The majority of those privileged to occupy NATO’s most senior civilian post have enjoyed a fairly easy ride over the years. Their stints as NATO Secretary General mostly coincided with maintaining strategic stability and a well-rehearsed military posture throughout the Cold War. Later, they were asked to extend a hand of friendship to the young democracies that sprang up following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet with the 2020s likely to represent one of the most challenging periods in NATO’s 74-year history, the successor to the incumbent Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg faces a serious task in leading an alliance of 31 countries and the collective defense of 1 billion people. The alliance leader holds little executive power, but as NATO’s face and voice, he or she enjoys a critical public role. Especially now, with Russia waging war in Europe and democracies constantly under attack from state-sponsored disinformation campaigns seeking to subvert public consciousness.
Stoltenberg, a Norwegian, has done an admirable job of holding the alliance together through crisis but struggles to reach a wider audience, especially young people. (NATO’s Youth Summit starting on June 5 is one attempt to address this issue.) He did nonetheless display a successful managerial approach well-suited to dealing with some of the challenges of the previous decade, including Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the accession of several new allies.
But the challenges of the next decade will be even greater and NATO needs to be bold when deciding who should succeed Stoltenberg later this year. A highly skilled communicator is required to rally political, diplomatic, and military factions around a shared vision. He or she must also be capable of delivering the raft of institutional reforms necessary to stand firm and united against Russian military aggression and hybrid risks, whilst also adapting to a new strategic threat environment in the Indo-Pacific and putting disruptive technologies at the heart of NATO’s operational capability.
The already difficult job of leading a vast alliance with divergent interests and security priorities is further complicated by a need for complete decision-making unanimity among its members. Of course, in practice, the United States remains NATO’s pre-eminent member and the permanent holder of the most operationally significant role of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR.) In contrast, the largely diplomatic role of Secretary General is typically reserved for a European with the unenviable task of navigating a complex web of bilateral irritants and political horseplay to achieve an increasingly challenging consensus (think Hungary and Turkey, among others.)
There are currently a handful of credible candidates for the role, including Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen who has emerged as an early favorite and is expected to lobby President Biden when she travels to Washington on June 5. As the leader of a country that occupies the middle ground of NATO and the first potential female Secretary General in its history, Frederiksen is a popular choice with many. However, her candidature would also mean a third successive Secretary General from a Nordic country, none of which currently meets NATO’s 2% spending target, or is considered a major player within the alliance. (It is perhaps not coincidental that on May 29, her government announced an additional $2.59bn for Ukraine this year and next.)
Whilst other candidates boast similar leadership credentials to Frederiksen, there appears to be only one who can combine political nous and charisma with recent high-level defense experience and popularity that extends across the entire alliance. As the long-serving defense secretary of a leading NATO country that has implemented a major defense modernization program and committed to exceeding the 2% target, the UK’s Ben Wallace seems well qualified to deliver those key reforms and navigate future challenges.
As Russia gathered its forces in the early days before the invasion of Ukraine, the British Defence Secretary was ahead of virtually all leading political figures in calling out the Kremlin and rallying NATO. He is popular and well respected on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Ukraine and the Baltics for being one of the first defense ministers to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, and supplying more military assistance than any country after the United States.
Wallace also has a strong track record of supporting NATO, including contributing at scale to NATO missions, the alliance’s Enhanced Forward Presence on its eastern flank, and expanding the NATO-friendly, UK-led 10-nation Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF.) He has integrated new strategies and command structures within the UK Ministry of Defence to respond to future threats, ranging from climate change to space, and his experience as a British Army officer also commands the respect of both military and political colleagues. Indeed, he is the only cabinet minister to retain the same job for three consecutive UK Prime Ministers, thanks in part to his popularity among colleagues and international partners.
Whoever ultimately succeeds Stoltenberg as NATO’s next Secretary General must be equally adept in communicating with the outside world as they are convening allies and banging heads together in the North Atlantic Council. Yet most of all, he or she must be comfortable leading a transformative agenda and taking on the many vested interests and “death by committee” structures that have held the alliance back for too long.
It is a huge job. NATO needs to get it right.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.