Wanted: new chief for Nato

The US is determined to ensure that a highly-respected heavyweight figure takes over as Nato Secretary General, at a time when the credibility of the alliance has been brought into some disrepute, diplomats say.

After the resignation of Willy Claes over links to alleged bribes in helicopter deals while he was Belgian economy minister, Washington wants to make sure that there is no similar mistake, though this may delay the appointment for weeks.

It is understood that the US attempted to put pressure on Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, to change his mind and stand for the job he has not been persuaded as yet and this has led to the emergence of other heavyweight British figures. News that Britain is considering proposing Sir Leon Brittan as a candidate reported in the Independent yesterday, was broadly welcomed by Nato insiders, but caused some surprise within the European Commission.

Sir Leon's professionalism is highly respected , and his brokering skills are considered right for the job of chairing the meetings of Nato ambassadors. His tough reputation as a negotiator is exactly what is needed to ensure that Nato can reach agreement over how to enforce peace in the Balkans

Nevertheless there were fears that a British intervention could delay the selection process. It had been expected that the decision on the new Nato chiefwould be taken within days. Now it is likely to be weeks. John Major was yesterday still considering other British candidates, and will come under pressure to make a firm proposal soon. However, his options are very limited and he is loath to propose any sitting Tory MP, because, to do so, would force a by-election. The prospect of selecting a new EU Commissioner, should Sir Leon take the post, is also unattractive.