Can Canada's Peter MacKay be secretary general?

Does Canada's Peter MacKay have a shot at being NATO's next secretary general?

I first heard the suggestion a year ago. NATO officials were quietly musing that Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay would make a good secretary general for the military alliance. But that his passport conspired against him.

Since then, the rumours have become more pronounced, particularly with the Economist magazine in January touting MacKay for the top post. Then, more recently, the U.S. ambassador to NATO said Washington would be open to either a Canadian or an eastern European as secretary general, breaking central Europe's stranglehold on the job.

Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay (right) with his U.S. counterpart Robert Gates at a November 2008 get-together in Nova Scotia. (Mike Dembeck/Canadian Press)

NATO, of course, is about much more than Afghanistan but the war there is certainly its primary occupation, as it is in Barack Obama's Washington. And when the situation in Afghanistan is discussed, diplomats and ministers have long listened carefully to MacKay, both when he was Canada's foreign minister and now its minister of defence, because of Canada's long involvement in that part of the world.

At NATO summits and ministerial conferences, representatives of all 26 nations are given time to speak. Bathroom breaks are frequent, however, when the smaller members of the alliance talk, though that was not the case with Canada.

MacKay is well liked and well respected at the organization. He is someone viewed as having a strong understanding of the issues at stake and the personalities around the table.

So when NATO's existing secretary general, the former Dutch defence minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, finishes his term this summer, why could a Canadian not replace him?

MacKay's name, after all, is not the only one to have come up. Former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, who led Canada's Afghan Task Force, pops up as well.

Canadians need not apply

A contender: Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2009. (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

The problem is both are Canadian.

Since NATO's inception, the tradition has been straightforward. The Americans appoint the top military figure (known as the SACEUR - supreme allied commander Europe) and the Europeans, to counterbalance, appoint the senior civilian figure, the secretary general.

For Europeans, having a U.S. military commander and a Canadian secretary general would be seen as too much power concentrated on one side of the Atlantic. Specifically, the Europeans would think the Americans are running everything.

Many already view the alliance as a multilateral mechanism for the United States to exert its foreign policy goals and European states are keen to avoid amplifying that perception.

Still, MacKay's candidacy — which remains unofficial — is not dead before it starts, just an extremely long shot.

Europe's leading contenders

Another contender: Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski during a visit to Washington in November 2008. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)

Two of the Europeans deemed best suited to the job — Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw 'Radek' Sikorski — have publicly denied their candidacy.

(So has MacKay, after a fashion: he said recently he is flattered to be considered but is "focused on his current job.")

Rasmussen has been PM since 2001. He supported the 2003 Iraq War and sent Danish troops there. He is also a contender to become leader of the European Union later this year.

Sikorski is very well spoken and highly educated, though is known as fiercely anti-Russian and that complicates his chances when the vote of heavyweights like Germany are factored in. The Poles and Brits support Sikorski, but the Germans are not keen to do anything to poke the Russian bear.

Europe seems only now to have extricated itself, with the help of the Obama administration, from Russia's threats to deploy ballistic missiles on Europe's eastern borders.

They were to be in response to American plans to station its own weapons in eastern European states. But Obama is now offering to delay these plans if Russia will engage in broad arms talks.

With these in mind, Europe doesn't want to do anything else to further destabilize the already-complex Euro-Russian relationship.

And that's where MacKay's chances lie. He has no baggage. And with the Europeans unable to reach a consensus ahead of the annual NATO summit of heads of state in April where the decision will be made, he remains a possible secretary general.