Inside File: Norway fishes for Nato's top job

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The Independent Online
THE NEXT secretary-general of Nato, to replace Manfred Worner who died last Saturday, is likely to be the international Bosnia mediator, Thorvald Stoltenberg, from Norway. Cautious gamblers, however, would be advised to put an each-way bet on Hans van den Broek of the Netherlands.

On Tuesday, only three days after the death of Worner, Mr Stoltenberg was suitably coy about whether he wanted the job. On returning from a trip to the former Yugoslavia, he said: 'Is that on the agenda? I've been in Serbia and Bosnia and I've seen it in some Serbian papers. But I must tell you, I am not prepared to talk about the future.'

As if butter would not melt in his mouth. At the same press conference, Mr Stoltenberg gave his views on how lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims would affect his efforts for peace: 'On the basis of a Security Council resolution, I think it can be helpful.'

It may be hard to imagine how a peace envoy would consider a lifting of the embargo 'helpful' - especially at a time when UN officials on the ground are known to consider it anything but; except that a lifting of the embargo has long been advocated by two leading Nato members - the United States and Germany. One official noted: 'It is interesting to note his more soothing line towards the Americans at this time.'

The Dutch feel they have a claim to a top post since Ruud Lubbers was rejected by the Franco-German axis as head of the European Commission. Yet for too long there has also been a tendency in the West to pick a Dutchman when they could not agree on one of the big players.

There is, of course, a similar tendency when seeking an uncontroversial figure to do a controversial job, to look for a Scandinavian. Norway feels it is its turn. As foreign minister in the 1980s, Mr Stoltenberg lobbied for another Norwegian, Kaare Willoch, to get the Nato job. The Germans got in with Worner instead.

Mr Stoltenberg's candidacy has a personal background. His successor as foreign minister was a natural for Nato. Had Johan Jorgen Holst not died of a stroke in January, after presiding over the Oslo-led Middle East negotiations last year, 'he would have walked in', one insider said. 'Nato and he were tailor-made for each other.'

Mr Stoltenberg's and Mr Holst's lives and careers always seemed inextricably linked, even interchangeable. They were married to a pair of sisters. When Boutros Boutros-Ghali asked Mr Stoltenberg to take the Bosnia job last year, the latter prevaricated because his Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, wanted him to stay on as foreign minister. It was only when the UN chief threatened instead to offer the job to Mr Holst, then defence minster, that Mr Stoltenberg accepted. This enabled Mr Holst to step into Mr Stoltenberg's job at home.

'Holst would have been an obvious choice; but to go for his double is a different thing,' one close observer said. 'In that case we are choosing the lowest common denominator, a man who doesn't have a smell, doesn't have a taste; a typical Scandinavian.'

Norwegian diplomats think that analysis is unfair. 'Holst had the glamour of the Middle East; but Stoltenberg has a distinguished career and very broad experience behind him,' one said. That includes having worked reasonably smoothly alongside Lord Owen over several periods, 'and that kind of person', one top diplomat noted, 'does not grow on trees'.

Norway, which will lobby quietly for its man in the coming weeks, hopes to see the issue resolved before November. The country looks set to vote 'no' to EU membership in a referendum that month. Some Europeans would oppose having a confirmed non-EU member at the helm of Nato, should it seek closer ties with the EU in future. Conversely, having a Norwegian in a top Brussels job might encourage the recalcitrant Norwegians to vote 'yes'.

The horse-trading will not start until after Worner's funeral this weekend. 'But one thing is certain,' one Norwegian diplomat said. 'We want to avoid a complicated process.' In other words, Nato wants to avoid the kind of blood-letting that took place over the succession to Jacques Delors this summer. 'At all costs, spare us another Corfu,' one official said. 'Especially if we are to convince the US that the Alliance is still a credible organisation worth staying in.' And Messrs Stoltenberg and Van den Broek are, at least, both confirmed Atlanticists.