US President Joe Biden will meet outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House on Monday as the fight to secure his successor intensifies.
Although the White House says the official agenda for the meeting is to discuss the alliance’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July, the question of who will take the NATO helm next during this difficult period of its 74-year history will undoubtedly be one of the main themes, as the alliance grapples with Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, is the longest-serving NATO chief in a generation, and his term has been extended three times since he took office in 2014. In February, his spokesman said he would step down when His current term ends in October.
Stoltenberg is widely credited for managing rocky transatlantic relations between former US President Donald Trump and European allies over defense spending, the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, and the alliance’s response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. His preference for his successor carries weight, and Biden is expected to consult with him.
“Many people will look at him to say: ‘Who do you think is the best to continue your leadership?’ said Andrew Hyde, principal investigator for the Stimson Center.
Whoever succeeds Stoltenberg will face the daunting challenge of running the security of 1 billion people in 31 countries and growing. It will have to find the difficult balance between supporting Ukraine militarily and preventing the conflict from spilling over into the territory of a NATO member, which would activate the collective defense principle of Article 5 of the Alliance and could lead to World War III.
Traditionally, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe is an American general, but the post of head of NATO has always been taken by a European, even though there is nothing in the alliance’s charter that requires it.
There is no formal process, and candidates do not advertise their candidacy. The selection is made by consensus, mainly through discreet and informal diplomatic channels. As the largest donor, the United States plays a key role, which is why two applicants recently visited the Oval Office.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen met Biden at the White House on Monday. However, her candidacy would mark the third succession of a Nordic country as Secretary General.
Another potential stumbling block is that Denmark has long failed to meet the minimum 2% military spending requirement for member states. In December, her government launched a plan to meet the NATO target by 2030 and has recently increased military aid to Ukraine.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Washington days after Frederiksen with a broad agenda that included lobbying for his defense secretary, Ben Wallace. Britain, which provides more military aid to Ukraine than any country after the United States, has influence. And as one of the first defense ministers to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, Wallace is well known among the alliance.
However, of the 13 chiefs in NATO’s history, three were British. Biden was non-committal when asked if the time had come for another. “Maybe. That remains to be seen,” he said Thursday during a joint press conference with Sunak. All those who have held the position since 1952 have been men.
Is it time for a woman?
Hyde said there is a sense that the time has come for the Alliance to elect a woman as its leader. With the Russian war raging, “there’s also a feeling that she should be someone from Eastern Europe,” she added.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and her Lithuanian counterpart Ingrida Simonyte meet both requirements. However, some observers argue that a leader from one of the Baltic countries, which is usually tough on Russia, could be perceived as a provocation by Moscow.
The president of Slovakia, Zuzana Caputova, and the president of the European Commission, the German Ursula von der Leyen, have been proposed as possible candidates. Also, Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, although her Ukrainian ancestry may be a complication.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also been mentioned. And there is always the possibility that the allies will convince Stoltenberg to extend his term once more.
The question of who will be NATO’s next secretary general is expected to be resolved in July, when the group’s leaders meet in Vilnius.