February 2023: Nearly twelve months after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, and while Kyiv’s allies continue, for some, quibble over the type of heavy weaponry that can or cannot be delivered to Ukraine, the main structures of the security architecture in Europe – NATO and the EU – continue their profound transformation. Given the immediate challenges that NATO faces (NATO’s resurrection; the future integration of former neutral countries; the risk of a new Trumpist administration, including a Trumpian epigone …), the choice of the next NATO Secretary General is all the more relevant to analyse. Quite traditionally – and unlike the European Union – NATO’s internal structures were not seen as a powerful bureaucracy seeking to increase its autonomy. In this respect, scholars rather analyzed decisions relating to the Alliance based on theoretical approaches highlighting the role of the States and their internal actors. However, the latest published work from John Deni, Heidi Hardt, and Leonard August Schuett, focusing mainly on the 2017-2021 period (i.e., Trump’s four years tenure), underlines the leading role played by the Alliance’s Secretary General, as well as several Alliance officials, in the maintenance and development of NATO in recent years. While NATO has confirmed the departure next autumn of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who has been in office since 2014, who will take over as the head of the organisation?
In recent months, several articles in the American, Canadian, British, Italian, Belgian, and French press have addressed this issue of the succession of the current NATO Secretary General. As a reminder, there has been a strong desire for several months for the person who will succeed him to be the first woman appointed to this position. However, this article is not concerned with relaying the rumors circulating within state and international institutions concerning the future NATO Secretary General. Conversely, considering three initial criteria, it aims to list methodically the candidates that can be selected for this position. First, I take it for granted that the person chosen will be a woman rather than a man. Second, it is inevitable that she would have held high positions over the past decade (either as Head of State or Government or as Minister of Foreign Affairs or Defence) in one of the Alliance member states. The third criterion is the nationality of potential candidates. Indeed, several nationalities can be excluded among the 30 member states composing NATO because of certain existing constraints and informal rules.
In the light of these three criteria, out of the thirty or so potential personalities remaining, there are only three candidates who have a high probability of becoming NATO Secretary General: the current Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, the former Dutch Minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and the former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini.
A Female European Secretary-General
Questioning the identity of the future Secretary General of NATO ultimately boils down to asking the question of her nationality among the thirty Allied states. Assuming that this person will be the first woman ever appointed and taking into account the need for this person to have held certain responsibilities – Head of State, Head of Government, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defence – this immediately prevents the nomination of a future Secretary General from Grece, Luxembourg or Turkey. Indeed, these countries have not had any women appointed/elected to these positions in the last decade.
It is possible to cross out nine other nationalities, despite what some press reports may state: Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, American, Canadian, British, Albanian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian. As far as Denmark and Norway are concerned, the current Secretary General is Norwegian and his direct predecessor was the former Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen; this eliminated them from the outset. Regarding Iceland, a member of the Alliance with a special status (a state without an army) in the context of a “new Cold War,” it is more than unlikely that an Icelandic candidate would be selected, even though many Icelandic female politicians have held high positions.
What about American and Canadian candidates? The American and Canadian political classes do not lack female politicians who are a priori suitable for this position. Regarding the US, any candidacy can be directly rejected because of the tacit division – in effect since 1952 – between the two highest positions within NATO. Per this tradition, the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) should automatically be an American General; in return, the position of NATO Secretary General should go to a European. Since it is not provided for in the 1949 Treaty or subsequent official documents approved by the North Atlantic Council, there isn’t any legal obstacle that could prevent anyone from questioning this division.
Nevertheless, unless a European military officer happens to be appointed as SACEUR, it is chimeric to believe that there will ever be an American NATO Secretary General. This distribution also explains why it is equally illusory to believe that the current Canadian Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, would have a chance to become head of the Alliance. It is implausible that the current American SACEUR Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli would give up his seat to a European within the next three years. Therefore, the “Freeland” option, or even any other Canadian candidacy, can be eliminated, contrary to what many articles on this subject may suggest (regardless of Chrystia Freeland’s qualities or personal journey).
