Spain's Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, was named yesterday as Nato's new Secretary-General, ending six weeks of embarrassing uncertainty over who should head the world's strongest military alliance.
Diplomats in Brussels said a consensus had formed around Mr Solana as the best man to replace Willy Claes, who resigned in October because of a corruption scandal in his native Belgium. "We have a new Secretary-General", the US ambassador, Robert Hunter, said.
"The 16 support Solana," said Carlos Miranda, Spain's ambassador to Nato, after an informal meeting of the alliance's ambassadors. "This is a very good and important day for Spain."
Mr Solana said: "I am very grateful to all those who have shown their confidence in me to lead the alliance at a very important time. I will devote my best efforts to it ... Without doubt the most difficult task is implementing the peace agreement in former Yugoslavia".
He was not sure when he would leave for Brussels, but said he would like to take part in the European Union summit in Madrid on 15 and 16 December, which concludes Spain's six-month EU presidency, before taking over at Nato. He declined to comment on who would replace him at home, or whether Spain would become a full member of the alliance's military structure.
The main barrier to Mr Solana's appointment was removed on Thursday, when officials in Washington indicated the United States would throw its weight behind him, even though Spain is not fully integrated into Nato's military command structure.
Mr Hunter said: "Minister Solana has great potential to become an outstanding Secretary General at a critical time."
Despite not being an official candidate, Mr Solana emerged as the front- runner for the job after the US effectively vetoed the former Dutch prime minister, Ruud Lubbers. France and Greece did the same for the former Danish foreign minister, Uffe Elleman-Jensen.
British officials dismissed as "totally without foundation" reports in the Spanish and British media that Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, had opposed Mr Solana because he campaigned against Spanish membership of Nato when the Socialists were in opposition in the early 1980s.
However, 35 US Congressmen made public their opposition to Mr Solana this week when they told the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in a letter, that it would be "totally inappropriate" to appoint him since Spain is not fully integrated into Nato's military command. They said Mr Solana also was unacceptably critical of the US trade embargo on Cuba.
State Department sources said Mr Christopher disagreed with this portrayal of Mr Solana and regarded him as a close friend who was committed to strengthening US-European relations. Mr Christopher meets Mr Solana in Madrid today.
Mr Christopher arrives in Madrid before President Bill Clinton, who will sign a "transatlantic agenda" document with Jacques Santer, the President of the European Commission, and the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, tomorrow. The "agenda", which was launched by Mr Christopher in Madrid last June, includes co-operation beyond traditional trade and security matters to include operations against terrorism and drug-trafficking.
Mr Solana's departure would remove from the Spanish scene Mr Gonzalez's most likely successor as leader of an enfeebled Socialist Party that faces general elections in March. Mr Solana, has been close to Mr Gonzalez since the 1970s, and is the only minister remaining from the original cabinet formed in 1982 after the Socialists won a landslide election.
Although he had been a vocal opponent of Nato when Spain joined in the early Eighties, as the government's spokesman he backed the 1986 referendum campaign in favour of Spain's continuing membership of the Atlantic alliance.
Since the beginning of the war in Bosnia, he has advocated a tougher European line in the Balkans. Spain has become identified with the drive towards greater European Union defence integration.
Under Mr Solana's leadership, Nato will have to take crucial decisions concerning Bosnia, the question of membership for Central and Eastern European nations, and the forging of new links with the Western European Union, the EU's putative defence organisation. He will also be at the centre of efforts to create a European pillar for Nato, while not undermining the Atlantic link.