Who will (finally) be the next NATO chief?

One of the most popular guessing games in Brussels and beyond will soon be over. Outgoing Dutch PM Mark Rutte is leading a race that's taking place behind closed doors with unwritten rules

NATO has little time left to decide who will take over at the helm in 2024 (photo: DW)
NATO has little time left to decide who will take over at the helm in 2024 (photo: DW)


It's finally clear that NATO will get a new secretary-general. Jens Stoltenberg will soon be stepping down after nearly a decade of service in which he was asked to stay on four times — once even after he'd accepted a new job as head of the Norwegian central bank.

Over those years, given the ruptured relationship with Russia and true trans-Atlantic tension with former US President Donald Trump, it wasn't surprising no one wanted to risk replacing the stoic Stoltenberg, who earned the nickname the "Trump whisperer" for his ability to placate the acerbic American leader. But the baton is now expected to be passed at the alliance's 75th anniversary summit in Washington in July, with Stoltenberg's term officially up on October 1, 2024.

No distractions, no complications please

Stoltenberg's former spokesperson has suggested the new chief should be chosen sooner than that, to avoid distraction and complications.

Oana Lungescu, herself the longest-serving NATO spokesperson, emphasised that "it's really important a choice is made early enough and that it is delinked from both the European Union elections [in June 2024] and the campaign for the United States elections."

Lungescu, now a distinguished fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in the UK, warned that "the worst thing that could happen would be the secretary-general of NATO being a sort of 'leftover' from late-night negotiations over the EU table or getting caught up in a very messy United States election."

'We're hiring! Don't apply here'

But they sure don't make it easy. It's one of the most high-profile job openings in the world, yet there's no formal job description, no checklist of required skills nor any way to "apply." Those pining for the post will not be invited to interview and should not appear overly eager to be chosen.

While Washington is widely seen as the kingmaker (more about any possibility of a "queenmaker" below), any one of NATO's 31 governments can play the spoiler. "It's really a lot of backroom diplomacy across the Atlantic," said Ian Lesser, the Brussels-based vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. "Everything from paperclips to nuclear strategy is done by consensus, so this is part of that process."

Along those lines, NATO's new secretary-general must oppose Russia — but not so vehemently as to spark fears of escalation — and be prepared to defend the very existence of the alliance without further provoking its detractors. Over the many years a new chief has been pondered, "nice-to-have" qualities have also been mentioned, such as being from a country with robust defense spending, from a southern or eastern ally for a change after almost 15 years of Nordic leadership, and how about finally putting a woman in charge?

Revolving door of hopefuls

Many names have come up … and gone down. Previous potential front-runners such as Danish PM Mette Frederiksen and former UK defense secretary Ben Wallace even reportedly spoke in person with US president Joe Biden about their chances, but both removed themselves from consideration afterwards without explanation.

Currently, Estonian PM Kaja Kallas, Latvian foreign minister Krisjanis Karins and outgoing Dutch PM Mark Rutte all openly want the job. Rutte has gradually emerged as the favorite. The second longest-serving prime minister among NATO allies after Hungary's Viktor Orban, Rutte is considered a "safer" choice than a Baltic politician, with Moscow's war on Ukraine dominating the alliance agenda.

The outspoken Kallas is both popular and polarising, and Karins, albeit a former prime minister as well, isn't getting much traction.

"There is the sense that having somebody from the Baltic states to be at the helm of NATO would be somehow counterproductive, not helpful," noted Kristi Raik, deputy director of the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn. She disagrees.

"It's difficult to see what exactly the problem is because the relations with Russia are frozen at this point. In any case, we are not talking about the likelihood of starting to restore a diplomatic relationship anytime soon," she said.

Nonetheless, and significantly, Rutte is the only candidate who has been discussed by NATO ambassadors, Lungescu revealed, in an informal process parallel to leaders' consultations called a "dean's coffee." This takes place when the most senior national representative, currently Croatian Ambassador Mario Nobilo, convenes his 30 counterparts to discuss matters of importance.

"There are some countries that still need to finalize their positions as far as I know," said Lungescu, "but they're working towards a consensus" [on Rutte].

About that 'list'...

Even though this all happens behind the scenes, Kallas isn't pretending she hasn't noticed. Speaking at an event with Politico in the US in November, she joked publicly about the apparent downgrading of qualities that used to be considered priorities in a new secretary-general.

"It should definitely be from a country that has spent 2% of its GDP on defense. And it would be nice if it would be a woman," she recalled, quipping, "so it's logical it's Mark Rutte." The audience laughed uncomfortably, and Kallas' disappointment was obvious. Estonia's defense spending will top 3% of GDP next year, while the Netherlands will not quite reach the targeted 2%. Asked by the host whether she still wants to be considered for the job, Kallas answered in one word: "Yes."

How would military penny-pinching play in the US ahead of a presidential election whose outcome could be, as Ian Lesser puts it, "very challenging politically for Europe"?

Kallas could stand tall behind her budget, but Rutte might have his own "trump card." In a White House meeting from 2019, Rutte and Trump were shown joking and clapping each other's shoulders jovially. "We've become friends over the last couple years," Trump said.

Rutte roadblock ahead?

Despite the evident consensus-building around Rutte, the Dutchman may hit a near-term setback in Europe in the person of Hungary's Orban, with whom he's clashed on the European Union side of town in years past and who is said to have already announced his opposition to the appointment.

Observers don't rule out a last-minute dark-horse candidate who might tick more of the unofficial boxes. "Nothing is decided until everything is decided," cautioned Lungescu. Whoever "wins," said Kristi Raik, "it's going to be a pretty bumpy road for sure. It's in any case our job as Europeans to make sure that the US remains committed."

The only thing that seems certain at this point is that Stoltenberg will get to drop out of another race himself: that of the record for longest-serving NATO secretary-general. Although it's getting close, Dutch politician Joseph Luns was in the job for 13 years.

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Published: 30 Dec 2023, 11:27 AM