Decision-making and leadership
One of the foundations of NATO’s durability is consensus in decision-making. This means that all decisions must be made unanimously. Therefore, major decisions often require extensive consultation and discussion before they are made. Although this system may seem slow and clumsy to the casual observer, it has two major advantages:
the sovereignty and independence of each member country are respected;
once a decision has been made, it has the support of all member countries and they all commit to implementing it.
See the structure of NATO here.
The most important decision-making body of NATO is the North Atlantic Council (NAC), which is responsible for all decisions made. Each member country is represented in the North Atlantic Council by a permanent representative, who is the head of delegation, and a military representative. Both are supported by a staff of civilian and military advisers who represent their countries in various NATO committees. The permanent representative of Estonia to NATO from 25 August 2021 is Ambassador Jüri Luik (former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defence, multiple member of the Riigikogu, who has also been the ambassador to NATO twice before (1996-1999, 2007-2012 and appointed for a five-year term as of 2021).
The meetings of the North Atlantic Council can take place at different levels. They are held at least once a week at the level of ambassadors of the member countries, and at least twice a year at the level of foreign and defence ministers. Irrespective of the level of the meeting, the decisions of the Council have the same force and reflect the views of all governments. There is no limit to the range of subjects that fall within the Council’s remit.
Most issues related to defence and collective defence planning are dealt with by the Defence Planning Committee. The Committee gives instructions to NATO’s military bodies and has the same powers as the North Atlantic Council in the matters within its remit. Similarly to Council meetings, the meetings of the Defence Planning Committee are usually held at the level of ambassadors, but at least once a year they are held at the level of defence ministers as well. Defence ministers also meet regularly in the Nuclear Planning Group, which oversees the Alliance’s nuclear weapons policy and discusses specific issues such as nuclear arms control and proliferation.
The work of NATO is led and coordinated centrally by the NATO Secretary General. The Secretary General is elected by consensus for a term of four years, which may be extended as an exception if necessary. An internationally renowned high-ranking statesman from one of the NATO member countries is elected the Secretary General. (Traditionally, a representative of an European country is elected the Secretary General, but the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) is appointed by the United States). The Secretary General leads work of the North Atlantic Council and is the co-chairman of the Defence Planning Committee, the Nuclear Planning Group, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), the Mediterranean Cooperation Group, the NATO-Russia Permanent Council and the NATO-Ukraine Commission. He is supported in the day-to-day management of the Alliance by an international staff of experts and officials from all NATO countries. The former prime minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg has served as the NATO Secretary General since 1 October 2014 and his term in office was extended until the end of 2022 as an exception.
The military structure of NATO is overseen by the Military Committee, which is the highest body of military power of the Alliance under the political control of the Northern Atlantic Council. The role of the Military Committee is to advise the Alliance on military matters. At the highest level, meetings are held between the commanders of the armed forces of the member countries, but on a day-to-day basis, member countries are represented by their military representatives.
The Military Committee also provides guidance to the two strategic commanders of NATO – the Supreme Allied Commande Europe (SACEUR), whose headquarters – the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) – are located in Mons, Belgium, and the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) – since 2021, this position is filled by General Philippe Lavigne, the former Chief of Staff of the French Air and Space Force. The SACT Headquarters are based is Norfolk, Virigina, US. The headquarters of the Allied Joint Force Command are located in Brunssum, the Netherlands. The Supreme Allied Commander Europe is responsible for the armed forces of the member countries at NATO’s disposal, as well as for all NATO operations, and also commands the US European Command. The duties of the Supreme Allied Commander are functional, he is responsible for promoting and controlling the continuous development of the Allied forces and military capabilities.