Nato leaders will on Thursday discuss extending secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s term beyond his planned departure this summer, as allies fret over the potential ramifications of changing leadership during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Multiple officials from the US-led alliance told the Financial Times they saw growing support for extending Stoltenberg’s term, which he is due to complete at the end of September. He was expected to start a term as the governor of the Norwegian central bank in December.
Nato leaders will meet in Brussels on Thursday. The US supports extending Stoltenberg’s term, a US official said. A White House official said it was “a decision for the alliance”.
Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said on Wednesday: “We think that Jens Stoltenberg has been doing a fantastic job — and day in, day out has played a critical leadership role for Nato.
“Stoltenberg is a real asset to the alliance,” Sullivan added.
The discussions come as Nato faces its most serious security threat since the cold war after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Some officials and politicians said it was a risky time for the alliance to change its leadership given the gravity of the current crisis.
Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s prime ministertold the FT on Tuesday that there was an argument in favour of continuity given the scale of the crisis, adding that the topic was likely to come up at the summit.
“Changing the captain in the middle of a storm is not an easy thing to do — that is correct,” he said.
Kajsa Ollongren, the Dutch minister of defence, said it was “really not good” timing for Stoltenberg to be due to leave within months.
She told the FT she would understand if the secretary-general felt it was not the right time for him to move to the Norwegian central bank, adding that the debate over who could succeed him had stopped the moment Russia attacked Ukraine in February.
“Jens Stoltenberg has done a great job. It is important to have someone we all know and we all trust there and he is that person,” she said, declining to pre-empt discussions on the topic between alliance leaders. “We will see what is possible.”
Stoltenberg said any extension was a matter for the 30 allies to decide. “My focus is on preparing the summit tomorrow in the midst of the most serious security situation we have been in for decades,” he told reporters on Wednesday, when asked if he would be prepared to extend his term. “I leave it to the allies to decide other things.”
Stoltenberg, who is a former Norwegian prime minister, was appointed Nato secretary-general in 2014 and his term was extended by two years in 2019. His successor was due to be announced at the alliance’s annual summit in Madrid in June.
“We regard his leadership and coolheadedness very highly, in particular during the crisis right now,” Tomasz Szatkowski, Poland’s permanent representative to Nato, told the FT.
Nato officials said that a serious debate about Stoltenberg’s successor was first stymied in the winter by uncertainty over the outcome of the French presidential election next month, before being pushed far down the list of alliance priorities as Russian prepared for and then launched its invasion of Ukraine .
“It’s not a great look to be gossiping about a horse race while there’s a war on,” said one alliance official. “Any name you may have heard cast about is probably no longer a serious option.”
Stoltenberg has been praised by many of Nato’s leaders for his ability to handle former US president Donald Trump, who came into office criticising the alliance but ultimately took credit for its strengthening under his presidency.
“Consistency and an uninterrupted message is what we would like to see,” said one senior official from a Nato member state. “We would support a bold decision to push this decision back to a certain point.”
Norway’s finance ministry, which chose Stoltenberg to become the new central bank governor and chair of its $1.3tn oil fund only last month, said it was “aware of this and [was] preparing for a situation where Stoltenberg will not take office as governor at the end of this year as planned”. “We will have to get back to exactly how this will be handled if it turns out to be a reality,” it added.
Ida Wolden Bache, the former deputy governor of Norway’s central bank and the candidate beaten by Stoltenberg, became interim governor earlier this month — the first woman to take on the role.
Opposition politicians in Oslo had criticised the choice of Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who is close friends with the current premier Jonas Gahr Store, mostly for potentially undermining the central bank’s independence but also for taking him away from Nato at a time of its most tense relationship with Moscow in decades.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Brussels