The work interrupted by war will continue: Kaljulaid seeks the post of NATO Secretary General

Meinhard Pulk
, ajakirjanik
Kersti Kaljulaid.
Kersti Kaljulaid. Photo: Ain Liiva
  • The work carried out in the beginning of the year was interrupted by the war in Ukraine.
  • Kallas’ possible candidacy attracted attention in Estonia and abroad.
  • Reinsalu, having talked to Kaljulaid in September, put diplomats to work.

President Kersti Kaljulaid has been talking to the prime and foreign ministers this autumn about her prospects to become the first Secretary General of NATO from the former Eastern bloc. But how good are Estonia’s chances in reality?

“My message in this context was definitely positive,” Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) recalled his meeting with Kaljulaid in early autumn.

Kaljulaid's advisor Mattias Tammet rejected the claim that Kaljulaid directly asked Kaja Kallas and Urmas Reinsalu for their support to her aspiration to become the Secretary General at these meetings. According to Tammet, these and other discussions between Kaljulaid and foreign and Estonian politicians instead concerned the possible position of the Estonian government regarding to the next Secretary General.

However, Kaljulaid's ambition to become the Secretary General is an open secret in Estonian foreign and security policy circles.

According to Reinsalu, Kaljulaid has shown an open attitude. At the same time he states that there must be some realistic chance for promoting Kaljulaid’s candidacy. Foreign policy circles also display an element of skepticism in their emotions regarding Kaljulaid's prospects.

However, Reinsalu is convinced that Estonia should not be embarrassed to recommend its own possible candidate. Reinsalu and Kallas have also talked to each other about a potential candidate.

Reinsalu has also asked the diplomats to prepare an assessment of what Estonia's action plan could be both in terms of promoting a possible candidate and moving forward with other options. When asked when it could be ready, Reinsalu answered: “In the near future.”

Kaljulaid’s advisor Mattias Tammet: these are mere rumors

I have had to answer these questions now and then over the past two years both home and abroad (just like right now). All these discussions have one thing in common: these are mere rumors after all. There is no procedure how to nominate someone for candidate or how someone should express their interest in it. Accordingly, all discussions regarding the gender, birthplace or earlier experience of the next NATO Secretary General are fruitless at present.

But it is certainly vital that the Secretary General in service of the organization’s member nations will be able to represent the entire organization and be capable of balancing the contradictory interests of the member states; this person must certainly be a strong champion of cross-Atlantic cooperation and values important to us, must be a skillful diplomat and experienced in foreign and domestic politics.

A very good CV

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who became the Secretary General of NATO in 2014, was already preparing to become the head of the Norwegian Central Bank when the war in Ukraine entered a new phase on February 24. The members of the alliance did not want a change during the war, and Stoltenberg agreed to continue for another year, until October 1, 2023.

The names of both Kaljulaid and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (RE) have been toyed with especially in the Western media for over a year, initially with the assumption that Stoltenberg's term of office would not be extended.

Eva-Maria Liimets (KE), the previous cabinet’s foreign minister, recalled that during her time in office they had talked more specifically about the chances of Kaljulaid. “We worked with one very good CV which Estonia had,” she said.

The Reform Party currently does not attach much importance to such stories. There were no explicit agreements between the Reform Party and the Center Party regarding the candidacy of the Secretary General of NATO at the start of the year. Discussions at this level are not a matter of political parties, but exclusively the domain of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Reform Party emphasizes. “We take it very cautiously,” they say, and state that speculative newspaper articles have been taken a bit too seriously.

According to Marko Mihkelson (RE), the long-time chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Ministry’s work on behalf of Kaljulaid's candidacy did not enter the scope or agenda of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the spring.

“We have once heard how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs works and lobbies for top positions. This activity in Estonia has been relatively in its infancy so far," Mihkelson recalled.

He explained his point: helping some Estonian diplomat or politician to the post of NATO Secretary General, for example, has never been an issue during the past 30 years. “It has not been in a tangible range so far. Currently, it is much more realistic, although it is still very difficult to achieve."

If the Foreign Affairs Committee will address Estonia's diplomatic activities in the near future, it will concern a broader issue than just NATO. “Will we have any other interests in international organizations? If you are going to lobby, you should have several cards in the game,” Mihkelson believes.

