Geopolitics Strategic Thinking

NATO has been (for years) electing a new Secretary General. Who is running, and what are the chances?

Timotej Kováčik

A European always chairs the top civilian post in NATO. The top military post is always held by an American. This unwritten agreement has been the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and its top structures since its creation in 1949. In 2024, in addition to celebrating the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding and the 20th anniversary of the accession of seven new countries, including the Slovak Republic, the selection of a new Secretary General (SG) of the Alliance will also occur. 

Since 2014, Jens Stoltenberg, the former Prime Minister of Norway, has served as the Secretary-General. His tenure cannot be described as peaceful. From the beginning, it has been affected by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing developments that culminated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. At the time of the invasion, however, Stoltenberg should not have been at the helm of NATO. The SG’s mandate officially lasts four years. However, Stoltenberg’s term has been extended several times. Now, after ten years, member states will choose between two official candidates.

Two candidates with different chances – Mark Rutte vs Klaus Iohannis

The selection process for the new SG is based on the consensus of all 32 Alliance member countries. During informal consultations behind closed doors between the states, possible candidates are selected, and the one accepted by most countries is chosen. The post of SG has always been held by men, which is one of the reasons why the possibility of a woman in the top job was mentioned last year. 

However, according to media reports, the top civilian representative will remain a man. The hot candidates are two men in particular – the current Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, and the Romanian President, Klaus Iohannis.

Mark Rutte, a skilled politician with over a decade of experience in the highest executive office in the Netherlands, is currently the most likely candidate for NATO SG. As the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, he has the advantage of pragmatism. He is also well-respected and has the ability to get along with selfish politicians such as former US President Donald Trump. Rutte is supported by two-thirds of all NATO countries, including the so-called ‘big four’ – the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The outgoing Dutch prime minister’s candidacy was recently endorsed by Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, whose name was also dropped regarding the top NATO post.

The other aspirant for the top civilian position in the Alliance is the current President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis. He announced his intention to run in March 2024. His candidacy is viewed mainly as a pragmatic one related to geography- the SG from Central or Eastern Europe has never been appointed. Iohannis mentioned this fact in his candidacy announcement, alongside his strong support for an invaded Ukraine. Furthermore, he also advocates for a change within NATO, which he says needs to adapt to the changing geopolitical context, for which he may be the driving force. Nevertheless, it remains unclear which countries, apart from Romania, would support Iohannis’ candidacy. 

As already mentioned, two-thirds of NATO countries currently support Rutte. Hungary has so far opposed his candidacy as Rutte has in the past criticised the state of the rule of law and the rights of the LGBT+ community in Hungary. Rutte also has to convince Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already met with the candidate, and the negotiations will likely reach a positive outcome for the Dutchman. Romania has logically backed Iohannis, and Slovakia has yet to officially comment. However, a statement is expected after the presidential elections.

There are several informal criteria

The representatives of the countries want to announce the final decision before the European Parliament (EP) elections. The elections will take place from 6 to 9 June 2024. A possible link with the EP elections is that they will also roughly determine the future top posts in the European Union (EU) institutions – the European Council, the European Commission and the office of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The names of the candidates for these positions will depend on the results of the elections as well as gender and geographical balance. NATO wants to avoid a possible clash so that potential candidates for SG are not affected by negotiations within the EU.

Additional unofficial criteria that are mentioned in the selection process are the aforementioned geographical balance, gender, and whether the candidate’s country of origin meets the agreed defence contribution of 2% of the GDP budget. It is this last factor that plays against Mark Rutte. The Netherlands has never once come close to that threshold during Rutte’s administration; its closest was in 2023, when it had 1.7% of GDP for defence. On the other hand, Romania is fulfilling its NATO commitment better. It met the rule agreed in 2014 by NATO leaders twice – in 2020 and 2023 with a 2.44% GDP contribution to defence. The geographical balance argument mentioned earlier also favours Iohannis, but Rutte is still the hottest candidate.

The dice are cast, and the name that all Alliance members agree on will be revealed soon. After all, in a selection process based on unofficial negotiations behind closed doors, it is not unusual that the countries pull the name of an unexpected candidate out of the hat at the last minute. Whether it is Mark Rutte, Klaus Iohannis or someone else, it will be important that he or she is able to continue the course set by Jens Stoltenberg. This means supporting Ukraine within the Alliance’s remit without getting directly involved in the conflict. On the other hand, the SG will have to address an adequate but not excessive response to Russian provocations, for example, concerning the entry of Russian fighter jets into the airspace of the NATO countries. The final candidate must also combine negotiating qualities with a high degree of credibility and respect among the member countries. This is also important in the event of the possible re-election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, which may bring significant problems for the survival of the Alliance.

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