1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

NATO: Eastern European allies still hopeful for top job

Teri Schultz in Brussels
February 24, 2024

Does Estonia's Kaja Kallas have a shot at becoming NATO chief? Favorite Mark Rutte confirmation's may not be a done deal just yet.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas visits her country's armed forces
Supporters of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas say she's still gunning for the top job at NATOImage: ROBERT MARKUS LIIV/Estonian Defence Forces

It's undoubtedly late in the game, but supporters of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis hope it's not too late to block the outgoing Dutch prime minister'swell-paved path to the helm at NATO.

The process of selecting a new NATO chief has traditionally been done away from the public eye, with consensus reached in discussion behind closed doors in various capital cities. Openly elevating one's ambitions to become secretary-general would be unseemly, even as candidates work behind the scenes to build the required support.

Despite all this secrecy, it's long been clear that Rutte is considered the"safe choice" by the majority of allies. He would replace Jens Stoltenberg , the second-longest serving secretary-general in history, when he leaves in October, after a decade on the job. 

NATO searching for a new secretary-general

NATO wants its decision made before the European Union starts shuffling seats after the June elections and the United States votes in November. However, the presumption that this is largely a done deal has just been rattled by a new social media push supporting the Estonian prime minister and a report by news agency Bloomberg on Thursday that the Romanian president will also throw his hat in the ring.

The Dutch leader has been praised for his long political career and familiarity with his counterparts, but when it comes to NATO, he doesn't possess some of the characteristics many would like to see in a new secretary-general: That is, a change of gender and origin, preferably from a country meeting NATO's targeted 2% of GDP spending on defense. The Netherlands was only at 1.7% in 2023, with a promise to do better this year. Estonia spends more than 3% of its GDP on its military; Romania, just under 2.5%.

Hope for a Kallas surge?

Given these previous priorities, Kallas has publicly questioned the front-runner status of Rutte, but that hasn't propelled her into more serious consideration herself.

Ben Tallis, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, helped fuel a bump for Kallas coming out of the Munich Security Conference last weekend. He believes her straight-talking style of leadership is necessary at NATO, tagging her in his X-post as the "best for the Collective West."

Other prominent voices joined him, including Andrew Michta, director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He said Rutte is "not the right candidate and it sends the wrong message," preferring someone from one of the eastern flank allies who "understand the existential nature of the threat" from Russia. But, Michta asserted, "there is still time to course-correct."

Tallis suggests the momentum created on X, formerly Twitter, contributed to the seemingly abrupt decisions by the governments of the US, UK, France and Germany to announce their endorsements of Rutte over the last couple of days. He interprets this as an effort to discourage dissent that could delay consensus around Rutte.

"The fact that such a credible candidate [as Kallas] is getting a groundswell of popular support is frightening for people who want to try and fix this in a backdoor elite kind of way," he said.

Time for a transparent selection process?

Tallis believes the opaque, unwritten traditional method of selecting a new NATO chief is a bigger problem than any single candidate's viability. 

"They're trying to put a lid on this process, but if they do, it's only going to stir up trouble for the future," he said. "People have become involved in the politics of their defense over the last two years to a greater degree than in the last generation, and people have to feel represented in that process, not shut out of it. Otherwise, we're going to face yet more problems with our democracies."

Tallis is in favor of the earlier expectations that the next secretary-general would not be a northern European, after Stoltenberg from Norway, and his predecessors Anders Fogh Rasmussen from Denmark and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer from the Netherlands.

"We've had Central and Eastern European countries in NATO for 25 years, and they have not once had a secretary-general," Tallis noted, adding that, with war at NATO's doorstep, a leader who's lived there would carry significant legitimacy.

Appreciation for eastern flank experience 

That's a theme echoed by Cristian Dorobantu, an adviser on security and defense in the Romanian parliament who believes his country's outgoing president would best fit the bill, given Europe's current security context.

"There is a feeling in Eastern Europe regarding [NATO's] stance on Russia," he told DW from Bucharest. "That it's been too light, including the sanctions, the actions, the help that's being sent to Ukraine and the whole situation in general." Dorobantu noted that Iohannis' name has been raised before, when it seemed Stoltenberg was about to leave. 

To be in the running for the job, any potential secretary-general must be nominated by their country's ambassador to NATO. Though they may be vying for the job, candidates are not really supposed to campaign too overtly or too enthusiastically.

At the moment, it remains unclear whether Iohannis has actually asked the Romanian NATO ambassador to formally raise his name as a candidate. This has led to speculation he may actually be more interested in increasing his visibility to compete for other top jobs opening up with a new European Commission and the European Council presidency. DW's request to the Romanian NATO mission to clarify his position was not answered before publication.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis is seen in Kyiv
The potential candidacy of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has been raised in years past, but comes very late in the running nowImage: Ludovic Marin/AP Photo/picture alliance

It's also unclear, for that matter, whether Kallas' name has been formally raised at NATO, despite her public remarks showing her desire to be considered. The same is true for Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins, who has broken the unwritten rule of not appearing to campaign for the post. His name has barely been mentioned. NATO officials insist Rutte is the only official candidate.

Trump management capabilities high priority

On the sidelines of a recent European Union summit, Rutte certainly appeared practiced enough to take over Stoltenberg's "Trump whisperer" mantle, shoud it be necessary after November.

"A safe and stable Europe is in the political, but also military, interests of the US," he told DW. "That's the sort of dialogue I'm having intensely with [US] senators and members of the House [of Representatives] but also many of my colleagues. What I always find is bipartisan support for that thinking in the trans-Atlantic relationship. And I think Trump will see that and that will continue."

Edited by: Cathrin Schaer, Ben Knight