NATO Secretary General welcomes the Prime Minister of Estonia at NATO Headquarters

Autor foto: Domena publiczna

The search for NATO’s new Secretary General – time for a candidate from Central Eastern Europe?

The search for NATO’s new Secretary General – time for a candidate from Central Eastern Europe?

December 13, 2023

Author: Robert Pszczel

The search for NATO’s new Secretary General – time for a candidate from Central Eastern Europe?

NATO Secretary General welcomes the Prime Minister of Estonia at NATO Headquarters

Autor foto: Domena publiczna

The search for NATO’s new Secretary General – time for a candidate from Central Eastern Europe?

Author: Robert Pszczel

Published: December 13, 2023

Sometimes the newsworthy item is all about something that has not happened. This was the case with the recent meeting of Allied foreign ministers (session in Brussels on 28-29 November). People in the know were pretty certain that finally a replacement for the current Secretary General (SG) of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, would be announced. His term had been extended a few times already, making him one of the longest serving heads of the Alliance (9 years in the job). However, this was not the case, a decision was not announced, suggesting last minute doubts about the (almost) anointed candidate. This means that most probably a date for a decision slips until the next ministerial meeting, potentially in spring next year – to ensure that a successor to Stoltenberg is confirmed at the anniversary Washington Summit in summer.

A longer wait for the new SG

Is this apparent delay a bad thing? On one level yes. While the selection process is opaque and informal – most of it is consumed with nations engaging in behind-the-scenes soundings on the chances of their candidate, with the dean of the North Atlantic Council chairing informal meetings to compare notes – the outcome must be decisive and backed by consensus of all member states. At the present time NATO is facing immense challenges. These include the largest military conflict in Europe since the Second World War, as well as a broader confrontation between predatory Russia and the West, declared and practiced by Moscow, forcing Allies into a demanding implementation of the biggest overhaul of collective defence posture. Thus, clarity regarding a safe pair of new hands at the helm would be welcome.

However, negative consequences of delay can be compensated by a much-needed reflection in Allied capitals (and public opinion at large) on both the importance of the position of SG and criteria used in his/her selection. I would like to address various elements here methodically, beginning with a historical overview.

Tough job

Let us start with the basics, i.e. job description. NATO’s own website describes SG as “the Alliance’s top international civil servant” (…) “responsible for steering the process of consultation and decision-making in the Alliance and ensuring that decisions are implemented.”[i]  Sounds demanding already, right? Well, in reality this is not all.

SG also has to manage close to 2000-strong international staff based in NATO’s HQ in Brussels and act de facto as a public face of the Alliance and its chief spokesperson. The latter part is immensely tricky as not every security issue relevant to NATO commands a formal position agreed by thirty-one member states (having worked 11 years in HQ’s press service I can vouch that the challenge of speaking on behalf of NATO can be compared to walking on a high and very thin rope!). As to ensuring implementation of adopted decisions, the story is even more complex – all nations are notoriously jealous of their prerogatives and their interpretation of agreed policies may vary considerably. And contrary to various urban legends SG has a very limited mandate to try to force capitals to do the necessary homework (vide problems with meeting the pledge made in 2014 to spend minimum 2% of GDP on defence).

Expected skills associated with every SG involve diplomacy, supreme political judgment, deep understanding of both civilian and military aspects of security environment, cool demeanour under pressure, crisis management, and frankly even great physical stamina, bearing in mind an immensely packed schedule and agenda.

I have had an honour to meet all the SGs since early 1990s and to work for four of them. I fully share the view of many, both within and outside NATO structures, that the Alliance has benefited from a sequence of extremely competent and effective leaders, each unique in their background and abilities, yet each able to meet the above-described expectations. This speaks well of the selection choices made by Allies. Without engaging in any impolite critique of other international organizations, it would probably be fair to opine that NATO as an institution has often fared better in this respect than its partner institutions.

Big shoes to fill

To risk entering a realm of subjective evaluations, I would like to give some examples of impressive attributes of every SG since 1993.

  • Manfred Woerner (SG between 1988 and 1994) not only led the momentous opening of NATO to countries of the former Warsaw Pact (once the Alliance’s rival has dissolved itself), but presided over decisions that led to the first combat operation in the history of NATO (shooting down of 4 Serb jets near Banja Luka on February 28, 1994).
  • Willy Claes (1994-95) was too short in the job to leave a mark, but there is no reason to doubt that he could have grown to be a successful SG.
  • Javier Solana (1995-1999) displayed commendable diplomatic skills to manage simultaneously NATO’s operations in the Balkans, first post-Cold War enlargement wave and development of cooperative relations with Russia.
  • Lord Robertson’s (1999-2003) political acumen (and extraordinary sense of humour) enormously helped NATO to navigate turbulent waters of engagement in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and boldly activate NATO’s famous Article 5, following September 11 attacks, for the first time since NATO’s inception.
  • Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (2004-2009) imbued organization with his unyielding commitment to values and principles, respect for each member state, attachment to transatlantic unity and European identity – all essential in the conduct of the Afghanistan operation, generating an initial response to Russian adventurism, developing relations with partners across the globe, as well as healing political wounds ensuing from disagreements caused by the Iraq operation.
  • Anders Fogh Rasmussen (2009-2014) will certainly be remembered in NATO for his extreme determination and effectiveness in facing up to multiple challenges (such as terrorism, difficult NATO-led stabilisation and enforcement operations in many theatres, as well as collapse of partnership with Russia following its aggression against Ukraine in 2014).
  • Jens Stoltenberg, current incumbent from 2014, has shown enviable skills, which have been recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been driving a process of unprecedented beefing up of NATO’s collective defence posture, succeeded in political handling of President Trump’s divisive approach to the Alliance, started strategic cooperation with the European Union, displayed a dignified approach in swallowing a bitter pill of a rather inglorious end of the NATO’s Afghanistan mission, and has crucially managed a decisive collective reaction to Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, which started in February 2022.

