The NATO alliance confirmed Sunday that its long-serving chief would leave office in October, launching a new round of speculation about his successor.
Diplomats in Brussels say there is no consensus as to who should replace former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg as the Western alliance’s top civilian official.
Some allies were considering a plan to extend his already nine-year-old term to oversee NATO’s response to the crisis unleashed by Russia’s war against Ukraine.
But, on Sunday, shortly after Stoltenberg returned from high-level meetings in Washington, his spokeswoman confirmed that he would leave office later this year.
“The mandate of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been extended three times and he has served for a total of almost nine years,” spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
“The secretary general’s term comes to an end in October of this year and he has no intention to seek another extension of his mandate.”
The 63-year-old’s decision to go will shine a light on the race among senior European officials to replace him, with governments already discreetly floating candidates in news media leaks.
The secretary general has always been a European, even if in practice Washington has the decisive vote on his — or maybe, this time, on her — nomination.
And although the daily job is one of coordination and seeking consensus among the 30 allies, the choice itself will be seen as symbolic of NATO’s direction.
Time for a Woman?
The last time Stoltenberg’s future was in question — in February 2022, when he was named future head of the Norwegian central bank, only later to withdraw — speculation focused on women.
For seven decades the alliance has been headed by a series of western European men, and many observers thought it was time that a woman and or an easterner take charge.
The last four NATO chiefs were seemingly picked as an anti-clockwise tour of the North Sea coast, a Briton being succeeded by a Dutchman followed by a Dane and now a Norwegian.
Meanwhile, the alliance’s strategic focus has shifted to the eastern flank, where newer alliance members on the Baltic and Black Sea coasts face off against an aggressive Russia.
Poland and the Baltic nations now see their longstanding warnings about Moscow as justified, and they have led calls to arm and support Ukraine against the invasion.
This has led to calls for NATO to appoint a figure like Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte or her Estonian counterpart Kaja Kallas.
Both have long taken tough a diplomatic line with Russia, which recommends them to more hawkish allies, but may count against them in some capitals.
Some argue that appointing a Balt would be seen as too provocative towards Russia, pushing the allies — who already arm and fund Kyiv’s forces — closer to direct conflict with Moscow.
More cynical observers, including some NATO officials, suggest that Kallas has proved too successful an advocate of the eastern position, triggering resentment in western capitals.
So, if not a hawkish Balt, then who?
No official candidacies have been announced, but diplomats in Brussels suggested that the Netherlands would tout its defense minister, Kajsa Ollongren.
Britain, meanwhile, has already provided three secretaries general over the alliance’s history, and traditionally likes to see itself as a bridge between Europe and the US.
Britain’s defense secretary Ben Wallace is often cited as a possible candidate, but that might not go down well with the 21 NATO allies who are also members of the European Union.
Britain, especially under former premier Boris Johnson, won friends in Ukraine as an early and vocal backer of its defense, but Brexit damaged London’s ties with many EU capitals.
This leaves NATO’s southern flank, with figures like Italy’s 75-year-old former prime minister Mario Draghi and Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis reportedly in the frame.
And a final wild card: What if NATO picked a non-European secretary general for the first time, and plumped for a Canadian like Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland?
“There is no consensus,” one senior NATO official acknowledged, amid suggestions that US President Joe Biden‘s White House has yet to give the succession much thought.
Stoltenberg took office at NATO’s Brussels headquarters on October 1, 2014, and has overseen the Western alliance through several international crises.
The last NATO personnel and US forces left Afghanistan in August 2021, shortly before the capital Kabul fell to victorious Taliban forces, who revived their Islamist regime.
Stoltenberg also oversaw NATO’s response to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war, the most brutal on European soil since the 1940s.
He has been a respected secretary general and in particular a bridge between the European allies and Washington under former US president Donald Trump, a frequent NATO critic.