The British option is equally implausible for two main reasons. First, the possibility of Minister Ben Wallace or former Prime Minister Boris Johnson can be dismissed given their gender, on top of Boris Johnson’s past mistakes when he was at 10 Downing Street. However, the option of former Prime Minister Theresa May could have been considered. Nonetheless, it is equally unlikely; the first significant reason relates to the position of DSACEUR (Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe). With one exception (between 2001 and 2004), at least one British general officer has always held this position. However, the DSACEUR and Secretary General functions have always been held by persons who do not have the same nationality. This informal rule has known only two exceptions: during the tenure of Lord Ismay, the first NATO Secretary General, and when the Alliance had two DSACEUR (from 1978 to 2001). It was precisely during the mandate of the last British Secretary General, George Robertson (1999 to 2003), that the DSACEUR position was held solely by a German for the first time (2001 and 2004). Therefore, appointing a British woman as Secretary General would probably require abandoning the DSACEUR position. Given the fears expressed in recent years by the British press about the loss of this military post to the French, this makes it even less likely that a Briton would succeed Stoltenberg.
The second major reason for ruling out the British hypothesis is twofold. On the one hand, there is Brexit – i.e., the fact that the United Kingdom left the European Union. On the other hand, neither of the last two NATO Secretaries General came from a country that is part of the EU’s Common Defence and Security Policy (CSDP) (Denmark opted out only last June). Since 2009, when Anders Rasmussen took office as Secretary General, the EU has significantly developed its defence policies. Admittedly, the EU is far from being a major geopolitical player despite the speeches its representatives may give. However, given the strengthening of the EU on defence issues and the desire from many EU members to develop an EU pillar within NATO, it is more than likely that the next Secretary General will come from an EU Member State. Admittedly, as Stoltenberg acrimoniously pointed out in 2021 in response to calls for European strategic autonomy, states that are both EU and NATO members account for only about 20% of defence funds as a whole (this proportion is, however, about to increase with the forthcoming accessions of Sweden and Finland). However, while EU member states account for only 20% of defence budgets, the US alone accounts for 70% of defence spending. These numbers mean that countries such as the UK, Canada, Turkey, Norway, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Iceland invest half as much in defence as EU countries. Under these conditions, despite British activism in favour of Kyiv, it would be quite surprising if the other European member countries of the EU accepted the appointment of a Briton. This same reason also explains why the appointment of an Albanian, Montenegrin or Macedonian Secretary General would be just as unlikely, despite the many experienced politicians from these countries who could claim the position, including Radmila Šekerinska, Milica Pejanović-Đurišić, Mimi Kodheli, and Olta Xhaçka.
A Unifying Secretary General From the EU
Five of the remaining 16 nationalities can be considered unlikely, given the risky political signal it could send: Polish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Slovenian and Croatian. Several press reports in recent months have mentioned the name of former Croatian President and former NATO Assistant Secretary General Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. Three other Croatian politicians are equally excellent candidates: Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and former Foreign Ministers Vesna Pusić and Marija Pejčinović Burić. The present Estonian and Lithuanian Prime Ministers, Kaja Kallas and Ingrida Šimonytė, former Estonian and Lithuanian Presidents Kersti Kaljulaid and Dalia Grybauskaitė, and former Lithuanian Defence Minister Rasa Juknevičienė could also claim the post. However, choosing a Baltic politician would be a strong gesture towards Moscow. It would undoubtedly alarm many Alliance politicians (some current government members) who vainly hope for a quick return to peaceful relations with Russia. Choosing a Croat or a Slovenian could also be perceived as risky regarding the current tensions in the Balkans with Serbia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the event of an escalation of tensions requiring, for example, NATO intervention, the Slovenian or Croatian origin of a NATO Secretary General could become a handicap and negatively affect NATO’s image in the region, regardless of the correctness and relevance of the actions taken by the Alliance. It is, therefore, unlikely that one of these women would be appointed to take over from Stoltenberg.
In the end, the future NATO Secretary General could come from one of the following countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, or the Czech Republic. Within these countries, no less than thirty women have held senior positions over the past decade. Nevertheless, among these candidates, several can be quickly rejected. Some were in office for only a few months (such as the former Czech – Karla Šlechtová – and German – Christine Lambrecht – Defence Ministers) or have only been in office for 18 months or less (e.g. the German, French and Belgian Foreign Ministers or the Portuguese Minister of Defence). Others have faced scandals that have sometimes ended their political careers (for example, the former Spanish Defence Minister María Dolores de Cospedal and the former Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă).
