I WAS KEENLY INTERESTED IN DEVELOPMENTS IN NATO, WHICH I HAD BEEN FOLLOWING SINCE 1952 FROM A DISTANCE. TO MY MIND, NATO WAS, AND STILL IS, THE CENTER FOR ATLANTIC POLICY. TO TAKE PART IN ITS DAILY FUNCTIONING…WAS TO BE THE MOST DESIREABLE POST I COULD OBTAIN.
Dirk Uipko Stikker became the third Secretary General on 21 April 1961. His name in connection with NATO was already a familiar one. As Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, Stikker signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. And from July 1958 to April 1961, he was the Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to NATO.
Stikker’s path to head of the Alliance was not without its twists and turns. His name was among those considered for the first Secretary General. It came up again in 1960 yet not without some internal debate. It was the height of the Cold War and nuclear policy was at the top of the agenda. France, under President General de Gaulle, had a tenuous relationship with NATO and the United States over this issue. A series of decisions eventually resulted in French withdrawal from the integrated command structure in 1966. The ongoing tension spilled over into the appointment of a new Secretary General. Arguing that Stikker was too sympathetic to the American view, France backed the Italian candidate Manlio Brosio. Stikker’s appointment was eventually approved and Brosio was chosen to succeed him in August 1964.
General de Gaulle refused to receive Stikker during his tenure but Stikker continued to make genuine efforts to maintain a working relationship with the French. At the same time, he remained unapologetically a staunch pro-Atlanticist. Stikker frequently visited the United States and got along very well with President Kennedy.
Stikker possessed a rather business-like pragmatic demeanour. In addition to his native Dutch, he fluently spoke English, French and German. Regularly working fourteen hour days, seven days a week in the first year of his mandate, he would consider all aspects of an issue before coming to a decision. Having a preference for written communication, Stikker quietly exercised power from the side lines. Various illnesses further contributed to his low profile.
Outside of press conferences, he was not often available to speak to the media. He did however insist on personally approving all press releases and did not often volunteer extra information which the press officer might use to answer on his behalf. This made him seem less accessible than previous Secretaries General.
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Stikker’s highly methodical nature characterised the running of Council meetings. He encouraged more discussion on military topics and shorter, politically oriented speeches. As he covered many aspects of the agenda items beforehand with his staff, he sometimes tended to assume the Council discussion would render no further considerations. After deliberation of an issue, Stikker would summarise it ending with “pas d’objection?” Unless there was vigorous opposition, he would move on. Some Ambassadors felt excluded by this process. They addressed this by convening informal meetings to share views and even agree on common positions to be adopted faster during Council meetings. The weekly Ambassadors’ luncheon is a tradition that continues to this day. An invitation to attend was extended to Stikker however, he felt very strongly that it was necessary to disassociate himself in order to maintain authority as the head of the Council.
Placing more emphasis on military rather than political issues and having previously supported national defence policies, Stikker enjoyed a good working relationship with SHAPE. It also helped that Stikker and SACEUR Norstad were both professional and personal acquaintances. As Stikker preferred to stay behind the scenes, he did not take issue with Norstad’s tendency to be more visible. However, the constant communication between the two and Stikker’s support for American policy, raised some suspicions about Norstad’s influence over the Council. Nevertheless, the close cooperation proved constructive and valuable as Cold War tensions hit a peak in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.
Stikker’s ill health plagued the second half of his term and hampered his ability to be the visible face of the Alliance. Limiting his social activities, he passed many invitations along to the Deputy Secretary General instead. Health issues led him to inform the Council of his resignation in April 1964.