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NATO’s next Secretary-General: Embrace the East

Who will be NATO’s next Secretary-General? Jens Stoltenberg is due to step down from the position in September. Mark Rutte, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, is the frontrunner. He has already received endorsements from the United States (US), the United Kingdom, and Germany, thus putting him in a very favourable position to succeed Stoltenberg. Kaja Kallas – the former prime minister of Estonia – was another potential candidate, but her prospects here are remote.

For all of Rutte’s accomplishments, the fact that the next Secretary-General is not likely to be from the Eastern flank – the set of countries spanning the alliance’s Eastern frontier, from Finland and Estonia to Romania and Bulgaria – represents a missed opportunity and demonstrates a lack of maturity on the part of the alliance.

Of course, as with any alliance decision, consensus on Stoltenberg’s successor is necessary. One reason why Stoltenberg has remained as Secretary-General for as long as he has is because Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine threw up such major crises that his presence proved to be a source of much needed stability.

NATO members are unable to achieve unanimity on a candidate like Kallas because countries located along the Eastern flank are seen as ‘hawkish’ relative to those located further afield from Russia. The worry, apparently, is that a leader drawn from this region would push the alliance to adopt stronger policies against Russia than what some countries are comfortable with.

This argument has several problems. The most obvious one is that the Secretary-General has limited authority and so cannot push NATO members to do something which they really do not want to do. 

After all, the Washington Treaty is premised on state sovereignty, allowing members the right to respond to particular situations – even those which rise to the level of an Article 5 event – in whatever manner they see fit. Setting aside the deeper question as to what ‘hawkishness’ and ‘dovishness’ really mean here, a hawkish Secretary-General will have only limited sway with dovish governments, just like how a dovish Secretary-General would bear limited influence with hawkish governments. To be an effective steward of the alliance, the Secretary-General must serve the North Atlantic Council by helping to facilitate agreements and to mediate differences between members, not by attempting to impose his or her personal preferences on sovereign governments.

The second problem is that it suggests Eastern flank politicians lack the professionalism and credentials for the position. If Rutte does become the 14th Secretary-General in NATO’s history, he would be the fourth Dutchman to do so. All NATO Secretary-Generals to date have come from the alliance’s founding members, with the exception of Manfred Wörner (Federal Republic of Germany, 1988-1994) and Javier Solana (Spain, 1995-1999).

Most of the countries which make up the Eastern flank have been members of NATO since 2004, remain solid in their democratic qualifications, have reasonably healthy economies, and have, unlike their Western European counterparts, fulfilled their Wales Summit pledges to increase their defence budgets and to acquire new equipment. In other words, they have governed and discharged their alliance tasks responsibly. The refusal to consider as a front-runner a politician from the region suggests an undue lack of confidence, despite all those achievements.

The third problem gets at the very heart of the issue: the purported hawkishness on the part of Eastern flank politicians. To some degree, this view is a stereotype which harkens back to the old Enlightenment vision of a civilized Western Europe and its need to tame a wild Eastern Europe. No doubt countries along the Eastern flank are much more forceful in their criticisms of Russia and are much more apprehensive over Russia’s geostrategic intentions and military power, fears informed by centuries of experience of imperial domination and occupation by St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Yet whether those societies located along the Eastern flank are hawkish is an empirical question. The available evidence throws into question this view. After all, when missiles hit Polish territory in the context of Russian air strikes against targets in Ukraine, the Polish government – under the leadership of the Law and Justice party, no less – refrained from invoking Article 5 and sought as a matter of course to consult the broader membership. For its part, Romania too has been very restrained with respect to how it has responded to Russian missiles and drones hitting Romanian territory or straying into Romanian airspace. Presumably, a genuinely hawkish government could have used those sorts of occasions to escalate some sort of confrontation with Russia.

Citizens of these countries may indeed be less enamoured with escalation than often believed. In March 2022, Lauren Sukin and this author ran a survey experiment involving respondents living in the three Baltic countries as well as Poland and Romania. Conducted shortly after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we asked respondents to evaluate different reassurance strategies provided by the US in the context of a hypothetical Article 5 situation whereby Russia invaded a Baltic country. Those reassurance strategies ranged from military deployments, economic sanctions, diplomatic summitry, and public affirmations of existing security guarantees. Respondents generally reported a preference for softer, less militarised measures like economic sanctions and public reaffirmations on the basis that they would help to contain the crisis at hand.

Rutte may very well be NATO’s next Secretary-General, but in the future the alliance should embrace someone from the Eastern flank. Doing so will erase the implicit divide which exists within its membership as to which leaders have the fitness and strategic wisdom to manage the world’s most successful military alliance.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is the Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. His most recent book is Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century.

Embedded image credit: Flickr/Stenbocki maja (CC BY-SA 2.0 cropped)

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