NATO Struggles to Choose New Leader as Allies Crave Stability Amid Ukraine War

NATO is attempting to choose a new leader, as the term of the current secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, is due to end later this year. However, some member countries want Stoltenberg to stay on, to give the Western alliance stability amid Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, has led NATO for nine years. His tenure has already been extended twice, most recently last year, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Hosting the secretary-general in Washington earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden praised Stoltenberg’s record.

“Your leadership in the alliance has been through a really significant period, in terms of dealing with NATO’s relationship with Ukraine and, you know, I think you’ve done an incredible job,” Biden said June 13. 

Stoltenberg’s term is due to expire in September. Traditionally, the secretary-general is European, but NATO allies appear undecided over who should succeed the 64-year-old incumbent, said Joel Hickman, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis, based in Washington.

“They’re going to have to be able to navigate lots of different competing national interests that you get in NATO, you get in an alliance of 30-plus countries. 

“They’re also going to have to be able to garner support among populations within those allied nations, particularly with young people. Polling in recent years has found that young people in the West struggle to understand the purpose or the relevance of NATO,” Hickman told VOA.

Denmark’s frontrunner

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is seen as a frontrunner. On a recent visit to Washington, she highlighted her country’s support for Kyiv.

“We will, of course, continue from our Danish perspective, our very strong, strong support to Ukraine,” she said.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace are also seen as contenders. However, Wallace said this week he does not believe he is a likely candidate for the top job. 

Hickman said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will inevitably dominate NATO thinking on choosing Stoltenberg’s successor.

“Its important that the NATO secretary-general has both an established and clear voice on Ukraine and can continue to maintain alliance solidarity on Ukraine. But also that they have credibility when it comes to NATO’s 2% [of GDP] spending target,” he said.

NATO is due to hold its annual summit on July 11 and 12 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Some allies want Stoltenberg to extend his term once again, although he hasn’t indicated whether he is prepared to do so.

“Right now I think there’s a lot of uncertainty in Ukraine. There’s also a lot of uncertainty in terms of U.S. politics and who we may have as a president next year – obviously we’ve heard different positions from some of the Republican candidates. And I think given all of that uncertainty, a large number of allies are looking for that stability,” Hickman said.

Daunting Challenges

Analysts say that whoever leads NATO will face numerous challenges: large scale land warfare in Europe; the dangers of nuclear proliferation; an increasingly assertive China; and new theaters of competition in cyber and space technology.

“All across the West, I think advanced societies are on the cusp of profound transformational changes, in particular in emerging and disruptive technologies. And I think NATO really needs to lead that race, particularly with what’s going on in Russia, but also with China and elsewhere in the world,” Hickman said.