Europe awaits the white smoke from Washington.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will visit the White House on Tuesday, part of a trip that could determine whether he remains at the helm of the Western military alliance or whether the United States backs a new candidate.
For months now, Europe has been locked in an endless parlor game over who could replace Stoltenberg, who is expected to step down from his already extended mandate in September after nearly 10 years at the helm.
The candidates have risen, fallen and risen again, while some would-be successors have repeatedly proclaimed themselves not interested. Diplomats at NATO headquarters in Brussels will pitch one theory, only to offer another in the next sentence.
Through it all, the United States has remained remarkably silent on the matter, simply indicating that President Joe Biden has not settled for one candidate and enthusiastically praising Stoltenberg’s work. Yet Biden cannot sit still forever. While the head of NATO is technically chosen unanimously, White House approval carries considerable weight.
The foot dragging has left NATO in limbo: while some members say the time has come for a fresh face, NATO’s job – traditionally reserved for a European – has become very sensitive. There are few senior European leaders who are both willing and can enlist the support of all 31 alliance members for the high-profile post.
The upshot is that all eyes have turned to Washington as the clock draws closer to NATO’s annual summit in July — a sort of deadline for the alliance to make a decision on its next (or extended) leader.
« I wouldn’t be 100% sure that the list is closed, » said a senior Central European diplomat, who like others has been granted anonymity to discuss the dynamics of the alliance. « There may be », added the diplomat, « a last minute extension initiative ».
Diplomats are divided over what will happen in the NATO leadership lottery.
While many candidates still insist they’re not in the running — and Stoltenberg has repeatedly said he plans to return home to Norway, where he was prime minister — all options seem to remain on the table.
These days the two possible contenders most often mentioned in diplomatic circles are Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
Frederiksen met with Biden at the White House last week, boosting speculation about his future. As the female leader of a European Union country that is a strong supporter of Ukraine but not an outright hawk, the Danish leader ticks many boxes for some of the alliance’s most influential members.
Yet speaking to reporters in Washington, she he insisted« I’m not a candidate for any job other than the one I have now, and that hasn’t changed since my meeting with the president of the United States. »
In NATO circles, however, the narrative is different. Four European diplomats said Frederiksen’s name was still circulating as a serious contender for the job.
However, Frederiksen faces challenges: Denmark already held the top post of NATO less than a decade ago. And not everyone is totally thrilled.
« The Turks may want to block the Danish candidate, » the senior Central European diplomat said. “There is some distance from this idea (not for Frederiksen personally) elsewhere in the east and south as well, and some of those countries may even join a potential bloc.”
Turkey summoned the Danish envoy to Ankara earlier this year after a far-right group burned a Koran and a Turkish flag in Copenhagen. More broadly, the Turkish government has objected to a number of northern European countries and is still blocking Sweden’s NATO membership bid.
When asked about possible opposition to the Danish leader in Ankara, however, a Turkish official said: “It’s gossip, period. We have never been asked about his candidacy!”
Briton Wallace, on the other hand, has openly expressed interest in the work of NATO.
But he faces an uphill battle. Many allies would prefer to see a former prime minister in the role. And some EU capitals have signaled they would oppose a non-EU candidate.
Asked last week whether it was time for a British secretary general, Biden was lukewarm.
« Perhaps. That remains to be seen, » the president said. “We will have to get a consensus within NATO for that to happen. They have a candidate who is a very qualified individual. But we will have – we will have a lot of discussions, not among ourselves, but in NATO, to determine what the outcome will be. »
A number of other names, including Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Spanish leader Pedro Sánchez are still occasionally mentioned, albeit less frequently. Sánchez, for his part, could soon be on the market for a new job as he faces tough elections in July.
Some diplomats simply aren’t crazy about any of the major options.
« I don’t hear it, » said a senior NATO diplomat, also speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations. The diplomat argued that the « most likely » scenario is yet another short extension for Stoltenberg and the need to « refresh » the candidate list.
The senior Central European diplomat said « the core of the EU » – some of the bloc’s most influential capitals – may be in favor of an extension that would synchronize NATO headline talks with the EU’s impending leadership reshuffle following the June 2024 EU elections. Combining the two could open the door to more political horse trading .
But last month, when asked about his future, Stoltenberg said: ‘I have made it clear that I have no other plans than to leave this autumn. I will have already been almost double the time originally planned.
Others insisted they were optimistic about the names on the table.
Both Frederiksen and Wallace, said a senior Northern European diplomat, « seem well qualified ».
A senior diplomat from Eastern Europe is soon betting on a new head of NATO.
« I think, » the diplomat said, « we’re getting closer to replacement than extension. »
Eli Stokols contributed to the reporting.