Politicians: Exact person to be next NATO secretary general not main issue

Some of Estonia’s leading politicians involved in foreign policy matters have differing opinions on the suitability of Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, as potential new NATO secretary general, replacing another Scandinavian, Jens Stoltenberg.

Frederiksen has been tipped by the international media as the most likely candidate to replace Stoltenberg – whose term was extended by a year due to the extraordinary situation following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

On thing Estonian politicians polled on the matter and appearing on ETV morning show “Terevisioon” – Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Marko Mihkelson (Reform), former Foreign Minister and current MEP Sven Mikser (SDE) and MP and security expert Kalev Stoicescu (Eesti 200) – did agree on one thing at least, that the person-hood of the next NATO secretary general was not of vital importance to Estonia.

Mihkelson said he was in fact critical of Fredriksen, who became Denmark’s head of government in 2019, at least as a choice.

One of the most important criteria, in Mihkelson’s view, is that the next secretary general comes from a nation which is a member of the “two percent club”, meaning a country, like Estonia, which contributes 2 percent or more of its GDP per annum to the alliance, indirectly, by spending that 2 percent on domestic defense – in fact the minimum required if going by the book.

The Reform MP said: “This is not a message you want to hear,” referring to Fredriksen as candidate.

Mihkelson is not reported as having directly stated that Denmark’s defense spend per annum is below 2 percent.

At the same time, the chairman of the National Defense Committee of the Riigikogu Kalev Stoicescu (Estonia 200) said that he would have nothing against Fredriksen.

Kalev Stoicescu, who also chairs the Riigikogu’s national defense committee, says he would have nothing in principle against Fredriksen getting the job. “I believe we would like NATO to get its first ever woman secretary general. The Danish prime minister is certainly competent enough to hold this position, and she has my backing on it.”

Mihkelson, whose party’s leader, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, is one of those who has been linked with the job also, at least in the media, said that gender ought not to be a deciding factor.

“What is more important than the gender of the next secretary general is that they should come from a country that contributes within the realms of Article 3 of the NATO Treaty, which refers to the obligation of countries to develop their armed forces,” he said.

Sven Mikser, a member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, also said that it speaks in Frederiksen’s favor that there have been no women in the post of NATO Secretary General up to now.

The flip side is that not only is Stoltenberg from neighboring Norway, but his predecessor was from Denmark – Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

This meant that, Mikser said, “geographical balance is also important, and if there are two Danes featuring among three secretary generals in succession, then perhaps this would not represent the best such balance. But that is just my speculation. If the candidate is good, this may not count for that much either.”

Estonia will not try to block any candidate

In any event, all three politicians noted that, whoever the candidate, Estonia as a NATO member state would not try to obstruct their appointment.

There is already enough on the table with Sweden’s stalled membership application, due to Turkish and Hungarian intransigence, and Ukraine’s desire to have a clear road map to accession outlined at next month’s Vilnius summit – a desire which may not be fully met.

Mihkelson said: “It is more important for us the message Ukraine will be getting from the Vilnius summit. The NATO Secretary General is the primary meeting chair and the representative of the alliance, and their work in turn hinges on the decisions adopted on the basis of the consensus of the member states.”

Mikser said that, in his opinion, Estonia should not be the kind of country that starts to block any consensus. “I have not heard any names in the course of discussions that we would definitely want to exclude. I also think that as things stand, the understanding regarding NATO’s most important priorities is pretty unanimous – we understand what the existential threat towards us is, and we understand what needs to be done collectively, in order to repel these threats. /—/ Evidently, Russian aggression in Ukraine has made this threat scenario significantly more unified and clear.”

Stoicescu stressed also that Estonia is not in the habit of breaking consensuses, and this would not be the case with the next secretary general either, unless someone viewed in Tallinn as highly unsuitable should be nominated for the post. 

“That would also be an extremely unlikely development,” Stoicescu added.

“I can’t imagine that our strong allies – the U.S. and the U.K. – would support such a candidate [that would prove unacceptable to Estonia],” he went on.

Stoicescu also emphasized that while earlier on, ie. before the current invasion, NATO’s eastern flank member states, including Estonia, were often considered too hawkish on Russia, there has been convergence somewhat with other member states once the reality of what has been happening in Ukraine has started to hit home.

This is particularly poignant for the continental European states, given their proximity to Russia.

“Currently in fact, practically all European countries are ‘hawks’,” Stoicescu said, giving the hardening of hearts both in Germany, earlier criticized for being too cautious on military aid to Russia and on decoupling from Russian energy sources, and in Finland – now a member state whereas that would have been virtually unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

While Secretary General Stoltenberg will preside over the Vilnius summit, July 11-12, this will be his last hurrah, and his replacement may even be confirmed in the Lithuanian capital.

Other names thrown in the ring in addition to Frederiksen and Kallas include Britain’s high-profile defense secretary, Ben Wallace, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte.

NATO member states’ defense spend often follows a complementarian rationale, meaning that even the largest member state, the U.S., has downgraded production of, for instance, mine-hunters, leaving that gap to be plugged by other member states, such as Belgium – or in the case of icebreakers, Canada.

One of the clearest ways in which Estonia has benefitted from this approach is in the Baltic Air Policing Mission. Lacking fast jets, the air forces of several other countries which have them, including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic and, at present, the U.K., fulfill the role at Ämari and at the equivalent base in Lithuania, at Šiauliai.

The next NATO secretary general will be the 14th, from the position beginning work in 1952. All of the 13 to date, starting with Hastings Ismay and through to Stoltenberg, have hailed from Western European states.

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