The British interest

The Foreign Ministry’s efforts came to a standstill in early spring due to the war and the extension of Stoltenberg's term of office. “If the war had not heated up, there would definitely have been something to work on," Liimets admits now.

It has been hinted to Postimees that in late spring confidential conversations repeatedly mentioned how Jüri Luik (Isamaa), Estonia's representative in NATO, was allegedly trying to find out in Brussels what would be the chances of Prime Minister Kallas for seeking the post of the Secretary General. All of a sudden, the United Kingdom began to ask Estonian politicians through diplomatic channels whether Estonia's interest in promoting Kallas was really sincere. If it were so, the government headed by Boris Johnson would also have supported it, Postimees was now told. The Nordic countries’ opinions of Kallas were also positive. The Western media also began to view Kallas increasingly as a possible candidate.

On the one hand, Kallas is now the chairman of the party which will most likely win the election, who has good chances to continue as prime minister in the spring. At the same time, the Reform Party believes that if someone really makes her an offer to aspire to be the Secretary General of NATO, it would be difficult for her to refuse it.

However, Kallas remains skeptical and does not allow herself to be disturbed by articles in the Western media. For example, at the beginning of November, the NY Times wrote that Kallas is among the possible candidates. "The probability that I will be made this offer is extremely small. Such officials are selected with a completely different process, in which we are not as experienced as Central European countries," Kallas told Postimees on Friday.

The subject is veiled in secrecy

According to Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (RE), there are already quite a lot of names and candidates. Without mentioning any names, he knows more precisely and with certainty in some cases that they are indeed candidates.

Reinsalu also states that although names have been mentioned, none of the candidates themselves or the government of any country has sent a letter with an official seal on it. “Preliminary reconnaissance is underway," Reinsalu described it.

Voices from Brussels say that there is currently a great veil of secrecy surrounding the issue of a new Secretary General. The ambassadors do not talk about it among themselves. There is time, and the deadline for the decision is scheduled for the NATO summit in Vilnius in July. Pevkur also says that all discussions have so far taken place at the level of mere hypotheses and exchanges of ideas. “Of course, I have also had conversations both at the NATO headquarters and with some colleagues, but there has not been a very substantive discussion," he said.

The so-called backstage diplomacy game for the post of NATO Secretary General is of course refined and radically different from, for example, how the head of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was searched – Kaljulaid was an official candidate there as well.

There is constant feeling around and informal testing. However, the first round of negotiations will take place between the major powers, several sources say. “Lobbying is important, but the final decision is made in the highest matrix between the great powers,” Mihkelson stated. It is not just personal qualifications that are looked at, but – to use Mihkelson's words – how the major allies see the organization's placement in their own foreign and security policy landscape is also crucial.

In other words, how strong a leader France, the United Kingdom and the United States want. In his opinion, a good example is the search for the High Representative of the European Union's foreign policy. “There must have been more capable candidates than [Josep] Borrell, for example Carl Bildt,” Mihkelson said.

The Americans’ psychological veto

It is customary for the Secretary General to come from Europe. The United States, on the other hand, using Reinsalu's words, has a psychological right of veto, considering their 2/3 share of NATO's defense capability. In addition, it matters whether and how it is attempted to find a geographical balance between the member. NATO has had two secretaries from Northern Europe in a row – Stoltenberg and Anders Fogh Rasmussen – and it is questionable how acceptable another Secretary General from Northern or Eastern Europe would be to Southern European countries.

When sifting through the possible candidates, one often starts from the back end, i.e. crossing them off.

"The minimum threshold is that no one is extremely vocal against this particular candidate. Several bars have to be crossed at the level of reluctance and sympathy,” said Reinsalu. According to him, the countries are mature enough so that in such an early phase no one rules out anyone or locks themselves very rigidly behind a few candidates.

The reason why the names of Kaljulaid and Kallas took flight in the international media is the narrative, as if the next NATO Secretary General could be from Eastern Europe or the Baltics, and she could also be a woman for the first time in history. This, of course, significantly narrows the range of possible candidates.

