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BRUSSELS/LONDON: The United States, Britain and France on Thursday backed outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as the next secretary general of NATO, putting him in a strong position to take the job.

Stoltenberg’s successor when he steps down in October will take office at a crucial juncture, tasked with sustaining NATO members’ support for Ukraine’s costly defence against Russia’s invasion while guarding against any escalation that would draw the alliance directly into a war with Moscow.

“President Biden strongly endorses PM Rutte’s candidacy to be the next Secretary General of NATO,” a US official said.

“PM Rutte has a deep understanding of the importance of the Alliance, is a natural leader and communicator, and his leadership would serve the Alliance well at this critical time.”

Depending on the outcome of November’s US presidential election, the next NATO boss may have to deal with a second term for Donald Trump, who drew fierce criticism from Western officials earlier this month for calling into question his commitment to defending NATO allies if re-elected.

The Netherlands’ longest-serving leader, 57-year-old Rutte has good relationships with the various British and US leaders - including Trump - during his long tenure.

“We have to work with whoever is on the dance floor,” Rutte said on Saturday, urging European leaders to “stop moaning and whining and nagging” about Trump and focus instead on what they could do for Ukraine. Backing Rutte for the job, the British Foreign Office said he was a well-respected figure across NATO with serious defence and security credentials, and someone who would ensure it remained strong and prepared for any need to defend itself.

A senior French official said Paris also backed Rutte, adding that President Emmanuel Macron had been an early supporter of putting the Dutchman in the role, having sounded him out about the post last year.

A German government coalition source said Berlin was also expected to back Rutte. But Poland has no position yet, a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

NATO leaders are appointed by consensus requiring the support - or at the least no opposition - from all its 31 members, meaning Washington and London’s support is crucial but not sufficient.

Two diplomats said Rutte has the backing of about 20 NATO members so far, but another senior diplomat cautioned a deal had not yet been reached and another candidate could still emerge.

FIERCE PUTIN CRITIC

Diplomats have identified Hungary and Turkey as possible holdouts but there was no immediate comment from either country on their positions.

Under Rutte’s leadership Dutch defence spending was cut during years of fiscal austerity. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, the Netherlands has increased spending taking them to around 2% of GDP in 2024. Rutte has long been a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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