The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, better known by its acronym NATO, has had something of a banner year.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the alliance has welcomed two new members — Finland and Sweden (pending final approval) — and has united admirably in supporting the Ukrainian military. NATO members have contributed weapons systems, ammunition, training, and intelligence to the Ukrainian cause, greatly aiding its effort to repel the Russian invaders. The leadership of nations like the United States, the United Kingdom, the Baltic states, and Poland has made this possible, bringing along some of their more reluctant counterparts (ahem … Germany) for the ride.
Now via the appointment of a new NATO leader, we have the chance to reward that faction, while also protecting American interests in Europe and allowing us to take a smaller role on the continent. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has discarded this historic opportunity to reorient American foreign policy in a more forward-looking direction by rejecting the best man for the job.
The candidates for NATO secretary general, an important coordinating and messaging position currently held by Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg, are typically taken from the ranks of the European political elite. Stoltenberg was the Norwegian prime minister, while his predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was the PM of Denmark. Stoltenberg was a solid NATO leader, as he was a uniter and did a good job of trying to promote greater defense spending and coordination within the alliance. But his tenure has been the second-longest on record at nearly nine years, and drastic geopolitical changes are afoot.
Those modifications to the strategic picture — brought on by the first major land war on the European continent since 1945 — show the necessity for a new approach within NATO. Going forward, the alliance should focus more heavily on deterrence of further Russian aggression, ensuring that all of its members reach or exceed the minimum 2 percent of GDP threshold for defense spending, actively preparing for serious threats to the integrity of the European community, and reorienting itself firmly to NATO’s critical eastern front.
The theaters of competition and conflict in the coming years will not be limited to Ukraine or even the Baltic states; Europe will see greater Russian efforts to sow discord in the Balkans, the Baltic Sea, and the Arctic. NATO’s new leader should be clear-eyed and decisive when it comes to confronting Russian aggression, the key aspect of the alliance since its Cold War beginnings.
Given their stellar performance during the Ukraine war, this important position should be filled by someone representing the most serious pro-Ukraine bloc — namely, the U.K. and the Eastern Europeans. These nations have shown they are ready and willing to confront the threat head-on, spend adequately on defense (Stoltenberg’s Norway still sits below the 2 percent threshold), and are heavily invested in the protection of Europe from the revisionists in the Kremlin. The Eastern Europeans are on the front lines of this conflict and, as such, deserve a significant say in the next secretary general. And it seems they have their candidate: British Defense Minister Ben Wallace.
Wallace is an impeccable candidate for the head position in the Atlantic alliance for a wide variety of reasons. First off, he actually wants the job and has the support of his own government and several others. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak endorsed his candidacy and promoted him as the best man for the job in meetings with President Biden.
Given the U.K.’s status as our closest ally — and the special fraternal relationship we share as Anglophone powers — their opinion should weigh heavily in Washington. America’s interests in European security are mirrored more closely by Britain than any other NATO power; we are both continental outsiders, maritime nations, skeptical of Russian appeasement, and laser-focused on deterrence through well-funded defense. Having a hawkish British secretary general would give us someone who shares our interests within the alliance and would help cement the special relationship between our nations in an era of diplomatic tumult.
Wallace also has significant military experience, having been an officer in the British army. His tenure as defense minister in the U.K. has seen that nation become one of Ukraine’s biggest supporters and a European leader in military affairs. Wallace was instrumental in providing Ukraine with the Western weapons and training it has used to such great effect on the battlefield, as well as in cajoling some of the more dovish European states into doing their part.
Through this process and his job as head of the U.K.’s defense establishment, he has built deep ties with his counterparts across the NATO alliance, especially those key nations on the eastern front. Having those relationships in place would allow Wallace to seamlessly step into the secretary general role without hampering NATO’s readiness. And one should not overlook that the nations of Eastern Europe support Wallace for the job. This is important given the need for a new, more eastern-looking NATO policy.
So the Biden administration must be supporting Wallace’s candidacy, right? Wrong.
According to British media, the White House scuttled Wallace’s nomination, forcing him out of the race for the position. No NATO leader can succeed without American support, and the Biden team has apparently denied him their backing after telling Sunak that the U.S. would support a U.K. nominee for the job. Reports have said Biden intends to promote the continued leadership of Stoltenberg, despite internal NATO pressure to find a new top man.
The White House is said to prefer Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte or Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredericksen over Wallace if a new leader is indeed selected. If this reporting is true — and it has been widely corroborated in the U.K. press — it is an inexcusable decision by the Biden team and a slap in the face to our closest ally, one on whom we rely not only in Europe, but in Asia and the Middle East as well. The idea of extending Stoltenberg’s tenure reeks of an inflexibility in the administration’s foreign policy thinking; these aren’t the Obama years anymore, but Biden seems stuck in that dead consensus.
By extending Stoltenberg’s tenure to last at least another year, but more likely through the 2024 U.S. election, America is wasting a huge opportunity to reorient our foreign policy to deal with the challenges of the coming decades. If Wallace or any other Brit were in charge of NATO, we would be able to secure our interests in Europe while pivoting most of our attention to the theater of greatest concern: the Indo-Pacific. Wallace would be an extremely strong NATO chief with the support of the alliance’s increasingly critical eastern front nations.
Given the large overlap between British and American interests in Europe, Wallace would be able to look after those interests without constant American involvement. There would be no weak-kneed mollycoddling of Russia and rushing back to embrace friendly diplomatic and commercial relations without concessions. There would be no free-riding through the chronic and deliberate underfunding of national defense. Germany and its ilk would be pushed to pay their fair share. And there certainly would be no failure to properly understand the geopolitical stakes and challenges of the European future.
Given the increased aggression of the Chinese Communist Party, American interests dictate a rapid pivot to the Indo-Pacific, but we cannot totally abrogate our interests in Europe. We should ensure that the conflict in Ukraine is resolved in a manner that truly deters future malign action and stabilizes the situation going forward. Appointing Wallace to the secretary generalship of NATO would allow the U.S. to shift our focus to where it is most needed while securing our European interests. Europe should largely man its own defense — with American backing and support — and the British and Eastern Europeans are the most prepared and seriously interested in achieving that future.
A fresh start is needed in NATO if we are to capitalize on the major European geopolitical developments since 2022. When neck-deep in the era of great power conflict, we need a leader who can embrace that vision without carrying the baggage of the past — someone who can help reorient the Atlantic alliance and push it in the new strategic direction that it needs in order to be successful in this rapidly changing future.
That man was Ben Wallace. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has once again failed a major foreign policy test. We’ll be feeling the results of this missed opportunity in Europe and the Indo-Pacific for years to come.