Kaja Kallas and Klaus Iohannis EU Wester Balkans summit

It is time for an Eastern European to lead NATO – in four years, it might be too late

You probably have a young colleague who is creative, hardworking, passionate and loyal to the team and who, by all accounts, deserves to reach the C-suite in the organisation where you work. However, you must have often witnessed the obstacles to realising such careers. Organisations that recognise the strength of such leaders in their ranks and then allow them to apply that leadership are invincible in the market. NATO has such people and knows their enormous potential for the organisation but hesitates to entrust them with the leading management function. This year is an excellent opportunity for NATO to skip that step. 

The entire year has been full of powerful symbols demonstrating the Alliance’s vitality: 75 years since its founding, 25 years since the first wave of enlargement following the Cold War, and 20 years since the admission of the majority of Eastern European countries. Sweden’s final admission to the Alliance and Finland’s accession last year goes beyond mere symbolism and represents proof of its vitality.

NATO has an opportunity to conclude this celebratory year by electing a Secretary General who will represent its new function in the changing conditions. It has the possibility to select someone from Eastern Europe for the leading position – a creative, dynamic, enthusiastic, and loyal colleague who has long deserved to be at the top.

This year is the right moment for one of the Eastern European leaders to become NATO Secretary General. The Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Slovenia, have been members of NATO for two decades and Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary for more than a quarter of a century, demonstrating that they are not newcomers. If the length of a country’s membership in the Alliance is an important consideration when choosing a candidate, everyone from the East meets it to a great degree. Focusing on the “first years” of one’s NATO membership while contemplating a candidature for Secretary General is simply discriminatory in the case of Eastern Europeans.

NATO has already dared once in 1995 and assigned the post of Secretary General to Spain, which at that time had been a member for “only” 13 years. It was the first time the leading civilian position in the Alliance went outside the founding club – unfortunately, the only time so far. But NATO was not wrong then. On the contrary. The experience with Javier Solana benefited the Alliance during difficult years when the Alliance had to prove to itself and others the reasons for its existence. He had enough determination, authority, and even passion to pilot through a territory where NATO had never been before. Today, NATO is on the territory it knows, which is why it was founded in 1949 as a block of deterrence and defence against the threat of the then-Soviet Union. But those waters were navigated by the founding fathers, not today’s generation of leaders, even though they face the same threat.

The Strategic concept adopted at the NATO summit in Madrid in 2022 stated that the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace, marking Russia as a “direct threat”.

Its aggression against Ukraine recently entered its third year, and the direct threat to allies has become even more pronounced, with senior civilian and military leaders across NATO warning of the possibility of direct conflict in the coming years.

These new circumstances make the most compelling case for an Eastern European to lead the Alliance. Over the last two years, leaders of global calibre have emerged in that region, whose energy and determination to confront Russian aggression via unwavering support for Ukraine astounded the democratic world.

Their historical experience under Soviet occupation might have been a disadvantage in the early years of NATO membership as they adapted to the new norms. Twenty or twenty-five years later, it is a potential worth gold to the Alliance, which has time to develop into de facto leadership, particularly given Russia’s renewed, direct threat.

The eastern part of NATO issued correct and timely warnings that Russia would attack Ukraine, whereas many in the west of NATO were assured of the opposite. All this time, strong, unwavering support for Ukraine has been coming from the east of NATO, urging the other members not to give in to internal hesitation and instead to stand with Kyiv, as they did on February 24, two years ago.

An Eastern European leading NATO would be the only convincing response to Vladimir Putin’s expectations (which he never abandoned) that the Alliance would eventually falter in its support for Kyiv. That would be the best response to Putin’s fixation with NATO because his greatest enemy would have a leader from a country that Putin regards as natural prey. If the new Secretary General of NATO were to come from the East, would there be a more convincing confirmation of respect for the free will of nations to leave Moscow’s embrace and never return to it? Everyone in Eastern Europe has demonstrated that will for 20 or 25 years, being loyal and willing allies and in the last two years as leaders of the resistance against the threat they understand best.

The outgoing Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, is the most likely candidate for the new NATO Secretary General. His commitment to Euro-Atlantic goals and values is unquestionable, and the support he already has from the most influential NATO members makes him an almost definite choice.

But is 2024 the time when NATO, for the fourth time in its history, should opt for the Dutch as the least conflicting, acceptable solution that preserves peace at home? That is insufficient for the historical context in which NATO finds itself, particularly for its hopes to serve as a defensive barrier against Russia’s “direct threat”, just like during the years when it was established.

The Eastern European leading NATO will not only be its first official, who will only handle tasks in the years preceding full political retirement. He will be an energetic, courageous leader pumping fresh blood into the top of the Alliance and facing the biggest security threat since its establishment.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is the one whose candidacy is still open. Not only would she be the first woman doing a job performed by a male for 75 years, but Kaja Kallas would also be the personification of the shared Baltic historical memory of the danger of the Russian threat and, at the same time, the enormous shared determination to oppose that danger with all their might.

The candidacy of the outgoing president of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is also in play. And it is much more than a call to the Alliance to step off the well-trodden path of political-bureaucratic personnel solutions. It is a request that NATO put at its head people from those places which could be the first to be hit by a Russian attack – the Baltic region, that is, the Black Sea. This year’s election for NATO Secretary General differs from past ones. It takes place when “the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace”, and Russia’s direct threat is at the very door of the Alliance. It is a time that does not allow the election of an “ordinary” NATO Secretary General but requires the arrival of an Eastern European. In four years, it might be too late.