Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Norwegian Secretary-General, is preparing to step down in September after serving for nine years, triggering a competitive race to find his successor. However, the process remains largely undisclosed, leaving the outcome uncertain.
With the NATO summit in Lithuania approaching in mid-July, many member nations are eager to settle on Stoltenberg’s successor by then or even earlier. This tight timeline puts pressure on the 31 member countries, ranging from the United States to Turkey, to reach a consensus swiftly or contemplate extending Stoltenberg’s term for a fourth time.
The incoming Secretary-General will assume the position during a critical period, facing the challenge of maintaining unity within the alliance while supporting Ukraine and carefully managing any potential escalation that could lead NATO into direct conflict with Russia.
While British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has expressed interest in the role, there is growing momentum among certain governments to appoint a female Secretary-General. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has emerged as a serious contender for the position.
The selection process primarily involves consultations among leaders and diplomats, maintaining a level of opacity. Consensus among all NATO members is crucial, and these consultations will continue until an agreement is reached.
Leaders are seeking a highly skilled politician, communicator, and diplomat who can successfully navigate the role. Jamie Shea, a former senior NATO official, emphasized the importance of keeping all member states united and addressing their concerns.
Although Wallace is respected across the alliance, some diplomats consider him a long shot due to the desire for a female Secretary-General. Ideally, the position should be filled by a former prime minister or president to ensure significant political influence. Stoltenberg, having previously served as Norway’s prime minister, met these criteria.
Certain member states, particularly France, advocate for a Secretary-General from a European Union (EU) country, hoping to foster increased cooperation between NATO and the EU.
Frederiksen fulfills the desired criteria, despite stating that she is not a candidate. Nevertheless, behind-the-scenes discussions indicate serious consideration of her candidacy.
Gaining Washington’s approval is essential for any serious candidate, given the United States’ influential position within NATO. According to a source familiar with U.S. thinking, the Biden administration has yet to favor a specific candidate, and active debates among top aides are ongoing.
Frederiksen, a Social Democrat, became Denmark’s youngest prime minister in 2019 and received praise for her crisis management during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, if appointed as NATO Secretary-General, she would need to resign as prime minister, potentially risking the stability of her government.
While other names such as Kallas, von der Leyen, Freeland, Rutte, and Sanchez have been discussed in the media, each potential candidate faces significant obstacles and considerations.
The lack of widespread support for any particular candidate raises the possibility of extending Stoltenberg’s term once again, possibly until the next NATO summit in 2024. Although Stoltenberg has stated that he does not seek an extension, his response remains undisclosed if asked to stay longer.