THE HAGUE - Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has emerged as the favourite to take over the leadership of NATO later this year as the Western military alliance faces a challenge from a newly assertive Russia, diplomats said on Monday.
Several diplomats said Stoltenberg, who served for a total of nearly 10 years as Norway's prime minister before losing power in elections last September, has the backing of the United States, NATO's dominant power, and Germany. A number of other countries were also rallying around his candidacy.
"He's a pretty strong candidate," one NATO diplomat said.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said Norway had not officially put forward Stoltenberg as a candidate.
"We have seen that there (is) quite big speculation and a lot of countries would like him to stand as a candidate. But this is a consensus process," she told a news conference during a nuclear security summit in The Hague.
"Knowing NATO you can never be sure until it is done," she said.
The Norwegian daily Aftenposten reported on Monday that British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande have agreed to back the 55-year-old Stoltenberg.
It said Stoltenberg's appointment could be announced as early as Monday when Obama is due to meet other leaders of the Group of Seven industrial democracies in The Hague. Obama will hold talks with current NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on Wednesday.
However, the NATO diplomat said he did not think the announcement will be made yet as Rasmussen still has six months left in the post.
Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister who took office in 2009, is due to step down at the end of September after a September 4-5 NATO summit in Wales which will mark almost the end of NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan.
An aide to Hollande said discussions were under way this week on candidates for the NATO post and NATO foreign ministers would also discuss it when they meet in Brussels next week.