NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III  during a bilateral exchange at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 8, 2023.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during a bilateral exchange at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 8, 2023. DoD / U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders

Who Should Be NATO’s Next Secretary General?

With profound challenges on the horizon, NATO needs a highly skilled leader to be its voice. Only candidates with international credibility and a track record of delivering for Ukraine need apply.

Most of the leaders privileged to occupy NATO’s most senior civilian post have enjoyed a fairly easy ride over the years. Their stints as NATO Secretary General mostly coincided with maintaining strategic stability and a well-rehearsed military posture throughout the Cold War. Later, they were asked to extend a hand of friendship to the young democracies that sprang up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Yet with the 2020s likely to represent one of the most challenging periods in NATO’s 74-year history, the successor to the incumbent Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg faces a serious task in leading an alliance of 31 countries and the collective defense of 1 billion people. The alliance leader holds very little executive power, but as NATO’s face and voice he or she enjoys a critical public role. Especially now, with Russia waging war in Europe and democracies constantly under attack from state-sponsored disinformation campaigns seeking to subvert public consciousness.

Stoltenberg, a Norwegian, has done an admirable job of holding the alliance together through crisis. But he has lacked the ability to reach the general public, especially young people. (NATO’s Youth Summit starting on June 5 is one attempt to address this issue.) Stoltenberg’s managerial approach was well-suited to dealing with some of the challenges of the previous decade, including Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the accession of several new allies. 

But the challenges of the next decade will be even greater and NATO needs to be bold when deciding who to succeed Stoltenberg later this year. A highly skilled communicator is required to rally political, diplomatic and military factions around a shared vision. He or she must also be capable of delivering the raft of institutional reforms necessary to stand firm and united against Russian military aggression and hybrid threats, whilst also adapting to a new strategic threat environment in the Indo-Pacific and putting disruptive technologies at the heart of NATO’s operational capability.

The already-difficult job of leading a vast alliance with divergent interests and security priorities is further complicated by a need for complete decision-making unanimity among its members. Of course, in practice the United States remains NATO’s pre-eminent member and the permanent holder of the more operationally significant role of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). In contrast, the largely diplomatic role of Secretary General is typically reserved for a European with the unenviable task of navigating a complex web of bilateral irritants and political horseplay to achieve an increasingly challenging consensus (think Hungary and Turkey, among others). 

There are currently a handful of credible candidates for the role. They include Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who has emerged as an early favorite and is thought to have lobbiedy President Biden during her June 5 White House visit. As the leader of a country that occupies the middle ground of NATO, and the first potential female Secretary General, Frederiksen is a popular choice with many. However, her candidature would also mean a third successive Secretary General from a Nordic country, none of which currently meet NATO’s 2 percent spending target, or are considered major players within the alliance. (It is perhaps not coincidental that on May 29, her government suddenly announced an additional $2.59 billion in aid for Ukraine this year and next.) 

While other candidates boast similar leadership credentials as Frederiksen, there appears to be only one who can combine political nous and charisma with recent high-level defense experience and popularity that extends across the entire alliance. The UK’s Ben Wallace, the long-serving defense secretary of a leading NATO country that has implemented a major defense modernization program and committed to exceeding the 2 percent target, seems well qualified to deliver those key reforms and navigate future challenges. 

As Russia gathered its forces in the days before the invasion of Ukraine, the British Defence Secretary was ahead of virtually all leading political figures in calling out the Kremlin and rallying NATO. He is popular and well-respected on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Ukraine and the Baltics for being one of the first defense ministers to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, and supplying more military assistance than any country after the United States.

Wallace also has a strong track record of supporting NATO, including contributing at scale to NATO missions and NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence on its eastern flank. He has integrated new strategies and command structures within the UK Ministry of Defence to respond to future threats, ranging from climate change to space, and his experience as a British Army officer also commands the respect of both military and political colleagues. Indeed, he is the only cabinet minister to retain the same job for three consecutive UK Prime Ministers, thanks in part to his popularity among colleagues and international partners.  

Whoever ultimately succeeds Stoltenberg as NATO’s next Secretary General must be equally adept in communicating to the outside world as they are convening allies and banging heads together in the North Atlantic Council. Yet most of all, he or she must be comfortable leading a transformative agenda and taking on the many vested interests and “death by committee” structures that have held the alliance back for too long. 

It is a huge job. NATO needs to get it right.

Joel Hickman is a Non-resident Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He has previously worked as a British diplomat covering a range of national security issues, including counter terrorism, hostile states, and military operations. Between 2014-15, he was posted to NATO where he led multilateral negotiations on key transatlantic defense priorities ranging from technology and capacity building to security assistance for Ukraine.