Transitioning NATO: Challenges and Priorities for the Next Secretary General

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Jens Stoltenberg is set to leave NATO as secretary general in October. He served a decade of service and four extensions of his mandate. Stoltenberg’s successor will have to haggle with the political fallout of two decades of interventions across the world, including the traumatic incidents of NATO’s involvement in battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. These disputes were not prevalent among all electorates throughout NATO, and they were handled in some countries in Europe, especially among new NATO partners in the East, as movements that were not necessarily theirs. Many of these partners now would like NATO to focus on what they see as its core purpose—collective defense in Europe.

Reforming the deterrence and defense pose in Europe that NATO dumped after the Cold War will top the agenda of the successive secretary general. The threat of battle from Moscow and pressure from the US on European allies to do more for their defense will describe this effort. The next leader of NATO must be able to counter Houthi aggression against commercial and military ships off the coast of Yemen. It could also contain an intervention in increasingly fragile parts of the Western Balkans.

Allies will also rightly hope that counterterrorism, opposing cyber threats, and addressing the effect of climate change on security are managed with an equal sense of urgency. What’s more, NATO has admitted that an emerging China merits its concentration. Although China does not pose an immediate military threat to the Alliance, allies will at least meet Chinese military sights across the global commons: the high seas, marine choke points, space, cyber, and the North Pole. The next secretary-general will have the option to steer the discussion inside the Alliance and to determine the extent of its involvement in these issues. Finally, the next secretary-general must make improvements in cooperation with the European Union, which, under Stoltenberg and his EU partners has not gone beyond well-intentioned statements.

Whereas Stoltenberg appeared as a surprise candidate with barely any competition in 2014, this time there is an obvious front-runner in Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Rutte has demonstrated himself to be a Stoltenberg-like charismatic leader. While not necessarily a fantastic visionary leader, he knows everyone, is witnessed on the world stage as a seasoned politician capable of making pragmatic deals, and would be competent to keep an Alliance of thirty-two nations with contradicting priorities together.

Rutte appears to be the favored candidate among most partners, including the “big four”—France, Germany, the UK, and the United States. He has a substantial track record as the second longest-serving existing European leader, after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He has also demonstrated his political skills in bridging political ranges in domestic politics by directing four governments of different arrangements, mostly with a minority in the Dutch senate. 

On the EU side, he has enabled broker immigration deals with Turkey and several North African countries, while on the NATO side, he has displayed a remarkable talent for negotiating with former US President Donald Trump. Rutte famously opposed Trump during a press conference in the Oval Office, when the then-president indicated it would be acceptable if the US and EU failed to achieve a deal on tariffs. And Rutte preserved the day during the 2018 Brussels Summit. When Trump cautioned the United States might “go our own way” if allies didn’t expand defense spending, the Dutch prime minister indicated that the US president could claim recognition for the recent boosts in defense spending among NATO partners, which reportedly “retrieved” the meeting.

Rutte himself, has not always prioritized raising his own country’s security spending. Although he marked the Defense Investment Pledge twice (in 2014 and 2016), under his leadership, Dutch defense spending dropped near to the lowest among NATO members, sailing around one percent of gross domestic product in recent years. On the other hand, under his premiership Dutch backing for Ukraine has been outstanding and a stimulus for other allies.

However, his candidacy is not quite confident. The consensus rule demands that all allied leaders, including notoriously complicated ones such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Orbán, settle on the selection of the secretary-general. Hungary, for instance, already this week expressed its initial resistance to Rutte. Fulfilling the wish for equal representation of new and old partners may require some kind of package arrangement, possibly even concerning high-level EU posts. Since there are no definite rules or best practices for leadership appointments like at the United Nations or the EU the consequence remains uncertain. 

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