Latvia’s foreign minister on Tuesday staked his claim to the top job at NATO, saying that the military organisation needs a consensus builder who is committed to higher defense spending and has a clear vision of how to deal with Russia.
NATO is likely to name a new secretary general at its next summit in Washington in July. Former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg has been the alliance’s top civilian official since 2014. His term has been extended four times during the war in Ukraine.
“We’re going to have 32 countries. Keeping 32 countries together on any topic, it’s a big challenge, and we need a consensus builder that can work with any and all allies, to move everyone forward in the same direction,” Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins told reporters at NATO headquarters. One of Stoltenberg’s challenges is to help persuade Turkey, along with Hungary, to endorse Sweden’s attempt to become NATO’s 32nd member. NATO officials hope the issue will be resolved by the time US President Joe Biden and counterparts meet in Washington.
Karins was Latvia’s prime minister for almost five years – NATO prefers its secretaries general to have served in top government posts – and oversaw an increase in defense spending. He said his country will spend 2.4 per cent of GDP on defense this year, above the organization’s target of 2 per cent. Russia remains NATO’s historical adversary, and managing the alliance’s approach to Moscow is a major test. “The next secretary has to have a clear vision on the future role of NATO, how it’s going to expand, how it’s going to be working to contain Russia,” Karins said. He said it’s important not to panic while acknowledging “the very real threat that Russia is” and to work together to contain it.
“It is doable,” he said. “We can do it if we are calm but very determined.” With Russia locked in its war on Ukraine, the process of naming a new secretary general has become highly politicized. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have taken an unbending line in support of Ukraine, and this could make it difficult for one of their leaders to get the job.
Most NATO countries have been keen to name a woman to the top post. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is considered a strong candidate. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen was thought to be a favorite after a meeting with Biden in the summer, but she later said she wasn’t running. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has ruled out her candidacy. Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is also a front runner.
NATO secretaries general are chosen by consensus. There is no formal procedure for naming them, and diplomats have said that no official vetting is currently being done. The organisation’s top civilian official is responsible for chairing meetings and guiding sometimes delicate consultations between member countries to ensure that compromises are found so that an alliance that operates on consensus can continue to function.
The secretary general also ensures that decisions are put into action, speaks on behalf of all nations with one voice and rarely if ever singles out any member for public criticism.
Stoltenberg has managed to tread a fine line, refraining from criticizing members led by more go-it-alone presidents and prime ministers like former US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.