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Stoltenberg’s successor: The selection and the priorities awaiting the new NATO Secretary General

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council, February 2024; Photo: NATO

In July 2023, NATO extended the mandate of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg until 1 October 2024, bringing his term in office to exactly 10 years. The selection of his successor is underway, but there is no formal procedure – the process takes place through diplomatic consultations and the decision is only announced when the consensus is reached.

Several names have been mentioned as potential successors to Stoltenberg in recent years. Since last autumn, two leaders have openly thrown their hats in the ring – the caretaker Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte and the President of Romania Klaus Iohannis.

Rutte is considered the favourite by the media, having secured the backing of the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France, though some countries, such as Hungary, have voiced their opposition.

However, the details of the selection process will remain known only to NATO leaders and their representatives until the final decision is announced. The date of the selection is also not known officially, though it is expected that it will take place by the annual summit in Washington in July, which will also mark the 75th anniversary of the Alliance.

The Secretary General is the Chairman of the North Atlantic Council and he defines it Agenda. He also uses his good offices to facilitate the decision-making process among Allies. When he speaks, he does so on behalf of the Council.

“The Secretary General is a senior political figure from a NATO member country, appointed by member states for a four-year term. The selection is carried through informal diplomatic consultations among member countries, which put forward candidates for the post”, the NATO official website says.

Crucially, it stipulates that no decision is confirmed until a consensus is reached on one candidate.

At the end of their term, the incumbent might be offered to stay on, which was the case with Stoltenberg. His original four-year term, which lasted until 2018, was extended four times – two times for two years, and another two times for one year.

Challenges awaiting

In his 2023 annual report released this month, Jens Stoltenberg stated that “the world has become more dangerous, but NATO is stronger”, pointing towards the enlargement of the Alliance to Finland and Sweden and the increase of overall Allied  defence spending.

The main challenges outlined by Stoltenberg, which are presumably awaiting his successor as well, are Russia’s war against Ukraine, a new war in the Middle East, and greater competition from authoritarian states, including China.

In the chapter on the Western Balkans, Stoltenberg’s report states that NATO remains strongly engaged in the region “whose stability is of strategic importance for the Alliance”, against the backdrop of a complex regional and global security environment.

The report states that, in 2023, the Kosovo Force  – KFOR -played a critical role in ensuring stability in Kosovo amid heightened tensions and increased volatility.

KFOR units; Photo: KFOR

In an opinion piece released following the announcement of the candidacy, Klaus Iohannis shared his “vision of the NATO future”, stressing that it is NATO’s eastern and southern borders that are most exposed to threats, “and they must be strengthened accordingly and in their entirety”.

“Additionally, we must not forget the High North and the Western Balkans, as their importance for our security is indisputable”, Iohannes wrote.

Meanwhile, Mark Rutte has not commented on the Balkans nor his priorities as the next Secretary General. He has, however, visited Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina within the last year in his capacity as Dutch PM. He stressed the importance of maintaining security in the region, in addition to the European integration process.

Is the Alliance ready for an Eastern European Secretary General?

The Washington Treaty, which founded NATO in 1949, does not specify that there would be a Secretary General. It establishes a Council, known as the North Atlantic Council, as the principal political decision-making body in which each allied country is represented.

The office of Secretary General was established in 1952, three years after NATO was founded.

The Secretary General has traditionally been from the European side of the Atlantic, while the position of NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe is always held by the United States.

However, no Eastern European has held the office so far. The position has been held by the representatives from the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Spain, Benelux and Nordic allies. The two most recent Secretaries General came from Denmark and Norway.

If Mark Rutte remains the frontrunner for the position, this trend will continue even after twenty years since most Eastern European countries joined the Alliance.

Some have interpreted the candidacy of Klaus Iohannis as a positive sign in this context, claiming that it will at least draw attention to the interests and expectations of Eastern Europeans.

An analysis published by the German Council on Foreign Relations in February highlights the considerations going into the selection.

“The election of an Eastern or South-Eastern European candidate for the first time would send a strong political signal, but the southern NATO members would view this as placing too much emphasis on NATO’s eastern flank”, the analysis states.

Interestingly, the selection of Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway until 2013, marked only the third time that a former head of state or government became NATO Secretary General. Usually, the position went to either foreign or defence ministers, including UK’s Lord Roberstson of Port Ellen and Spain’s Javier Solana.

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