The record is thus impressive, but this also means that the bar for Stoltenberg’s successor is set high. In the end, a new SG must come into the job with confidence and trust of all 31 (soon 32) members and repay this trust as he/she starts the job. This means that ultimately there can be no compromise on the required skills and leadership qualities from any candidate. This is a bottom line, which – no doubt – capitals will stick to in making a final decision.

Five arguments why the time has come for a candidate from CEE

But the months apparently left before a final selection can be used well to search for an opportunity to pick a worthy/qualified candidate from the region that has not had the honour of filling this crucial position yet: that is Central Eastern Europe (CEE). Here is a list of five arguments in favour of such a move.

First, it is a matter of international fairness and justice. Next year will be a year when the Alliance will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first enlargement of NATO after the Cold War (Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in 1999). The three former Warsaw Pact countries have been followed in subsequent years by numerous states from the region, almost doubling in the process the membership list from 16 to 31 states. And yet not once any national from new member state have held the position of the Secretary General.

Too early? Absolutely not. Let’s not forget that Spaniard Javier Solana became the SG in 1995, only 13 years after Spain joined NATO. The sad truth is that for years the commentariat has brusquely dismissed the idea of a SG from a former Warsaw Pact country with a disingenuous claim that such a person would be too “harsh” in his/her views on Russia…If NATO is to prove beyond doubt that it has fully overcome the Cold War mentality (of which some misguided critics still accuse NATO) then the most convincing way would be to award a top position to a CEE national (and not the other way round, i.e. to rule out such a possibility).

Second, such a move would address a painful problem of underrepresentation. Yes, it is fair to observe that the current Deputy SG comes from Romania, and in the last 20 years various individuals from CEE countries have been selected for high positions of Assistant Secretary Generals. Once, the top military position (Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee) was held by a Czech (General Petr Pavel, who has subsequently been elected the Czech President). But these are rather exceptions to the rule.

NATO’s top and medium institutional positions (the same problem can be seen in the EU) are still occupied predominantly by nationals from “old” members. Interestingly, even though SG Rasmussen has supposedly done away with the “flags to posts” approach (by which the biggest countries in NATO were automatically occupying positions ranging from DSG to ASGs) the system has started reviving itself in the last decade…

Third, CEE countries deserve special consideration because they happen to act with commendable loyalty to the organization (sadly, Hungary may be considered an exception…). Regardless of the fact that they had serious doubts about the wisdom of prolonging the stabilisation mission in Afghanistan most of them served in ISAF with dedication. Their levels of spending on defence put many richer members to shame and their support to Ukraine has been exemplary as well. Meeting of the minimum agreed level of defence expenditure as percentage of GDP could potentially be considered an informal criterion in encouraging or discouraging a given national from applying for high-level positions in NATO. This is what an international group of experts agreed to suggest as a form of “positive discrimination” in the last Warsaw Security Forum report published this autumn.[ii]  Time will show whether this idea can gather some political support.[iii]

Fourth, many politicians (who constitute the only pool of candidates) from CEE states have been proven right on many occasions, when it comes to analysis of the real security challenges and predicting developments that matter for NATO. This of course applies in a large degree to Russia (energy dependence, warnings about the invasion threat to Ukraine etc.), but frequently also to policies related for example to China (vide principled stances taken by Lithuania or Czech Republic). In short, CEE political elites display an understanding of key tasks facing the Alliance that is certainly not inferior to that of their counterparts in other member states. And the stakes for CEE countries could hardly be higher as many of them are the frontier states of the Alliance, bearing the biggest brunt of Russia’s aggressive stance.

Fifth, in my view it is a good sign that some potential candidates from CEE region have stepped boldly forward in expressing publicly their interest in the job.[iv] While the selection procedure is informal and does not take place in the open, it is healthier to state a genuine interest than claim the opposite, before admitting a willingness to be selected (as has been happening with some other figures).


Time will of course show how events will unfold. Top priority is still about choosing the best candidate for the job – it trumps all other considerations. But I remain convinced that all 31 Allied governments have an interest in seriously considering a qualified (condition sine qua non) candidate from a CEE country. The tradition in which the so-called Quad (France, Germany, UK, and US) have de facto been ready to accept only candidates from “old European [Americans have a guaranteed position of SACEUR, but never aspire to the SG job] states” must end.

If necessary, stronger political tactics should be used by CEE members to drive this point. But hopefully this should not be necessary. No better authority on the subject than a former SG, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, told me in an interview for the Polish Diplomatic Review in spring this year[v] that “numerous figures from the region come to mind who could fit very well into that NATO position” and that he sees “no reason, why there should be any opposition to the idea of a candidate from CEE”. Let’s watch this space then…


Robert Pszczel, Resident Fellow Casimir Pulaski Foundation

[i] [i] NATO Secretary General NATO Secretary General,

[ii] Central and Eastern Europe as a New Center of Gravity, p.24,

[iii] It seems that the idea is not completely fanciful, as this story from November 2023 suggests: NATO front-runner Mark Rutte faces flak over low Dutch defense spending,

[iv] See for example Latvia’s Kariņš eyes NATO top job,

[v] Geopolityczne wakacje skończyły się z hukiem 24 lutego  2022 roku, „Polski Przeglad Dyplomatyczny, 04/06.2023, p. 34.