“This readiness should have been there a long time ago,” Mihkelson is convinced.

He recalled that over the years, the Baltics have already had strong candidates who could play the role of Secretary General, for example the former president of Latvia Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga or the former head of state of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves. “This trust could be very great – also in the sensitive issue of the attitude towards Russia. The question is whether Berlin and France are ready for it. Especially in a situation where we have been repeatedly told this year that it would have been nice if we had listened to you (the Baltic countries - ed.) earlier regarding Russia.”

On the other hand, it is the Russian policy that is the reason why the chances of an Estonian candidate are viewed with skepticism. Thus, Liimets states that if the Secretary General of NATO is expected to build a consensus among the member states, both Kaljulaid and Kallas may be disadvantaged in this aspect. "We are a border country of Russia, and there is a fear of excessive rashness on the Russian issue. This is definitely something that our candidates should think about in their campaign – that they not only come as the Secretary General with experience of a border country, but that other countries need to be convinced that their interests are understood.”

Kallas thinks that the secretary general could come from a member state which fulfills its NATO obligation, i.e. invests two percent of GDP in national defense. She also hopes that the person will come from a member state which has joined the organization after 2004. It has been said that Kaljulaid's chances are weakened by the fact that she has no experience in executive power.

Regarding the previous secretaries general, the common feature has been earlier experience as a minister or a head of government. In Kaljulaid’s case, Estonian politicians do not make a fuss about its absence, at least publicly.

"The most important role of the Secretary General is to find coherence between the allies and seek consensus, so that she can make all 30 countries to work in the same way for the goal. Whether she has the experience of executive power – I intuitively say that it is not primary," thought former defense minister Kalle Laanet (RE).

The deadline is Vilnius

All in all, the moment of truth comes in Vilnius. Theoretically, it is possible that the name will be revealed after the summit, but Pevkur, for example, hopes that this will not be the case. Some speculations say that the situation could become clearer by April-May.

"Somewhere in the sidelines they are definitely thinking and trying to figure out whether Stoltenberg's departure is final or not. It would be good that if Stoltenberg does not continue, the new candidate would already be known in Vilnius. This person would already be present in Vilnius and would be familiar with the affairs at the earliest possible stage," said Pevkur.

Kaljulaid is inevitably a name that has caused conflicting emotions between political parties in Estonia. The issue of NATO's Secretary General becomes more and more relevant every week, and if Kaljulaid's efforts get a wider support, the attitude in Estonia will be positive and there will be no talk of torpedoing her candidacy.

But as has been repeatedly emphasized, we are still in the phase of mutual feeling around. "If one day the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Defense came and said that we have a very realistic opportunity and we should do ABCD, then the situation would be completely different. But as far as we know, there has never been such a moment," government circles sum up the situation for Postimees.

How realistic is Stoltenberg carrying on?

There are rumors that Jens Stoltenberg feels quite comfortable in the position of NATO Secretary General and has no reason to resign after October 2023 when his term of office expires. But the Estonian politicians are doubtful.

“The current knowledge is that Stoltenberg's term of office will not be extended. It is also based on Stoltenberg's own wishes,” says Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (RE). It is true that he wanted to resign even before the war broke out again and Stoltenberg's term was extended, therefore any outcome cannot be ruled out.

Pevkur's predecessor, Kalle Laanet (RE), noted that if the secretary general's term of office has been extended once, there must be a very exceptional situation to do it again.

Former foreign minister Eva-Maria Liimets (KE) also believes that the member states will take up again the issue left unfinished in February and want to move on. "The Secretary General should rotate, after all, and NATO can now overcome this force majeure which interfered with the agenda of the alliance."

Estonian experts involved in foreign policy affairs are praising Stoltenberg as the Secretary General of NATO.

"I have watched with great sympathy Stoltenberg's stance that NATO must be more active," said Reinsalu. Of course, as Reinsalu points out, the Secretary General is not the director or leader of NATO. Only the top official who also serves as NATO's top diplomat.

"He has called for NATO to contribute more in supporting Ukraine – certain countries have been cautious in that matter. Secondly, it is very pleasant that he has expressed his sympathy regarding Ukraine's way towards joining the alliance,” Reinsalu added.