Who could be NATO’s next Secretary General after Stoltenberg’s third renewal?

By Joe Watts-Morgan, Client Executive

Last week, NATO announced that Jens Stoltenberg will remain Secretary General of the military alliance for another year. This represents the third time his mandate has been renewed and means he will hold NATO’s top job for a decade, making him the second longest Secretary General after Joseph Luns. Whilst some within the alliance may say this showcases the organisation’s stability and continuity, the manner in which the episode has been handled has only highlighted the divisions and splits within NATO.

As Stoltenberg’s second term came to a close, two prominent candidates emerged, each backed by different factions within the organisation. Ben Wallace, the UK's Defence Secretary, expressed a keen interest in the position, stating, “That’s a job I’d like.” Wallace was well-regarded by NATO’s eastern flank, largely due to his leadership in supporting Ukraine by providing essential weaponry. The Baltic states, Poland, and the UK, known for their hawkish stance on the war, showed clear support for Wallace. However, his candidacy faced numerous obstacles, including a preference for a Prime Minister to assume the role and resistance from France and Germany, who advocated for an EU member to lead the organisation. In an interview with the Economist, Wallace acknowledged these challenges, saying “maybe they want a prime minister” and recognised the importance of securing approval from presidents Macron and Biden, with the latter crucially withholding his support.

This brings us onto the next contender and one who ticked all the boxes that the British Defence Secretary could not: Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Frederiksen emerged as the frontrunner, enjoying widespread support within NATO. Her victory in a referendum last year, which ended Denmark's exemption from the European Union's collective defence policies, bolstered her standing. She also spearheaded efforts to train Ukrainian pilots and played a central role in increasing Denmark's defence budget. Additionally, members expressed a desire to appoint the first female Secretary General, with Biden appearing to favour Frederiksen. However, support for her waned following meetings with President Biden and the Director of the CIA, William Burns, during which she reportedly failed to make an impression. European diplomats also raised objections, citing Denmark's failure to meet the NATO’s 2% defence spending requirement, as well as the past two Secretaries General both hailing from Scandinavian countries (Jens Stoltenberg from Norway and Anders Fogh Rasmussen from Frederiksen’s Denmark). All of this culminated in Frederiksen ruling herself out of the job saying she was “not a candidate for any other job than the one I’m doing right now” and that Stoltenberg staying on would be “a really good solution.”

Other candidates who were mentioned included Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, yet the former did not appear interested and has quit politics entirely after his Cabinet collapsed, whilst the latter was seen as too hawkish against Russia and too risky whilst the war in Ukraine rages. With all candidates either not suitable or not interested, this led to Stoltenberg’s term being renewed for another year in the hopes that a suitable candidate can be found in the interlude. Indeed, one of the benefits in this move is that there would be alignment between the end of his term and the EU’s leadership reshuffle after the EU’s June 2024 elections, with Ursula von der Leyen having the potential to be a strong candidate after serving as Germany’s Minister of Defence and President of the European Commission. Von der Leyen’s position on Ukraine would also provide a boon to any prospective candidacy for Secretary General as she has managed to corral ten rounds of EU sanctions against Russia for their war in Ukraine, allowing her to reach out to the more hawkish of NATO members.

NATO will have to hope that she is interested, and if not that a suitable candidate can be found as the continual failure to appoint Stoltenberg’s successor becomes an almost annual event in which the can is kicked further down the road.  One issue that has been illustrated by this affair is that despite widespread unity within NATO about supporting Ukraine, deep divisions remain amongst members about the future direction of the alliance. After Wallace was turned down for the job, British government sources lambasted President Biden for seemingly blocking the Defence Secretary. France’s insistence that the Secretary General should come from an EU member state chimes well with Macron’s repeated calls for Europe to become more independent of the USA in defence.

On the other side, one diplomat raised the possibility that Turkey may block Frederiksen’s appointment after summoning the Danish ambassador over the burning of a Quran and the Turkish flag earlier this year. This was dismissed as “gossip” by a Turkish official.

This entire rigmarole indicates that unless NATO members want to give Jens Stoltenberg a fourth successive extension in October 2024, one group will be forced to compromise, or a consensus candidate will have to emerge who can appeal to all wings of NATO. Ursula von der Leyen would be a strong contender if interested in the top job, whilst Pedro Sanchez, the embattled Spanish Prime Minister who looks unlikely to survive the upcoming general election this month, is reportedly open to the job. If anything, let’s hope for Jens Stoltenberg’s sake that NATO members can get their act together next year and appoint his successor so he can finally enjoy a well-earned retirement.

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