Who’s next for NATO’s top job?
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has been at NATO’s helm since 2014, will vacate his job in September 2022. Albeit months away from now, several politicians are already touted to be his successors. With tensions running high between the military alliance and Russia, the choice of NATO leadership takes on yet more significance. Here is a quick look at each personality, coupled with some conjecture as to what intended signals NATO would be sending if it chose a given candidate.
If appointed as Stoltenberg’s successor, May, who served as British prime minister from 2016 until 2019, would become the first woman at the helm of NATO – which alone would send an important message to the world.
According to some media reports, Britain is anxious to assert itself more as a European and trans-Atlantic player, so the election of May could help London solidify its position as such.
However, France may not necessarily be eager to see a Briton at NATO’s top job. An American conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, published an article last month, where authors surmised Paris could go so far as to shoot down a British candidacy in retaliation for the AUKUS deal, which saw France edged out of a tens-of-billions-of-dollars worth submarine deal with Australia. And while it was mostly Washington and Canberra that upset Paris’ plans, Britain, too, played a significant role.
Last but not least, May’s less-than-stellar negotiating skills during Brexit, derided by many both at home and abroad, could leave many wondering if she is up to the job.
Rutte is the sitting prime minister of the Netherlands, holding that position of power since 2010. His candidacy may seem logical, as the country he is representing is a founding member of NATO. He has also been fully in line with Western elites regarding sanctions against Russia should it invade Ukraine, as well as the shipment of “defensive weapons” to Kiev.
And yet, having secured a fourth term as Dutch premier in mid-December following tough coalition talks, Rutte may not be exactly tempted to trade his office for that of NATO’s secretary general after half a year.
Kallas, who has been Estonia’s prime minister for a year now, is another woman who has made the list. Kallas is known for her tough stance on Russia, criticizing fellow European allies for their reliance on Russian energy. According to the Estonian premier, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was never an economic project, but rather a geopolitical one.
Estonia also ticks all the right boxes as a country, as it is among the nations who spend 2% or more of their GDP on defense – NATO’s target, which only a few member states have managed to live up to. Besides, Estonia is a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe, in close proximity to Russia, so having someone from the country at NATO’s top could be construed as a sign that the military alliance is serious about its eastward expansion.
Aside from Kallas, Estonia’s former president, Kersti Kaljulaid, has also been touted by the media as Stoltenberg’s possible successor.
Another woman on the list, the Italian politician made a name for herself on the international stage as the EU foreign policy chief, serving in that capacity until 2019. For Italy to take over NATO leadership would seem logical.
After all, the country has only once had its man at NATO’s helm. However, Mogherini’s conciliatory stance on China, as suggested by a number of outlets earlier last year, could make her candidacy unlikely.
Iohannis, Romania’s incumbent president, has a few aces up his sleeve too. Firstly, his country is among NATO’s top performers in terms of military spending, plus Romania is in Eastern Europe as well.
However, it is not clear how Russia would react if someone from Romania was to be elected NATO’s secretary general. After all, Moscow reached out to the military alliance last month, calling for the withdrawal of NATO foreign troops and hardware from precisely that country.