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Memo to NATO’s future Secretary General

Security & defence / OP-ED
Ricardo Borges de Castro

Date: 09/06/2023

This op-ed was first published by Euractiv on 7 June 2023. 

A new era in transatlantic leadership

Madam Secretary General, congratulations! If you are in office, it is because Jens Stoltenberg finally got the break he has wished for after steering the Alliance for almost nine years through a transformative period that witnessed a global pandemic and the return of full-scale war to the European continent.

Your term will be equally challenging, if not more, but your previous experience in executive office prepared you for what may be coming. You managed your ‘campaign’ skilfully, mainly outside the limelight, which also speaks to your diplomatic skills. NATO has renewed brain thrust and is better equipped with a new strategic concept to deal with a much more challenging geopolitical environment.

Being the first woman to lead the world’s most successful collective defence alliance also sends an important message across the globe that glass ceilings continue to be shattered. You should capitalise on this moment to present a strong and united Alliance when NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary at the 2024 summit in the United States.

Your immediate to do list

Your first order of business is to keep the NATO ‘family’ together and build the necessary consensus to address a few central issues: Russia and Ukraine; allied defence spending; China, and NATO-EU ties.

Supporting Ukraine in repelling Russia’s illegal war of aggression and launching the basis for the future European security architecture, including providing credible security guarantees to Kyiv and a sound path into the Alliance as promised in 2008, will be your most important task. Launching this process could help shape the duration and the outcome of the war and, therefore, should be a priority. You should also be mindful that transatlantic unity and broad public support for Ukraine are among the greatest assets in countering Russia’s aggression. Going forward, these objectives should remain of prime concern.

Beyond the short-term goal of repelling Russia’s aggression, you need to ensure that a greater number of member nations invest more in defence to meet at least the 2% of GDP headline goal. Although military spending has moved lately in the right direction – and former laggards such as Germany announced a defence Zeitenwende after Ukraine’s invasion – there is still a long way to go. Allies, especially EU NATO members, also need to spend better and jointly build their defence capabilities to guarantee continued deterrence from present and future dangers – conventional or hybrid.

Relations with China will remain problematic as competition between Washington and Beijing sharpens. You need to forge a more consistent and coordinated way between both sides of the Atlantic to deal with China and the challenges it may pose to allies in the coming decades. The rationale should not be NATO ‘out-of-area’, although cooperation with Indo-Pacific nations should continue to be strengthened, but rather a ‘not-in-my-area’ approach to deter China from potentially meddling in the Euro-Atlantic space. Yet, a hostile “reunification” with Taiwan could become a major global crisis and create a schism within the Alliance if members disagree with their approach to Beijing.

Lastly, you need to continue forging stronger NATO-EU cooperation and the latter’s ongoing security and defence plans. But this needs to go beyond words and joint statements. Current positive areas of cooperation, such as on Military Mobility, should be reinforced and extended to other issues of common interest to tap into the complementary roles that both organisations can play – from climate security and cyber-defence to space, critical infrastructure, and emerging tech.

Political headwinds

Your first year in office is likely to be marked by the many elections throughout 2024 around the world, not least the US presidential election in early November. Your worst political headache may indeed be coming from Washington D.C., if Mr Trump or a Trumpian candidate that also thinks that NATO is obsolete, is elected to the White House. Had allies broken with tradition and appointed for the first time an American political leader closer to the Republican Party to steer the Alliance, this risk would probably have been mitigated. Alas, you are a European, and you may need to learn to deal with an antagonistic force from the country that has the biggest say in NATO. Your predecessor may provide you with some good tips on how to handle that if it comes to pass.

Other potential headaches could be Türkiye as well as Hungary. Ankara will continue to pursue its model of ‘strategic autonomy’ in foreign policy, requiring a constant balancing act from its allies and partners. After all, the country sits in a pivotal geostrategic location that makes its role essential to the Alliance. It is also problematic when President Erdoğan cosies up too much to Mr Putin. If Sweden became NATO’s 32 members in Vilnius, that could mean that Türkiye is more willing to play ball. You should take the opportunity to calm Aegean waters down and diplomatically push Ankara and Athens to sort out their differences.

Keep an eye on Hungary. Mr Orbán continues to flirt with a dis-aligned foreign policy from the West on China and Russia. This is more of a problem in the EU now, along with breaches of the ‘Rule of Law,’ but it could soon also become your problem. Although there is less you can do about democratic backsliding within the Alliance, keep vigilant, as it can potentially undermine NATO’s political cohesion in the future.


Finally, be ready for the things you don’t know. Uncertainty, volatility, and even strategic surprises are hallmarks of the current era of permacrisis. Just be prepared for the worst, and you will do well.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is an Associate Director and Head of the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
John Thys / AFP

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