Mette Frederiksen fits several criteria NATO allies want in their next leader, but she’ll also need Washington’s blessing.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has emerged as a serious contender to lead NATO in the wake of an invitation to visit the White House.
Washington announced that President Joe Biden will host Frederiksen next month, fueling chatter at NATO headquarters about whether the U.S. will back the Danish leader for the NATO role, which is traditionally reserved for a European but requires Washington’s blessing.
The current secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, is slated to leave his post at the end of September following multiple extensions — though it is possible that he will stay on for a few more months if the alliance’s leaders cannot agree on a replacement.
The Danish leader checks off several boxes. Allies are looking for a politician with the stature of a head of government, and given that all previous NATO chiefs have been men, there is strong pressure to find a female candidate.
At the same time, Denmark is seen as a middle-ground country within the alliance — a strong Ukraine supporter that is nevertheless not as hawkish as some countries on the eastern flank.
“I think she is a serious candidate,” said one western European diplomat, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal alliance dynamics.
A senior diplomat from Central Europe echoed the sentiment.
“She is indeed considered seriously by a number of bigger allies,” the diplomat said, adding that the Danish prime minister “has been rather solid in the course of the war of Ukraine.”
But Frederiksen comes from a country that recently held the post — former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was NATO’s secretary-general between 2009 and 2014.
“Not all allies may be happy to see another candidate from a Nordic country,” the western European diplomat said.
The senior diplomat from Central Europe was even more blunt, quipping: “Is there a group of nations predestined to designate a SecGen?”
Denmark is also lagging behind on its defense spending, an issue that could raise concern in some capitals. Copenhagen spent merely 1.38 percent of economic output on defense in 2022, according to the latest NATO estimates, falling short of the alliance’s 2 percent goal.
“What message concerning the defense spending is this going to produce?” asked the senior diplomat from Central Europe.
Plus, it remains unclear when — and if — Frederiksen would be available. Regardless, NATO and its efforts to back Ukraine will be top of the agenda during the Danish leader’s trip to Washington.
In a statement, the White House said Biden and Frederiksen “will review our efforts as NATO Allies and close partners to strengthen transatlantic security and bolster economic prosperity” and “discuss our unwavering support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s brutal war of aggression.”
The invite piqued curiosity in Europe about Frederiksen’s standing in Washington — and at the U.S.-dominated NATO. While the ultimate decision requires unanimity among the alliance’s 31 members, the U.S. government has traditionally vetted candidates before a selection is made.
Asked if Frederiksen is a serious candidate to lead NATO, a second senior diplomat from Central Europe replied that it “may be.”
The Danish prime minister herself has downplayed speculation about a possible job change, insisting last month that she is not a candidate. Her office did not respond to questions on the latest chatter.
And some officials caution that while Frederiksen could be a strong contender, the field is still wide open. Other names currently circulating as possible candidates include Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, a popular figure within the alliance, is also often mentioned as a contender.
“If we are looking for a woman, why not Kallas?” said the first senior diplomat from Central Europe.
But some Western allies are wary of selecting a leader perceived as too hawkish while war is raging on the continent.
“I heard Frederiksen has excellent qualities. And clearly Denmark is a reliable ally,” said one senior diplomat from Eastern Europe, who was also granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive internal matter.
But, they added, “there are allies in the east wondering — when and if a candidate from the region will ever make it at the helm of NATO.”
“The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the diplomat said, “proved many of them are reliable and capable.”