Experts: NATO secretary general appointment process quite opaque

Estonian MEP Sven Mikser (left), when he was Estonia's foreign minister, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (photo taken 2018).
Estonian MEP Sven Mikser (left), when he was Estonia's foreign minister, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (photo taken 2018). Source:

While several leading political figures have been linked to the job of NATO secretary general once Jens Stoltenberg's extended term finishes, the process of naming his successor is in any case relatively opaque, some Estonian defense experts say.

The roster of names includes Estonia's own prime minister, Kaja Kallas, who had the question sprung on her while in Washington earlier this week.

Indrek Kannik, head of the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) and Kalev Stoicescu (Eesti 200), who heads up the Riigikogu's National Defense Committee, both say they believe agreement on the next secretary general will come no later than July next year, ahead of the NATO summit in Washington, which marks the alliance's 75th anniversary.

Indrek Kannik said that: "I believe that to be the case since, if memory serves, Stoltenberg's term ends somewhere in September or October next year."

"So I think that there is a definite plan to reach an agreement this time by the time of the Washington summit," he went on.

Jens Stoltenberg has had his original term extended several times since entering office in 2014, ostensibly due to the changed security situation as exemplified by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Indrek Kannik appearing on "Ringvaade." Source: ERR

Kalev Stoicescu concurred, saying: "I think the Americans are for sure interested in having this issue resolved by that time."

"This is the way it was put last time, when Stoltenberg's term was extended, that it would be done with the knowledge that by the time of next year's summit, a new suitable candidate had been found to take over about his place," Stoicescu went on.

Kannik said that there was no set procedure in finding a new NATO chief, adding that the idea is to find a consensus behind one particular candidate, with holdouts eventually coming on board (one element of continuity in the alliance's history has been that secretaries general have not come from its largest member state, the U.S. – ed.).

"There is no public election procedure and no candidates are presented, it has always been that way," he went on.

Stoicescu said that a candidate is found via a "sideline politics" process, with the candidate only subsequently approved at the high table.

Kalev Stoicescu Autor/allikas: Priit Mürk/ERR

Kaja Kallas' name had been linked to the role in the recent past, but this seemed to have receded into the background after controversy over her spouse's alleged links to companies doing business in and with Russia.

However, this week, Kallas, who was on an official trip to Washington, answered in the affirmative when asked if she would want the NATO top job – Kallas was taking part in the POLITICO Defense Summit.

On Thursday, she told ERR journalist Madis Hindre that of equal importance would be Estonians being considered for other top international roles, and not just the NATO position.

"I think it is a big deal for Estonia if we are considered as equal candidates for different positions. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case," Kallas enumerated three separate cases where she had attempted to persuade leaders of other countries to support candidates from Estonia, to no avail as "some Central European or Western European country got in."

'"We are not worse people, on the contrary, we have very good, smart people, and in the same way they could also be represented in these places," she added.

One voice to have expressed support for Kallas' candidacy is Permanent Secretary Jonatan Vseviov, who said that she would be ideal as the next NATO secretary general, meeting as she does several key criteria, from an Estonian perspective.

"It is in Estonia's interest that the next NATO Secretary General comes from an allied country which consistently and strongly supports Ukraine, which has a firm understanding of Russia as the most direct and greatest threat to the alliance, and which spends at least two percent of GDP on defense," Vseviov argued in a written statement to ERR.

Kaja Kallas at the NATO Vilnius summit on July 11, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randmaa / valitsuse pressiteenistus

"From the point of view of political visibility, it is important to Estonia that the new alliance general secretary be a current or former head of government," Vseviov added – an observation echoed by Indrek Kannik, who noted that both Stoltenberg and his immediate predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen are former prime ministers of their countries, Norway and Denmark respectively.

Furthermore, Vseviov wrote in his statement, all secretaries general since 1991, when Estonia gained independence, have come from nations which were NATO members prior to that date – a situation which is overdue for change, he added (Estonia joined NATO in 2004 – ed.).

Ceteris Paribus, a woman candidate would also be preferable over a male one, he went on, also stressing the need for continuity on Ukraine, and expressing satisfaction over Stoltenberg's performance in this arena.

Kalev Stoicescu also noted that, to his knowledge, Kallas has not been formally proposed by Estonia as a candidate – which does not rule her out or in – while Indrek Kannik highlighted that in the POLITICO interview, Kallas was honestly answering a question put to her and had not raised the matter herself.

In fact, Kallas seems to have followed a principle of being aware that larger countries often appreciate humility and understated-ness from smaller ones, and has not unduly pushed herself forward for the role; the reverse in fact.

MEP Sven Mikser (SDE), a former defense minister, also said this week that as there no official procedure for electing NATO's leader, it is impossible to predict who that might be at this point in time.

Finding a consensus was a big part of the battle, he added.

"Obviously, there will be a certain amount of animosity between countries from time to time, and there are bound to be some candidates who, for one reason or another, are more difficult for some Member States to accept," the MEP said.

Other high profile women to have been linked to the job are President of Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová, former Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, and current Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen.

Indrek Kannik also referenced Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, though noted that this has to be tempered by the Netherlands rather modest defense spend (just under 1.6 percent of GDP even as the NATO membership requirement is a defense spend of 2 percent of GDP per annum – ed.).

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur has also spoken favorably of the prospect of Rutte getting the NATO top job.

Hanno Pevkur in Brussels on November 14, 2023. Source: Ministry of Defense

"Mark is aware of our situation, and we have always had a very good relationship with the Dutch, and Mark in particular. If this should be the ultimate choice, it is rather a positive one, for Estonia," Pevkur told Eesti Ekspress.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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