likes of Farage do they.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Ah, the old ‘Putin apologist’ gambit.
Do you work for the BBC by any chance?

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

No, but ex RN 22 years

John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago

No one can save NATO! The USA is understandably irritated by European reluctance to defend itself; it will no doubt soon end the pretence that NATO can ever rely on anybody other than USA or UK to put forth a credible defence (and the latter is increasingly doubtful) or have the courage to stand up against any potential violent bully. The UK should immediately at least double defence spending and so be ready for NATO to collapse at the first sign of serious trouble.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 month ago
Reply to  John Tyler

But then, NATO is about 50% of the US influence in Europe.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

One might contend it works the other way too. You’ll find v few US senior Military leaders and strategists contend NATO should be wound down. An alliance of western democracies still has a strength almost greater than the sum of its parts in a multi-polar World. It’s structure gives more immediate operational coherency that without would be degraded. That doesn’t make it perfect but it remains a remarkable and unprecedented alliance in world history.
The position of Turkey of course complex and increasingly pragmatic. Erdogan won’t be there forever.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago

Whilst very wise of Hungary to insist on written guarantees that it isn’t obliged to provide military support, Article 5 doesn’t oblige ANY member to give military support to another member, let alone non-members.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

I disagree. NATO is only in “trouble” if the United States refuses to lead the organization, and for the last 80 years we have done so. Having said that, we Americans would love it if you Europeans would be the primary guarantors of your own security. We have been formally committed to your post-war security since at least 1949, when NATO was founded, but it really is time for you to take the reins and lead. We will always stand by you, but for the foreseeable future our main focus needs to be on the 1.4 billion Chinese who seem to want a war in East Asia. Our power is great, but limited. We can’t do it all.
In the future if NATO is in “trouble” it will only be because Europeans aren’t willing to fight for their own freedoms against Putin’s Russia.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

When you say “we Americans…” I presume you mean the American people as a whole, and I believe you are right.

However the people who run the US Empire certainly wouldn’t love it because then Europe would cease to be part of that empire, with consequent loss of profits for them.

It will come eventually…about 30 years I think, but not yet.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago

If there is any constant to the last half-millennium of European history it is the predictability of reshuffled alliances. English, French, Germans, Russians, Swedes, Spaniards, and Poles have both militarily opposed and allied with each other in a stunning variety of combinations. Given the dynamic nature of history and how drastically different the world today compares to that of NATO’s founding, it is naive to expect the alliance to endure permanently unaltered. Treaties never outlive their utility to cosignatories for long.

Cultural, economic, and political forces are pushing and pulling at Europeans along multiple vectors without any possessing sufficient momentum to dominate nor adequate equilibrium between them to balance the various factions into functional stability. As Yeats had it: “the centre cannot hold.” The expansion of NATO may someday be seen as the precursor of its fracture or even demise, with North and Western European states pursuing objectives distinct from Eastern and Southern, and a U.S. that someday may either formally or virtually opt out. NATO absent the U.S. would be an unstable isotope even more likely to decay as its other component members are freed of the onus of deferring to American priorities in exchange for American military and financial underwriting. The vast American debt, the fecklessness of its leadership, and the abject weariness of its citizens with military adventures imply that its largesse should not be taken for granted.

What are the implications for NATO of a Europe comprised of eventual Moslem majority states? What will NATO defend if the preponderance of its peoples do not believe in secular humanist liberal democracy? Are the recent events at the ICC a taste of what is to come? When Germany, France, and the Netherlands have Muslim majorities will Turkey become the NATO model instead of the exception? What of the potential for greater divergence on the political right-left spectrum among members? Anyone who awaits the leader that will arrive to sure-handedly lead Europe through these changes is waiting on Godot.

No European leader exists who can square this circle of uncertainty. Rutte can only be a placeholder who, at best, delays inevitable monumental change. He will not lead events; they will lead him. He inherits the tragic irony articulated in the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 month ago

Very nicely done.

Will K
Will K
1 month ago

Secretary General of Nato is a prestigious and well paid job. I’m surprised David Cameron didn’t try to get it.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
1 month ago
Reply to  Will K

After all his devoted years of public service, he doesn’t need the money.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

Every founder member of NATO has a myth of having thought of it, and they would all laugh at each others’ if they knew about them. NATO has never been purely defensive; it was founded six years before the Warsaw Pact, for example, and if it ever was an academically serious contention that the Soviet Union had had either the means or the will to invade Western Europe, then it has not been so this century.

Britain keeps troops in the Baltic states as a tripwire, because only if our own personnel had already been killed would we consider going to war for those places. We still might not do it, though. Nor has NATO ever been about freedom ‘n’ democracy; at least one of its founder members would have failed that test spectacularly, while very recent senior Nazi officers were prominent in it from the start. And of course NATO’s expansion, along with that of the closely related EU, gave Vladimir Putin all the excuse that he needed to invade Ukraine, itself replete with the heirs of Adolf Heusinger and indeed effectively run by a sort of Schnez-Truppe. War is very good for the business of major donors to politicians, and if this had been an unprovoked attack, then there would be no felt need to keep describing it as such.

Ukraine would certainly never now be admitted to NATO, and the rump state that it will very soon be would be lucky to be let into the EU. Yet having already secured the backing of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the centrist caricature that is Mark Rutte will now become Secretary General of NATO because that is the will of Viktor OrbĂĄn. Centrism and right-wing populism are con tricks to sell exactly the same economic and foreign policies to different audiences by pretending to wage a culture war. In Britain, centrists and right-wing populists alike have hitherto supported NATO, which subjects British military personnel to officers who were themselves subject to OrbĂĄn and to Erdoğan, or indeed to the likes of Rutte or of whoever was really deciding anything while Joe Biden was nominally the President of the United States. Such figures’ say in those matters ought to be unacceptable to those who had hitherto accrued to Boris Johnson or to Nigel Farage.

Having turned 60 on Wednesday, Johnson was yesterday sulking in the Daily Mail that even Keir Starmer now said that Jeremy Corbyn would have been a better Prime Minister than Johnson was, and that no one apart from Johnson found that remotely remarkable. Based on his remarks about Ukraine, even Farage would have to give that answer if the question were ever put to him. But when would Farage be interviewed again? He has probably burned his bridges with the BBC by being right about Ukraine, and thus at least implicitly about NATO, but being so will do him no end of good among the voters at whom he is aiming. Some people are paid an absolute fortune to talk about politics when they know nothing at all about it.

Yet Farage is still wrong about Gaza among much else, and the Leader of the Opposition in 2029, or for many practical purposes from next month, should not be anyone who had ever been Auntie’s favourite uncle. Farage may very well win Clacton, but the re-election of George Galloway at Rochdale is a racing certainty. Short Money is ÂŁ19,401.20 for every seat won at the most recent General Election, plus ÂŁ38.75 for every 200 votes gained, with a further ÂŁ213,132.53 in travel expenses divided among the Opposition parties on the same basis. It would not be your possibly ropey local candidate who decided what to do with that money. It would be the Leader. Wherever you can, including here at North Durham, vote for the Workers Party of Britain.