BRUSSELS, July 4 (Reuters) – NATO on Tuesday extended Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s contract by another year, opting to stick with an experienced leader rather than try to agree on a successor as war rages on the alliance’s doorstep.
Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, has been the transatlantic security alliance’s leader since 2014 and his tenure has already been extended three other times.
The decision means continuity at the top of NATO as its 31 members grapple with the challenge of supporting Ukraine in repelling Moscow’s invasion while avoiding a direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces.
Stoltenberg, 64, is widely seen across the alliance as a steady leader and patient consensus-builder. The decision to extend his tenure to Oct. 1, 2024, comes ahead of a summit of NATO leaders in Vilnius, Lithuania, next week.
Stoltenberg said he was honoured by the decision.
“The transatlantic bond between Europe and North America has ensured our freedom and security for nearly 75 years, and in a more dangerous world, our Alliance is more important than ever,” he said.
U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of other NATO nations also hailed the decision.
“With his steady leadership, experience, and judgment, Secretary General Stoltenberg has brought our Alliance through the most significant challenges in European security since World War II,” Biden said in a statement.
A White House statement said Biden spoke with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday to review preparations for the Vilnius summit.
“They discussed a range of issues that leaders will consider at the Summit, including ways to further strengthen the Alliance,” the statement said.
Diplomats and analysts give Stoltenberg high marks for keeping NATO together over Ukraine, striking a balance between those demanding maximum support for Kyiv and others urging more caution out of fear of sparking a global conflict.
UKRAINE AND THE VILNIUS SUMMIT
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy offered his congratulations to Stoltenberg in a telephone call and said he would “look forward to continuing our fruitful cooperation.”
Zelenskiy on Telegram said he and Stoltenberg “coordinated our positions” ahead of the Vilnius summit, where Ukraine wants a signal that it can secure NATO membership.
“Now is the time for powerful decisions and concrete steps in this direction,” he said.
Zelenskiy’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, welcomed Stoltenberg’s extension and his “strong leadership.
Stoltenberg also won widespread praise for guiding the alliance through severe transatlantic turbulence during the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, who openly speculated about taking the United States out of NATO.
But the decision to stick with Stoltenberg also reflected a failure to reach consensus on a successor after he declared in February that he was not seeking a further extension.
“NATO member states have decided logically enough that the best secretary general currently on the marketplace is the one they already have. Experience matters especially at one of the most testing times in NATO’s history,” said Jamie Shea, a former senior NATO official now with the Chatham House think-tank.
Among those considered as potential successors to Stoltenberg were British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
But neither they nor others floated by diplomats appeared to have the support of all NATO members as the Vilnius summit approached. With leaders keen to avoid wrangling there over a new secretary general, they turned back to Stoltenberg.
His next tasks include overseeing a transformation of NATO forces to refocus on defending against any Russian attack, after decades in which NATO concentrated on missions beyond its borders, such as in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
He will also have to manage differences over how involved NATO should become in Asia, with the United States pushing for a greater role in countering China, while others such as France insist NATO must maintain focus on the North Atlantic area.
Shea said NATO now needs to consider succession planning and identify someone who will reflect its future image and direction, and builds on partnerships with other organisations such as the European Union.
(Reporting by Andrew Gray; additional reporting by Jasper Ward and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Marine Strauss, Charlotte Van Campenhout, Peter Graff, Alex Richardson, Ron Popeski, Mark Porter and David Gregorio)