Secretary General of NATO

Secretary General of NATO
Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) at the 2004 Istanbul summit, prior to his appointment

The Secretary General of NATO is an international diplomat who serves as the chief official of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Secretary General is responsible for coordinating the workings of the alliance, serves as the head of the North Atlantic Council, is the primary spokesperson of the alliance, and leads NATO's staff. The current Secretary General is Anders Fogh Rasmussen,[1] former prime minister of Denmark.


Establishment of position

Under Article 9 of the North Atlantic Treaty, the members of NATO agreed to "establish a Council, on which each of them shall be represented."[2] As a result of this article of the treaty, the NATO states established the North Atlantic Council. Initially, the Council was composed of the foreign ministers of the NATO members and was scheduled to meet only once annually,[3] but the members soon recognized the need for closer coordination on a day-to-day basis. To deal with this need, the NATO members agreed in May 1950, to appoint "Council Deputies" who meet continuously in London, and oversee the workings of the alliance. The deputies were given full decision making power within the North Atlantic Council, but their work was supplemented by occasional gatherings of the NATO foreign ministers.[4] Under the resolution passed to authorize the deputies, the Chairman of the deputies was also assigned to take responsibility "for directing the organization and its work," including all of its civilian agencies.[5]

The Council Deputies met for the first time on July 25, 1950, and selected Charles Spofford, the United States deputy, as their chairman.[6] Soon thereafter at a meeting of the Council in Brussels, several other important changes to the structure of NATO were undertaken, most notably the establishment of a unified military command under a single Supreme Allied Commander.[7] This unification and the growing challenges facing NATO led to rapid growth in the institutions of the organization. Thus, in 1951, NATO was reorganized to streamline and centralize its bureaucracy. As part of the organization, the Council Deputies were given the status to fully represent their governments in all matters, including those related to defense and finance, rather than just foreign affairs, greatly increasing their power and importance.[8]

As the power of the Deputies increased, and the size of the organization grew, it became clear that a single leader was needed for NATO. To tackle the problem, NATO established the Temporary Council Committee, chaired by Averell Harriman. This group soon established an official secretariat of NATO in Paris to command its bureaucracy.[9] The committee also recommended that "the agencies of NATO needed to be strengthened and co-ordinate", and emphasized the need for someone other than the Chairman of the North Atlantic Council to become the senior leader of the alliance.[10] In response to this recommendation, the North Atlantic Council agreed in its February 1952 Lisbon Conference to create a Secretary General to run all civilian agencies of the organization, control its civilian staff, and serve the North Atlantic Council.[11]

History of the position

After the Lisbon Conference, the NATO states began looking for a person who could fill the role of Secretary General. The position was first offered to Oliver Franks, the British Ambassador to the United States, but he declined. Then, on March 12, 1952, the North Atlantic Council selected Hastings Ismay, a general from World War II, and Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in the British cabinet as Secretary General. Unlike later Secretaries General who served as Chairman of the North Atlantic Council, Ismay was made the Vice Chairman of the Council, with Spofford continuing to serve as chairman. Ismay was selected because of his high rank in the war, and his role "at the side of Churchill ... in the highest Allied Councils." As both a soldier and a diplomat, he was considered uniquely qualified for the position, and enjoyed the full support of all the NATO states.[12]

Several months later, after Spofford retired from the NATO, the structure of the North Atlantic Council was changed slightly. One member of the Council was selected annually as the President of the North Atlantic Council (a largely ceremonial role), and the Secretary General officially became the Deputy President of the Council, as well as the chair of its meetings.[13] Ismay served as Secretary General until retiring in May, 1957.[14]

After Ismay, Paul-Henri Spaak, an international diplomat and former Prime Minister of Belgium was selected as the second Secretary General. Unlike Ismay, Spaak had no military experience, so his appointment represented a "deemphasis of the strictly military side of the Atlantic Alliance."[15] When confirming Spaak's appointment in December 1956 during a session of the NATO foreign ministers, the North Atlantic Council also expanded the role of the Secretary General in the organization. Largely as a result of the Suez Crisis, which had strained intra-alliance relations, the Council issued a resolution to allow the Secretary General "to offer his good officers informally at any time to member governments involved in a dispute and with their consent to initiate or facilitate procedures of inquiry, mediation, conciliation, or arbitration."[16]


The NATO Secretary General chairs several of the senior decision-making bodies of NATO. In addition to the North Atlantic Council, he chairs the Defence Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Committee, two of NATO's important military organizations. The Secretary General also leads the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Mediterranean Cooperation Group, and serves as Join Chairman of the Permanent Joint Council and the NATO-Ukraine Commission.

In a second role, the Secretary General leads the staff of NATO. He directs the International Staff of the organization, and the Office of the Secretary General. The Secretary General also directs his or her own Private Office. All of these bodies draw personnel from all members of NATO, so the Secretary General must carefully coordinate.[17] For assistance in his responsibilities, the Secretary General also has a deputy appointed by the organization.


There is no formal process for selecting the Secretary General. Instead, the members of NATO traditionally reach a consensus on who should serve next. This procedure often takes place through informal diplomatic channels, but it still can become contentious. For example, in 2009, controversy arose over the choice of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as Secretary-General, due to opposition from Turkey.[18]

Because NATO's chief military officer the Supreme Allied Commander Europe is traditionally an American, the Secretary General has traditionally been a European. There is nothing to preclude a Canadian or American from becoming the Secretary General, but everyone to occupy the post to date has been European.[19]


  1. ^ "Fogh bliver ny Nato-chef" (in Danish). Politiken. 2009-04-04. Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  2. ^ "The North Atlantic Treaty". 
  3. ^ Ismay, p. 24
  4. ^ Ismay, p. 28
  5. ^ "15th - 18th May: London". NATO Final Communiques 1949-1974. NATO Information Service. p. 56. 
  6. ^ Ismay, p. 31
  7. ^ Ismay, p. 37
  8. ^ Ismay, p. 41
  9. ^ Ismay, p.44
  10. ^ Ismay, p.46
  11. ^ Ismay, p. 48
  12. ^ Daniel, Clifton (March 13, 1952). "Ismay Named Civilian Chief of Atlantic Pact Organization". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ Fedder, p. 10
  14. ^ Brosio, p. 39
  15. ^ "Spaak for Ismay". The Washington Post. December 16, 1956. 
  16. ^ "11th-14th December: Paris". NATO Final Communiques 1949-1974. NATO Information Service. p. 104. 
  17. ^ "Civilian Organisation and Structures: The Secretary General". 
  18. ^ Kardas, Saban. "Ankara Debates Rasmussen's Candidacy for NATO Secretary-General". The Jamestown Foundation. 
  19. ^ "NATO Secretary General: How is he or she selected and for how long". 


  • Brosio, Manlio (1969). NATO: Facts and Figures. NATO Information Service. 
  • Ismay, Hastings (1954). NATO: The First Five Years. NATO. 
  • Fedder, Edwin (1973). NATO:The Dynamics of the Alliance in the Postwar World. Dodd, Mead & Company. ISBN 0-396-06621-6. 

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