Nato may choose 'action woman' as chief

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Norway's "action woman" Defence Minister is mounting a strong bid to become the first female secretary general of Nato, as the hunt for a new head for the transatlantic alliance reaches its last lap.

With the secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, leaving at the end of December, two unofficial candidates are making the running. The Dutch Foreign Minister, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, is the favourite but the prospect of Nato being led by a woman for the first time has made Norway's charismatic Defence Minister, Kristin Krohn Devold, a strong contender.

Described by one diplomat as "intellectually impressive" and "imaginative", the 41-year-old centre-right politician is also a sports enthusiast who famously surprised Norwegian troops when visiting them on winter exercises. Ms Devold, who came prepared with a swimsuit under her clothes, stripped off and plunged into a pool created in the broken ice.

Her more conventional qualifications were gained in Norwegian politics, where she marked herself out as a hawk on law and order, and reformed the country's Cold War-era military structures.

Five thousand posts have been shed from the armed forces and a third of the Defence Ministry's property has been sold off as part of reforms designed to a create leaner, more flexible force with "niche" capabilities.

Because many of Nato's smaller nations need to make similar changes, Ms Devold, who is Norway's second female defence minister, has become a strong contender for the top job within the alliance.

However, her critics argue that her country of 4.5 million people has little military clout, and that the job may have come up too soon in her career.

The Dutch Foreign Minister is a multilingual career diplomat who has served in his country's delegation to Nato, and aged 55, is regarded as a safer and more experienced choice. But he has never served as a defence minister, and the Netherlands has held the post twice, whereas a Norwegian has never got the job.

Lord Robertson's post has been difficult to fill in the fractious post-Iraq war climate, which split Nato. By tradition, neither the US nor France, which is not part of Nato's integrated military command structure, nominates a secretary general. As the outgoing secretary general is British and his predecessor was Spanish, those two nations are unlikely to propose a candidate.

The initial frontrunner was Antonio Martino, the Italian Defence Minister, but he has said he was not interested in the job - although some observers believe his name might resurface at the 11th hour. Antonio Vitorino, Portugal's European Commissioner, seems to have bowed out of the race.

Nato defence ministers will have their last chance to resolve the issue at a meeting in Colorado in early October. One diplomat said: "It's hard to know who's disappeared and who has not because the field keeps shifting."

One rumour is that Canada, which has never held the post, might propose John Manley, the Deputy Prime Minister. Another is that Eldbjorg Lower, Norway's first woman defence minister, who served from 1999-2000, might come into the running. The chances of a last-minute surprise are high.