Latvia's Chief Diplomat Pursues Nato's Top Job, Saying A Clear Vision On Russia Is Needed

Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins, left, speaks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro Filip Ivanovic, center, and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia Bujar Osmani, prior to the start of the NATO Foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins, left, speaks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro Filip Ivanovic, center, and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia Bujar Osmani, prior to the start of the NATO Foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
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BRUSSELS (AP) — Latvia’s foreign minister on Tuesday staked his claim to the top job at NATO, saying that the military organization needs a consensus builder who is committed to higher defense spending and has a clear vision of how to deal with Russia.

NATO is likely to name a new secretary general at its next summit in Washington in July. Former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg has been the alliance’s top civilian official since 2014. His term has been extended four times during the war in Ukraine.

“We’re going to have 32 countries. Keeping 32 countries together on any topic, it’s a big challenge, and we need a consensus builder that can work with any and all allies, to move everyone forward in the same direction,” Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins told reporters at NATO headquarters.

One of Stoltenberg’s challenges is to help persuade Turkey, along with Hungary, to endorse Sweden’s attempt to become NATO’s 32nd member. NATO officials hope the issue will be resolved by the time U.S. President Joe Biden and counterparts meet in Washington.

In an awkward moment in front of television cameras as NATO foreign ministers gathered for a traditional group photo during a meeting in Brussels, Karins took Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan by the arm and said loudly, “We’re all waiting now, all waiting. You hear it from all of us.”

Karins was Latvia’s prime minister for almost five years – NATO prefers its secretaries general to have served in top government posts – and oversaw an increase in defense spending. He said his country will spend 2.4 % of GDP on defense this year, above the organization’s target of 2%.

Russia remains NATO’s historical adversary, and managing the alliance's approach to Moscow is a major test.

“The next secretary has to have a clear vision on the future role of NATO, how it’s going to expand, how it’s going to be working to contain Russia,” Karins said. He said it’s important not to panic while acknowledging “the very real threat that Russia is” and to work together to contain it.

“It is doable,” he said. “We can do it if we are calm but very determined.”

With Russia locked in its war on Ukraine, the process of naming a new secretary general has become highly politicized. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have taken an unbending line in support of Ukraine, and this could make it difficult for one of their leaders to get the job.

Most NATO countries have been keen to name a woman to the top post. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is considered a strong candidate. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen was thought to be a favorite after a meeting with Biden in the summer, but she later said she wasn’t running.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has ruled out her candidacy.

Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently visited NATO headquarters to make clear his intention to stand.

NATO secretaries general are chosen by consensus. There is no formal procedure for naming them, and diplomats have said that no official vetting is currently being done.

The organization’s top civilian official is responsible for chairing meetings and guiding sometimes delicate consultations between member countries to ensure that compromises are found so that an alliance that operates on consensus can continue to function.

The secretary general also ensures that decisions are put into action, speaks on behalf of all nations with one voice and rarely if ever singles out any member for public criticism.

Stoltenberg has managed to tread a fine line, refraining from criticizing members led by more go-it-alone presidents and prime ministers like former U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was full of praise on Tuesday for Stoltenberg’s role in keeping NATO on course.

“Everything that we’ve been able to do with the NATO alliance over the last few years, strengthening the alliance, making it fit for purpose for the challenges that we’re going to be facing in the years ahead, dealing with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, none of that would have happened without the leadership of Jens Stoltenberg," Blinken said.

“We are grateful to you, grateful for that extraordinary leadership at a moment where it counted more than ever,” he told Stoltenberg.

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AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.