Espreso. Global
Interview

Main task of next NATO Secretary General is to expand Alliance - Polish politician

23 June, 2024 Sunday
21:23

What can Ukraine and Poland expect from the new NATO Secretary General, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is likely to be appointed as the new head of the Alliance in July? How is Jens Stoltenberg concluding his term?

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Paweł Kowal, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Polish Sejm, and the head of the Council for the Restoration of Ukraine, spoke about this in an interview with Sestry.eu.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is set to become the new NATO Secretary General. The new head of the North Atlantic Alliance will be appointed before the July summit in Washington, according to Western media. How important is this news?

Rutte's appointment has not been confirmed, and discussions on this matter will continue until the last moment, as is usually the case with such issues. However, he is considered a serious candidate. Among Western leaders since February 24, 2022, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands was one of the first to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Therefore, I would describe him as someone who understands the security challenges facing Central Europe. He was not the first to react after the full-scale invasion began, because the first to react were Poland, Lithuania and the United Kingdom, a narrow group of countries. But Rutte was among those who quickly joined the process, and in some issues, such as the supply of F-16s, he was at the forefront. I see him as a strategically minded and effective politician.

As a liberal centrist politician, Rutte has effectively maintained power in the Netherlands by confronting populism. He belongs to a narrow group of politicians who are able to respond to the challenges of populism. Furthermore, I believe Rutte, as NATO Secretary General, will undoubtedly be a politician who understands security issues. This goes beyond the Russian-Ukrainian war and includes critical issues for Poland. After all, Rutte will be a politician who will face the problem of NATO expansion. Today, there is little chance that any important decisions on NATO expansion will be announced during the July summit in Washington (the 75th anniversary NATO summit will be held in the United States on July 9-11). 

Nevertheless, as the new Secretary General, Rutte will be responsible for it. This will constitute his most crucial task. Ukraine, Moldova, and hopefully Georgia are on the path towards NATO membership. These are the expectations we hold, and these will be the responsibilities of the new NATO Secretary General.

How well do you know Mark Rutte as a person? What impression did he make on you in personal communication - as a leader, as a person?

I haven't spoken with Rutte in person much. I have seen him at various meetings with many people over the years. I have been impressed with how, during times of populism, he managed to maintain power in the Netherlands and steer a sensible, liberal economic course for the country. Despite the Netherlands being in a location where, let's be honest, these threats are much less pronounced, I see him facing strategic challenges in the East.

He comes across as a politician who can sometimes shift his position and is willing to consider arguments. This was evident during the Dutch elections, where he adapted his views to his opponents. Some might call this instrumentalism, aimed at gaining votes from their supporters, but it also means he's willing to accept certain arguments.

Now, strategically, he must acknowledge that NATO enlargement makes sense because we - both Poles and Ukrainians - must evaluate his actions from this perspective. The stakes will be even higher ahead of the NATO summit.

Ukraine needs more than just assurances that one day the Alliance will expand

The other day I was talking about this with a group of veterans in Kharkiv. These people are giving their lives for this cause. It's an emotional argument, but it's actually very understandable, because on the one hand, there are emotions, and on the other hand, we're talking about those who have actually lost their loved ones, lost their lives, legs, arms, or eyesight. These are all consequences. And in this political and military game, the most important thing is to achieve a security effect. Security today means NATO expansion, and this is the task for Mark Rutte. I would like him, as a Western politician, to realize this. I hope he realizes this. 

During a meeting with Mark Rutte at a conference on Ukraine's recovery in Berlin on June 15, I witnessed him talking to Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands warmly embraced the President of Ukraine, squeezed his hand, and said that we can do everything together. Later, I asked Rutte a few questions. When he answered, he maintained a constant smile. He said: "We will help, I believe in the victory of Ukraine, in a free Europe!" Rutte impressed me as an extrovert and an optimist who laughs heartily. His presence commands attention wherever he goes.

I have also seen him in situations where he could not clearly express his position. For example, during the last conference in Munich, initially, he didn't express himself in the way we would have hoped. When asked a direct question about NATO enlargement, I noticed him evading a clear response. It's understandable that he probably wanted to get the votes of different members of the Alliance, who are for and who are against. I like to give politicians tasks. For Rutte, that task is to prepare for enlargement. If he wants to lead NATO today, our security interests require him to do so.

As Jens Stoltenberg leaves office, at the last stage of his leadership of NATO, he sounds very determined about Ukraine's accession to the Alliance. How significant and influential is the role of the NATO Secretary General, in your opinion? After all, they do not make decisions independently. What does the Secretary General of the Alliance directly influence?

It's politics. Obviously, the NATO Secretary General doesn't make decisions independently. They often serve as a facilitator or notary of decisions made by member states. On one end of the spectrum, you have figures like Javier Solana, known for his charisma during his tenure as NATO Secretary General from December 1995 to October 1999, who is now being honored in Wroclaw. You made a good point about Rutte - when he enters a room, he commands attention not because he is very fat but due to his personality and charisma.

In politics, how you frame your arguments counts, and Rutte is likely to command more attention than his official position documents

Formally, as you mentioned, decisions within NATO are made by member states, and the Secretary General, in a sense, has no direct decision-making authority. But this is not entirely true. Personal qualities and past accomplishments, such as Rutte's stable political standing in his own country, underscore his leadership skills and ability to strategize for the long term.

Jens Stoltenberg has been NATO Secretary General for 9 years and 1 month. What are his main achievements in this position? 

I say goodbye to Stoltenberg with gratitude. I have many positive things to say about him. The reception was about Ukraine's security. It was the moment when everyone realized that the US has a problem with the "supplemental act," that is, with the money that has now been unblocked. It was a dramatic situation at the time. We discussed these matters, and I observed a clear stance. My assessment of Western politicians depends on their understanding of our security needs. Many are used to living in the belief that we are too sensitive to Russia. However, leaders like Rutte and Stoltenberg are gradually recognizing the seriousness of the situation in our region.

From this point of view, the current NATO Secretary General is a politician who has expanded the Alliance's eastern flank. During his tenure, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states completed their accession to NATO as full-fledged members.

They had been members of the Alliance before, but they did not have access to all potential military facilities. At first, Stoltenberg's predecessors and he also felt bound by the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. While the NATO Secretary General did not formally withdraw from this agreement, he effectively led to countries like Poland becoming full-fledged NATO members today. Now, there's no restriction on deploying troops on Polish territory. If Poland's security demands it, all Alliance members acknowledge this, just as they do for various types of military equipment. Today, this is clear to everyone. Stoltenberg clarified that if the security interests of our countries require it, the old talks with Yeltsin's Russia no longer work.

On June 17 in Washington, D.C., NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that there would be "no specific dates" for Ukraine's membership at the upcoming NATO summit. He also mentioned that there were expectations of reaching an agreement on language that would clearly communicate Ukraine's prospects. What exactly can we expect to hear at the NATO summit in Washington?

I believe we need to be explicit about NATO expansion. As a politician, I understand the urgency - what we say today carries significant weight. We must tell Ukrainians, especially those on the front lines, "you will join NATO, it's imminent. We can give you dates, we can give you additional stages to go through, but specific ones, so you know where we are in this process!" This clarity is crucial. However, if someone suggests today that everything is possible but cannot commit to a date, we must push further. This pressure can lead to a timeline - whether in six months or a year. And there is politics for this. It is needed to talk, to put pressure, to bring new arguments, to look for a way to persuade, to use the opponent's weaknesses. Today, this means exploiting Russia's weaknesses, and this is an element of our policy.

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