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Diplomacy, communication and management: replacing Jens Stoltenberg

Jens Stoltenberg
Jens Stoltenberg Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
By Cornelia Trefflich
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Many advocate a female successor to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg


Since 1 October 2014, he has been the face of NATO: former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. But for more than two years, the question of his successor has been discussed behind the scenes. He himself had announced his retirement from his post as NATO Secretary General for the end of 2022 because he wanted to move to the head of the Norwegian Central Bank.

But the transatlantic military alliance asked the 64-year-old to stay on, with a focus on stability, especially since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Stoltenberg agreed to extend his mandate for a third time.

Might Stoltenberg renew again?

He has already made it clear that renewing his mandate is out of the question for him. He wants to return to his home country, as he has emphasised on several occasions. Jamie Shea, former Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO and a fellow at the think tank Chatham House, also doubts that he can be convinced to serve another term:

"He's been clear that his time comes to an end on September the 30th and he intends to stand down. He's been extended three times, which is, you know, quite unique for a NATO's secretary general, at least in modern times."

In expert Shea's view, the public could soon learn who will be the face of NATO in the future: "NATO has a summit coming up in just one month now in Vilnius, in Lithuania. And I would imagine that if at all possible, the alliance would like to introduce the new secretary general to the global audience on that occasion."

Diplomatic skills essential

But how is the future Secretary General selected in the first place and what qualifications should he or she bring with him or her?

That the face of the military alliance should have political weight and experience in government seems certain. Diplomatic skills, good communication and management skills are qualities that a potential candidate should have, as expert Shea confirms:

"NATO's a family of 31 democratic countries, and they have their interest. They don't always agree on everything, see eye to eye. So the orchestra doesn't play by itself. You need a good conductor to keep the orchestra playing harmoniously, and therefore you need a good diplomat."

"The second thing is you need a good communicator. You know why NATO today? Why extra defence spending when there are so many other economic priorities that our member states may be facing? You know....why should we continue to assist Ukraine with so much money and material? Communication is important."

"And thirdly, you need a good manager, you need a good administrator. It's a big bureaucracy. It's not quite the size of the United Nations or the European Union, but still there's a big international staff and international military staff. There are lots of agencies. There are lots of NATO offices in different member states. And you need to make sure that that bureaucracy works out, delivers and implements the decisions that the NATO heads of state take at periodic summits."

High-profile candidates

There are many high-profile candidates for succession to the office.

The name of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas comes up repeatedly, as does the name of Zuzana Čaputová, President of Slovakia. Many also see EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as a suitable candidate. So is it time for a female face of NATO?

"I would be the first person to welcome enthusiastically a female face at the top of the alliance to show that NATO is now a modern 21st-century organization. But of course, that depends on the well-qualified woman candidates throwing their hat into the ring, of course", says Shea.

Nor has there yet been a candidate from Eastern Europe, despite the fact that many countries in these regions have long been NATO members:

"(...) certainly sooner or later, I think the Mediterranean will say it's our time. But you can also make the case that there has not yet been a secretary-general from Central and Eastern Europe, even though these countries in Poland think the Czech Republic, Romania have been in NATO, the Baltic states, for many years now."

USA likely to have a powerful voice

However, the USA is likely to have a powerful voice in the personnel decision, for no decision is made against the will of the United States. The recent trip of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to Washington fuelled speculation that the talks with US President Joe Biden also concerned the post of NATO Secretary General. Frederiksen denied this in the Danish media. 

What makes the process even more difficult is that a consensus must be found on a suitable candidate to succeed Stoltenberg - no easy task for the now 31 member states since Finland's accession. But NATO expert Shea is nonetheless certain:

"There are lots and lots of talents out there, lots of potential candidates. So no reason why NATO should not be able to have an orderly transition. And I think that it's in NATO's interest to have that orderly transition."

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