Rishi Sunak is in the United States to meet with President Joe Biden for the fourth time this year. His agenda is packed, and the main topic of discussion with Biden is expected to be artificial intelligence. Indeed, Sunak hopes to drum enthusiasm up for the UK as a global leader in AI regulation.
Although Sunak hasn’t confirmed it, it’s widely expected that he’ll also make the case for his Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, to become the head of NATO when Jens Stoltenberg leaves the post at the end of September. The US has historically been widely influential in deciding who takes that post, so Sunak will want Biden to back Wallace for the British candidate to even have a chance at getting the top job.
Earlier this week, Sunak praised Wallace, defining him a “great Defence Secretary” who does a “fantastic job”. Sunak was also making the case for Wallace with other world leaders on the margins of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima in May.
Wallace has previously admitted the NATO job would be one he would like. He is appreciated as a thoughtful player in foreign politics in the US, especially because he was so instrumental in pushing and maintaining support for Ukraine among Western allies.
But competition is fierce. Denmark’s prime minister Mette Frederiksen is the other major contender for the post of NATO secretary-general. She would be the first female head of the military alliance. She will also be meeting Biden next Monday – most likely to convince him of how well she could do in the role.
Another touted candidate is Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Ðimonytë. Yet it’s unclear whether all NATO members would feel comfortable giving the position to a candidate from a state bordering Russia. They might consider it too provocative, after the admission of Finland into the alliance and the potential future admission of Sweden.
The job is incredibly prestigious in international politics. In practical terms, the secretary-general is the top civil servant and the principal spokesperson for NATO. They chair all the major committees and are responsible for leading discussions and ensuring decisions are implemented.
The last time a British politician became NATO secretary general was in 1999, when Labour MP George Robertson took the post.
If Wallace wins, he would get the job for four years, which can be extended if all member states agree. Stoltenberg, former prime minister of Norway, extended his mandate three times before deciding to leave when his last term ends this year. Since he took the post in 2014, Stoltenberg guided the alliance through several international crises.
The new secretary-general will have to walk a fine line, maintaining the balance between support for Ukraine – and possibly increased military aid – and not directly intervening in Russia’s war. It won’t be an easy job, whoever ends up taking it.