Much of the news coming out of Ottawa these days is focused on the impending cabinet shuffle. Similarly, in Europe, there is much discussion about who will be the next secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Apparently, the leading candidate is German Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière. For reasons I will explain below, this choice would be pretty awful. Luckily, I believe there may be a way to ensure NATO gets an appropriate secretary-general that also smoothes out the cabinet shuffle: generate enough international support for Defence Miniser Peter MacKay to take the prestigious post abroad. Let me explain.
For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it may be a bit difficult to move Mr. MacKay out to pasture since Mr. MacKay served as the key leader of a faction of the Conservative movement. If Mr. Harper were to get Mr. MacKay placed as secretary-general, there would be much less pushback from Mr. MacKay’s domestic supporters…. That is, if Mr. MacKay wants the new job.
On to why Mr. Maizière would be a poor choice. Germany has long been a key member of the NATO alliance, usually giving a substantial contribution to the various efforts, especially in terms of numbers of troops. However, its reputation has taken a major hit due to how things played out in Afghanistan and over Libya. In Afghanistan, Germany had significant restrictions placed by the Bundestag and its Defence Ministers that limited Germany’s ability to make a difference in its area of operations and prevented it from providing significant help in more dangerous parts of the country. When Canada called for help during Operation Medusa in 2006, the Germans did not show up. Still, the Germans did send about 5,000 troops to Northern Afghanistan and did suffer significant casualties during the effort, just not as many as the Canadians, the Americans, the British, or the Danes.
Where Germany really defied expectations was over Libya. Chancellor Angela Merkl refused to participate in any part of the NATO effort, which was quite surprising given that there was an easy choice to be made. Germany was already participating in NATO naval efforts in the Mediterranean and off the shores of Somalia, and had a record of participating in past embargos during the Yugoslav conflicts. So, Germany could have done the basic minimum and kept its ships in the NATO fleet during the Libyan effort with very little political or military risk. Instead, Merkl, burned perhaps by the Afghanistan mission, pulled the German ships out. Moreover, Germany had some key capabilities that would have been very useful in the opening days of the operation – notably systems designed to take out air defences – but with those out of the game, the U.S. had to do much of the early heavy lifting.
Why is this relevant? Because one of the key jobs of the secretary-general of NATO is to persuade alliance members to participate in and contribute to NATO operations. There is nothing obligatory about NATO – an attack upon one is an attack upon all, if all agree that an attack has happened, but each country is free to respond as each “deems necessary.” So, getting countries to kick in troops and helicopters and other assets means asking nicely and then cajoling. Who does this? It starts with the personnel at NATO headquarters in Mons and in Brussels, but a key actor in all of this is the secretary-general. And there is the rub: Would a German secretary-general really have the political heft to get other countries to do what his country recently refused to do?
It is perhaps no accident that the Danes stepped forward in both Afghanistan and Libya as Anders Fogh Rasmussen was the secretary-general and former prime minister of Denmark. Will others heed a German secretary-general? Probably not so much.
The question then becomes who else can serve this role? It cannot be an American, as the military head of NATO – the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe [SACEUR] is always an American, so the Sec Gen is never one. The Sec Gen probably should not be French at this moment, given that much of NATO is still miffed about France dragging NATO into Libya. The secretary-general could be British, given the UK’s leadership in Afghanistan and Libya. Norway would be a candidate, given what it has done recently, although some would argue that the Scandinavians had their turn. Some would suggest an East European, since it is time for “new Europe” to be put in the rotation of key posts. Putting a Pole in this position would make sense, given how much the Poles had done in Afghanistan, but their “street cred” was undermined by their opting out of Libya. Romanians have offered up a few candidates.
At this moment in time, a Canadian would make a great deal of sense. While Canada did leave combat in Afghanistan faster than most other coalition countries, Canada did do more than its fair share of the heavy lifting before that and did return to run a key training mission. Canada also made very quick and very significant contributions to the Libyan mission. So, Canada has a very positive profile within NATO.
While none in the organization are that fond of launching new operations, the world frequently pushes the world’s most significant multilateral military organization into the fray. To be perfectly blunt, NATO has become a two-tier organization divided between those that are more willing to bear the costs and those that are less so. Would it make sense for the organization to be led by a representative of the second tier? No.
Sure, in International Relations, being deserving of something is rarely if ever a guarantee you’ll get it. NATO (and the European Union) have admitted members that did not meet their membership criteria, so we know that suitability is often ignored. But before NATO makes the leap and appoints the German foreign minister, they might want to look at the other side of the pond to someone who may soon be in need of a new job.
Stephen Saideman is the Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University. This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub OpenCanada.