In Times of Crisis, an Agenda for the next NATO Secretary-General

To the extent that the Secretary-Generalship of NATO will remain in Nordic hands, the announcement yesterday that former Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, will take over the reins of the alliance on 1 October might suggest a certain continuity. But notwithstanding the many ways in which Stoltenberg would be well-advised to build on the creditable performance of Anders Fogh Rasmussen at NATO’s helm, the leadership transition comes at a critical time for the transatlantic alliance. At this important juncture, the new SG will be called upon to demonstrate both resolve and a capacity to innovate.

In the immediate wake of the Cold War, a sentiment gained credence that maintaining high-end defense capabilities was becoming as irrelevant as the Berlin Wall itself. Although the original exponents of ‘soft power’ continued to emphasize that attractive influence works in tandem with hard power, European members of NATO proved particularly prone to jettison heavy-lifting and defensive readiness capabilities, relying on institutions such as the EU and UN to recraft the world order through normative power alone.

The Russian annexation of Crimea is a timely and costly reminder that military force still plays a role in Europe. This should come as little surprise. Time and again, we have failed to learn basic lessons: as Obama reminded his European allies in his Brusselsspeech this week, ‘freedom isn’t free’. Rapidly declining European defense budgets come at a price, emboldening Russian revanchism in Crimea and testing western will, which has been found wanting, in Syria.

Despite talk of a new Cold War, the events of the last month will not herald a new era of bipolar confrontation, not least because new powers continue to rise and because Russia’s actions betray Machtpolitik stripped bare of ideological cover. Unlike in past decades, global governance arrangements are in flux as emerging economies legitimately demand a seat at the table. As the West considers its response to the events in Ukraine, it should not lose sight of this wider context.

A united US-EU alliance is critical to ensure that the values that the Atlantic alliance stands for in the world – human rights and the rule of international law – prosper, even as the contours of a new global architecture are coming into focus. For Europe, this means acknowledging that despite the real need to expand market access in rising economies, no power is closer in terms of values than the United States.

Though Europe and the US may sometimes differ on the means to realize their goals, they must meet the test being put to them by Vladmir Putin with unity, not only to achieve an acceptable outcome in Ukraine, but also to protect their shared values in the decades to come.

One early priority for Secretary-General Stoltenberg will be to reassure former Warsaw Pact countries that they retain the political support of the Alliance. Particularly important will be to assuage the fears of western allies – whether NATO members like the Baltic states or aspirant ones, like Ukraine – whose populations include a significant minority of ethnic Russians.

The tightrope which Stoltenberg and NATO Member States will have to walk involves providing these assurances, including through military deployment, on the one hand, without providing Moscow with an alibi for military action on the other.

NATO is already sending AWACS reconnaissance planes over its eastern borders, but if Putin does not de-escalate, the Alliance may have to consider deploying additional military elements, if necessary on land, to underwrite the political support to Central and Eastern European countries. Such moves would not seek confrontation, but would demonstrate NATO’s resolve and its preparedness for any eventuality.

In the face of these challenging circumstances, Jens Stoltenberg is a sound choice for the top job at NATO. While there were good candidates, including Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski, from Eastern Europe, it is perhaps a prudent choice by NATO Member States to have opted for a new SG from a country far from the borders of the Russian Federation.

Stoltenberg is himself a talented leader, who handled Norway’s own crisis – the 2011 attack by Anders Brevik – with sound judgment. He will nevertheless face obstacles. How, for example, will the leader of a non-EU Member State fare in improving EU-NATO cooperation, which is more pressing than ever?

To succeed, the new SG will have to harness the role of leading EU Member States, particularly Germany, whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has shown unique boldness within Europe in questioning Putin’s grasp on reality, but whose economy remains more dependent than most European countries on Russian energy.

Since the end of the Cold War, doubts have been continually raised about NATO’s contemporary relevance. The new specter of Russian expansion has silenced many such voices for the time being. Nevertheless, the Alliance’s new Secretary-General will be met with a host of difficult challenges.

His central aim should be to marshal new political will from within Europe and between European and the United States. This will require greater unity of purpose between the EU and NATO, including in striking the right balance between political, economic and military instruments and a long overdue reappraisal of falling European defense spending.

In charting the Alliance’s future course, however, Stoltenberg should look to the past. From 1871 through 1919 and 1989, Europe’s history teaches us that when a great power feels humiliated, its revanchist tendencies can become a major new threat to regional and world peace.

Beyond the immediate need to check Russian violations of international law in Ukraine, a new western approach to Russia will be necessary. Only then will the international rule of law be possible, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in the many corners of the world, where leaders of rising powers are looking to Brussels and Washington and testing the West’s will.

Boudewijn van Eenennaam is Ambassador-in-Residence at The Hague Institute and a former Dutch Ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations in Geneva. He also served as a Political Advisor in the Netherlands Permanent Representation to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels.

Mark Bailey is Special Assistant to the President at The Hague Institute and a graduate of the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University and Oxford University.

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