Behind the Scenes: NATO’s next move

Behind the Scenes: NATO’s next move
Credit: NATO


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

NATO welcomed Finland into the fold this week with great pomp and ceremony but what lies ahead for the transatlantic military alliance? 

It was a long time coming and at one point looked like it might never happen but NATO has now welcomed its 31st member after formally accepting Finland’s request to join. 

In the process, it means that the length of the border between Russia and NATO members has doubled, thanks to the inclusion of Finland’s vast eastern frontier, and the number of well-trained active army personnel has increased by around 30,000 soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of reserve troops can also be added to the stats.

It is a well-earned poke in the eye for Russian President Vladimir Putin but NATO is not done yet and plenty of challenges lie ahead. Chief among which will be picking a new boss to oversee the next stage of managing the conflict.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Finland’s NATO accession is another one of those things that the 2019-version of your Behind the Scenes columnist would never have believed, even if the current iteration of yours truly was able to travel back in time to reveal it in person.

A long-time neutral, the Nordic nation’s support for alliance membership swelled to record highs after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, prompting the government to act. It all makes perfect sense really but the pace of change still beggars belief.

Helsinki’s bid was quickly ratified by most NATO members, even the United States did not bat an eyelid in granting its approval, despite the vast potential for it to be turned into a domestic political issue.

But, enter Hungary and Türkiye, which have both refused to approve Sweden’s request for a variety of increasingly shady reasons. Finland and Sweden agreed that they should decouple their bids so that at least one of them gets membership now.

It pays to have friends on the inside, ask anyone who has tried to get into a popular nightclub. It is even easier when one of your mates is good friends with the bouncer.

Whether Sweden’s case can be made easier by Finland remains to be seen, as the issue is largely a bilateral one between Stockholm and the two belligerent Turkic capitals. Maybe Finnish diplomats can continue to put their infamous ‘sauna diplomacy’ to good use.

The objective of getting the NATO number up to 32 ahead of the big annual summit in Lithuania in July looks like a tall order but with Türkiye voting for a new president in May and polls currently showing incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan behind, maybe there is potential there.

Hungary, as ever, is likely to prove to be nothing more than a temporary irritant when there is no bigger power to hide behind.

Job interview

NATO will soon need to appoint a new boss, as secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s already-extended term will end in September. ‘Silly season’ for top job appointments has already started so Behind the Scenes will enthusiastically join in.

The alliance is a boy’s club, as there has never been a female sec-gen. It is also a Western European club, as the most eastern country to have provided a sec-gen is Italy or Norway, depending on how you measure the map.

Romania’s Mircea Geoană was the first to put a crack in the geographical divide in 2019 when he was appointed deputy to Stoltenberg, so could NATO members rally around a boss from a country closer to the Russian frontier?

France and Germany, just like in the EU, will play a big role in deciding who gets the job but unlike the European institutions, they are unlikely to lobby too hard for one of their own to get the position.

That is because Germany’s stance on Russia-Ukraine has proved to be rather controversial with pretty much everybody and because Berlin also wields a lot of power through Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who is reportedly going to seek a second term.

France too has been heavily involved in the diplomatic side of the conflict and it appears likely that having the NATO sec-gen linked to Paris would muddy the waters of any eventual peace process, which Emmanuel Macron would naturally want to be at the forefront of.

Plenty of names are doing the rounds: Estonia’s Kaja Kallas, recently reelected as prime minister, would tick the gender and geographical boxes but she is possibly the most hawkish on Russia of any European leader. Possibly too hawkish for NATO’s combined tastes.

Finland’s Sanna Marin is out of a job after last weekend’s election, so might the alliance be tempted to give its newest member the ultimate welcoming present? Probably not, for the same reasons as Kallas.

She is also probably too young according to those who will make the decision. Former PM and current ironman Alexander Stubb is always mentioned when top jobs are discussed, so this time might be no different. He certainly has the profile for it but is he interested?

Poland has been one of the most active on defence and pro-Ukraine policies, plus its new budget allocated 4% of GDP to defence spending. A disruptive pupil in the EU, the country is an A+ student in NATO.

Former PM and current MEP Beata Szydło could well emerge as a potential candidate, given that she has held high office and enjoys good standing among Poland’s ruling circle.

Italy also has a strong case and does not have too many irons in the diplomatic fire that would clash with the NATO job. However, the new government’s somewhat hazy stance on Russia complicates matters.

Mario Draghi’s name is always mentioned whenever any top position is available but he was a banker and then a technocratic prime minister, does he know enough about defence to be any good at the job?

Federica Mogherini, meanwhile, was the EU’s chief diplomat under Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission. She has a profile that could mean she is a serious contender for the position. Brussels would be absolutely delighted if this transpired.

Other names that may or may not have any merit include Croatia’s former president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who already worked for NATO before she became head of state. However, she also exchanged football shirts with Vladimir Putin at the 2018 World Cup final.

Your columnist refuses to believe the rumours that European Council President Charles Michel will cut short his term in order to seek the NATO position. He simply lacks the credibility needed to do the job.

Any chance of a Brit contender was ruined by Brexit, while the US and Canada will not enter the frame as a non-European pick is somewhat unthinkable at this point in time. Türkiye’s antics make it a non-starter as well. 

So if Behind the Scenes had to put a cheeky €5 on a name, the money would go on Mark Rutte. The Dutch PM has been in the job for 13 years, which will be 15 by the time the next election rolls around in 2025, so surely it is time for a fresh challenge.

He would also provide the continuity (male, Western European) desired by current NATO leaders and as a plus, the Netherlands spends about 1.4% of GDP on defence. That is shy of the aspirational 2% goal but enough not to be branded a hypocrite by other countries.

Or it’ll be Angela Merkel.

Whoever lands the gig will be thrown in at the deep-end and will have to figure out how to manage one of the most complex issues out there: how to manage Ukraine's ambitions to become the next NATO member. No easy task.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Copyright © 2024 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.