Less than three German women could have been candidates given their careers: the current European Commission President and former Defence Minister (2013 to 2019), Ursula von der Leyen; her successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (in office from 2019 to 2021); and former Chancellor Angela Merkel. Given the criticism, in recent months, of the Bundeswehr’s current state, however, it would be somewhat surprising if the Allies’ choice was one of these three politicians, who are considered to be partly responsible for the deplorable state of the German army. In the case of Ursula von der Leyen, her term as European Commission President ends in the spring of 2024, a few months after the end of Stoltenberg’s NATO term. It is unlikely that EU member states would want to create some kind of vacancy, even temporary, for this post. Former Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s unkind remarks about European strategic autonomy also make it difficult to imagine that states would validate her candidacy when they wish to strengthen the EU’s weight in defence issues. Finally, choosing Angela Merkel would undoubtedly have been approved by many before February 2022. However, it seems more difficult now, given her strategic errors vis-à-vis Russia and her lack of repentance since the Russian invasion regarding her political choices during her mandates.
In this perspective, the choice of the future Secretary General of NATO will come down to a priori eight profiles: Zuzana Čaputová, Federica Mogherini, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Sophie Wilmès, Elisabetta Trenta, Roberta Pinotti, Margarita Robles, and Florence Parly. Three candidates stand out: the current Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, Federica Mogherini, and finally, the former Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.
President since June 2019, Zuzana Čaputová, has been mentioned several times in the press as an option seriously considered. Appointing her would also mean having a person from Central Europe at the head of NATO for the first time without sending a message of too much firmness to Moscow (unlike appointing someone from the Baltic countries).
Although she stepped down as High Representative in 2019, it was under Federica Mogherini’s tenure that many CSDP developments took place, alongside the development of EU-NATO relations. As General Javier Solana, the first EU High Representative, was a former NATO Secretary, the appointment of a former High Representative as NATO Secretary General (in a context where some want to strengthen NATO’s EU pillar) would be far from damaging for the EU and its desire to gain autonomy/sovereignty.
Coming from a country known for its strong Atlanticism, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert has been Minister of Defence for nearly five years. In addition, she has been head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) since 2018, making her a candidate of interest.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès could also be an option. However, given her voluntary withdrawal and subsequent resignation from the Belgian government for family reasons in 2022, this is unlikely to be the case. Former Italian Defence Ministers Elisabetta Trenta and Roberta Pinotti are also credible candidates. However, Federica Mogherini’s profile being more experienced, it would be surprising if one of them were chosen over her in the event of a Secretary General of Italian origin. The Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles faces an obstacle: her compatriot Josep Borrell is the current EU High Representative. It would be surprising if the two positions, High Representative and Secretary General, were occupied by individuals of the same nationality. Finally, regarding Florence Parly, former French Minister of the Armed Forces, although some have put forward her name following the AUKUS “affront” and the termination by the Australians of the contract with Naval Group, her nationality makes such an appointment not credible. In addition to the old mistrust from many Alliance partners toward Paris because of its vision of NATO, Emmanuel Macron’s statements on the need not to “humiliate Russia” or about giving “security guarantees” to Russia make the prospect of such an appointment unlikely. Moreover, Turkey would certainly not favour such an appointment, given the tense relations between Paris and Ankara.
The likely appointment of Zuzana Čaputová, Federica Mogherini or Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert will confirm the willingness of both EU and NATO members to have their weight recognised within the Alliance. However, whether this will necessarily mean strengthening the EU’s military skills and capabilities in cooperation with the Alliance is unclear. Nevertheless, choosing Federica Mogherini will certainly generate such expectations, given her former position in the EU. Such a development of relations between the two organizations is not impossible even if Zuzana Čaputová or Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert becomes Secretary General.
Appointing Zuzana Čaputová would be a strong symbol of consideration for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as no NATO Secretary General has so far come from this region out of the 13 people who have held this position to date. If she is not chosen, it is certain that, out of a desire to balance and compensate, people from those countries should receive in priority the probably-soon-to-come military commands in the context of NATO’s structural reorganization in Northern and Eastern Europe. This restructuring could also affect the next personalities elected/appointed within the EU in the upcoming 2024 European elections.
Although Zuzana Čaputová, Federica Mogherini and Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert are the politicians most likely to be chosen, Stoltenberg’s successor may ultimately come from a Baltic state or Croatia. However, this would show a willingness from all the allies to send a strong signal vis-à-vis the Russian or Serbian governments. A different choice (Canadian or British, for example) would necessarily imply a significant change in some structures and attributions within NATO, which would deserve more attention than the very name of the future Secretary General. Jens Stoltenberg could also be extended by a few more months – for the third time, after 2019 and 2022 – depending on the state of discussions and the situation in Central and Eastern Europe in the coming months. Finally, the Allies may also refrain from appointing a woman to the position. Such a development would multiply the number of potential candidates. Still, it would also entail a certain political cost, given the regular announcements in recent months regarding the appointment of a woman.