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NATO allies are scouring their ranks — in search of a successor to Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, has served in the top civilian post since October 2014. Allies extended his contract until September 2022, leaving little more than a year to install a replacement. At headquarters, formal discussions have just begun, and Stoltenberg’s successor is expected to be introduced at a NATO leaders’ summit in Madrid in late spring or early summer next year.
But speculation in Brussels and other allied capitals is already rampant, with some officials, diplomats and analysts saying that after 72 years it’s high time for the alliance to appoint its first woman to the top civilian job. Others say that given the continuing face-off with Russia, selecting an Eastern European would send an important signal to Moscow.
Put those two imperatives together and three names quickly shoot to the top of the list of prospective candidates: former presidents Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović of Croatia and Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania; and current Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid.
Grabar-Kitarović, who served as Croatia’s first female president from 2015 to 2020, has the advantage of having already worked at NATO headquarters, as assistant secretary-general for public diplomacy from 2011 to 2014. She broke a glass ceiling in that job, too.
Detractors say that Grabar-Kitarović, who built her political career as a center-right conservative, tarnished herself by banking hard-right during a failed presidential reelection campaign in 2019.
She shifted to the right under pressure from a populist challenger, leading to accusations that she engaged in “dog whistle” politics, only to lose to the center-left former prime minister, Zoran Milanović.
But Grabar-Kitarović boasts one of the most impressive résumés among potential future NATO chiefs, having served as both Croatia’s Europe minister and foreign minister. She had a strong role in the country’s successful membership applications to the EU and NATO. She also served as the country’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011, giving her strong relationships in Washington, which will have a crucial say in the NATO decision.
As a fellow at American University’s Sine Institute of Policy and Politics this spring, Grabar-Kitarović led a seminar on NATO’s future that could well serve as an audition for the top job, in which she stressed how she had spent time on the ground in Afghanistan during her stint as assistant secretary-general.
“I loved my job at NATO … and the collaborative work experience and atmosphere,” she said at the start of the lecture, which also featured former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former Dutch foreign minister, who served in the top alliance job from 2004 to 2009.
De Hoop Scheffer was followed in the post by former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who preceded Stoltenberg, and several NATO insiders said it was difficult to imagine NATO allies opting for someone who had not similarly served as a head of state or government.
That preference for a former national leader has led to recent speculation about former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May as a potential candidate. Mark Sedwill, who served as Cabinet secretary and national security adviser under May and briefly under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has also been tipped as a potential U.K. nominee for NATO.
One influential former ambassador to NATO said there was a general expectation that Britain would make a strong push for the secretary-general post as a way of demonstrating its continued influence in Europe after Brexit.
But diplomats stressed that qualifications will be viewed as far more important than nationality, with a special premium put on leadership, management and communication skills. That could rule out May, whose management and communications skills during the Brexit process were widely panned at home. And Sedwill never served as foreign secretary or defense minister — two posts seen as a minimum requirement for any NATO chief.
The U.S., Germany, France and the U.K.are traditionally viewed as the most influential allies in the secretary-general selection process.
But with EU countries forming an overwhelming majority of NATO allies — 21 of 30 members — and several more counted as candidates for EU membership, post-Brexit Britain may find it difficult to muster support for such a prominent role.
And some EU countries, notably Italy, believe they are in line for the top NATO job. Federica Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister and former EU foreign policy chief, had previously expressed interest, but diplomats said that she would not have the support of Washington, and that Enrico Letta, who served as Italian prime minister from April 2013 to February 2014, was a more viable Italian candidate.
“The U.K.is eager to have a strong foothold in Brussels,” a former senior NATO official said. “The Italians will say that it’s their turn — they always say that. And the Easterners the same.”
Other Western European officials potentially in the mix include Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is now working to form a new government coalition, and Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès, who previously served as acting prime minister.
Some NATO-watchers said that choosing a secretary-general from the Baltics, particularly Grybauskaite of Lithuania, could be seen as too hostile toward Moscow, at a time when U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to stabilize relations between Russia and the West.
The former senior NATO official said that the contest for the secretary-general job could only be viewed in the context of a larger array of NATO leadership posts that will be up for grabs, with a crucial question being how many of those jobs the Americans will claim for themselves.
Sedwill, for example, could be more likely as a deputy secretary-general — which would give the U.K. prominence without having to win a popularity contest.
Other factors in the decision are whether a particular secretary-general candidate’s home country is fulfilling the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense — a symbolic but important marker that could boost the chances of Kaljulaid, the current president of Estonia.
Kaljulaid recently mounted an unsuccessful campaign to become secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a position that would seem to fit far better with her résumé. Prior to becoming president in October 2016, she had served for 12 years as Estonia’s representative on the EU Court of Auditors.
Romania is another NATO ally that meets the 2 percent threshold, potentially giving President Klaus Iohannis a shot at the secretary-general position, though Romania might be viewed as a bit too hawkish toward Russia.
Grabar-Kitarović by contrast faced some questions about being too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2018 World Cup, when — decked out in a red-and-white checkered team shirt — she was a prominent supporter of the Croatia side as it progressed to the final before losing to France at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
France won’t get to pick the secretary-general but will wield a de facto veto, NATO insiders said, which effectively kills any chance Turkey might have of claiming a very senior post. French President Emmanuel Macron has made a push recently for NATO to demonstrate greater political cohesion, a goal that Stoltenberg has endorsed as part of a recent “reflection” process on the alliance’s future.
During her seminar for American University, Grabar-Kitarović demonstrated a knack for echoing Stoltenberg’s pro-NATO platitudes, which have earned him a reputation for disciplined communications even amid the tumult caused by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
“It’s very important to note that NATO is not just a military alliance, it’s a political alliance as well as an alliance of values,” Grabar-Kitarović told her audience. “There’s a shared democratic identity at NATO.”
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