Nato's hidden leadership race poised to break into the open

Amid rising tensions the successor to Jens Stoltenberg will be chosen in closed-door consultations

The armed forces of the US, Canada, Poland and Italy take part in drills in Latvia. AP
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Leadership of Nato is not a job for someone afraid of the limelight. The occupant of the post is rarely out of the headlines, not least in recent weeks when the fate of Ukraine under the shadow of a Russian military build-up has posed a clear and present challenge to the Western Alliance.

It is a sensitive time therefore for the 72-year old organisation to look for a new leader but that is exactly the process that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has now begun.

Facing down Russia's challenges to the post-Cold War order, adapting to modern warfare and keeping the peace between 30 armed forces with three nuclear deterrents: one of the world’s most demanding security posts will be up for grabs this year when Nato chooses a new secretary general.

The new leader will take over an alliance facing questions over its future after it was humbled by the chaotic end of its 20-year mission in Afghanistan, which brought uncomfortable truths to the surface about its deep reliance on American military power.

A successor will be named no later than October, when Jens Stoltenberg reaches the end of his eight-year term. He has applied to become the next governor of Norway’s central bank.

There is no formal procedure to choose a successor, whose roles include acting as Nato’s chief spokesman, building consensus between allies, and, in an extreme case, helping to trigger its mutual defence clause.

Instead, the winner will emerge from closed-door consultations between allies in an opaque process not unlike that used to choose a new pope.

There is one unwritten rule: the secretary general has always been a European, and the military’s Supreme Allied Commander always an American.

But nobody could become secretary general without support from the US, which accounts for more than a third of the alliance’s population and two thirds of its military spending.

“It’s meant to be an alliance of equals, but of course there’s a first among equals, which is the United States. So any candidate has got to satisfy the United States,” said Ian Davis, the founder of independent analyst Nato Watch.

The US has signalled at recent summits that addressing China’s ambitions should be part of Nato’s remit, Mr Davis said, making this a potential condition of Washington’s support.

He said the secretive process jarred with Nato’s self-described mission of upholding democratic values.

“It is rather archaic. I wonder if in this day and age we ought to [have an] open and transparent selection process for what is one of the major international jobs on offer,” he told The National.

Nato plans to revamp its mission statement this year with greater emphasis on modern-day threats such as cyber warfare and climate change, with results expected to be unveiled at a Madrid summit in June.

The horse-trading for the top job can veer beyond discussions about North Atlantic security and into domestic politics. In 2009, Turkey held up the nomination of eventual winner Anders Fogh Rasmussen because of a controversy over offensive cartoons published in his native Denmark.

Brexit problems for Britain

This year, political concerns could scupper Britain’s hopes of taking the top job for the first time since George Robertson led Nato from 1999 to 2003 – a term during which he invoked the mutual defence clause after 9/11.

The UK government has signalled interest in proposing a British candidate, with former prime minister Theresa May openly endorsed last year by UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

William Hague, a former British foreign secretary, and Mark Sedwill, a civil servant with experience in tricky diplomatic roles in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have also been mentioned as contenders.

But Britain’s ties with its European neighbours were strained by Brexit, and France was especially enraged by the UK’s role in the Aukus pact that torpedoed an Australian submarine deal with French manufacturers.

“I think it’s unlikely it will be a Brit this time,” Mr Davis said. “I just don’t think they’ll get that past the French, to be honest, because of Brexit and because of the Aukus nuclear submarine arrangement.”

Eyes on Eastern Europe

Italy could be in the running too, with former premier Enrico Letta and the EU’s erstwhile foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini both suggested as possible candidates. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Germany’s former defence secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer have also been mentioned.

But some have expressed the view that it is time for an Eastern European to take charge for the first time to send a message to Moscow as it plots to constrain Nato in its former Soviet sphere of influence.

Jakub Kulhanek, a former Czech foreign minister, made this point last month when he said an eastern secretary general could help to unite the alliance.

Nato solidarity took a hit during the turbulent Donald Trump years, and the messy exit from Afghanistan led to disagreements in Europe over how far to pursue autonomy from Washington.

There is also a feeling in some quarters that Nato should be led by a woman for the first time, Mr Davis said, after 13 consecutive male leaders.

He mentioned three female contenders, all former presidents, from Eastern Europe: Croatia’s Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, and Estonia’s Kersti Kaljulaid.

Ms Grabar-Kitarovic is a former assistant secretary general of Nato – the first woman in that role – and has the backing of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic to move to the top job.

Ms Kaljulaid is a prominent critic of Russia and was described by one Estonian newspaper as a potential “Joan of Arc” for the alliance, invoking a French medieval heroine.

But the shadowy process means an unexpected candidate could rise to the top – mirroring what happened in the EU when Ursula von der Leyen came from nowhere to take on the European Commission presidency three years ago.

“Often, someone comes out of the blue,” said Mr Davis, who said Nato watchers had not seen Mr Stoltenberg’s appointment coming during the last round of negotiations in 2014.

“Quite contentious bilateral things between countries can knock a candidate off course. It’s really difficult to say who it’s going to be.”

Updated: January 19, 2022, 5:00 AM