Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has reportedly emerged as the front-runner in the race to become NATO's next secretary-general.
The current incumbent, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former Dutch foreign minister, is due to step down in July after more than five years in the post.
His successor will be formally named by NATO leaders at the alliance's 60th-anniversary summit, to take place in Kehl, Germany, and Strasbourg, France, on April 3-4.
In a story first published on March 6, the German daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" quoted sources as saying NATO's three biggest European members -- Germany, Britain, and France -- have already agreed on Rasmussen as the next alliance chief.
RFE/RL has been unable to independently verify that claim.
"At this point in time, it is really speculative still," Bastian Giegerich, senior analyst for European security at the International Institute for Security Studies in London, tells RFE/RL. "I think we need to get to a point where there is a clear declaration of intent by any of these candidates -- whether it is Anders Fogh Rasmussen or other names that have been mentioned."
Top-level international appointments tend to be sensitive matters, and are generally shrouded in secrecy. Candidates are usually loath to identify themselves for fear of undermining the delicate diplomatic efforts their governments are conducting on their behalf -- or suffering a loss of face if passed over.
Governments, as a rule, are also discreet. This is partly in order not to offend other governments that may have more at stake, and partly not to expose needlessly the cards they themselves hold in intricate, top-flight diplomatic maneuverings.
Assessing Rasmussen's prospects, Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the London-based European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), says the Danish leader would be ideally placed to lead the alliance.
"As NATO faces what is probably the most important choice of leader in a generation, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, being a former prime minister, having been close to the United States in Iraq -- but perhaps more importantly, in Afghanistan -- yet at the same time being firmly anchored in a pro-European perspective, is of course a very interesting choice by French, German, and British leaders for NATO secretary-general," Korski says.
Rasmussen, who has been the Danish prime minister since 2001, led his country into the Iraq war in 2003. Denmark now has 700 troops in Afghanistan, most of them in the embattled southern Helmand Province.
NATO has never had a former head of government at its helm, and Rasmussen could significantly heighten the profile of the alliance's leader at a time seen by many as critical for its future.
The website of the Danish daily "Politiken" on March 9 quoted a senior coalition partner of the prime minister's as saying he "believes [Rasmussen] will get it." The politician in question, Helge Adam Moeller, is the defense spokesman of the Danish Conservative People's Party, part of the governing coalition led by Rasmussen's liberal Venstre party.
The Danish prime minister has consistently denied plans to leave domestic politics.
But if reports of coordinated German, French, and British backing of his putative candidacy prove accurate, Rasmussen's election as the next NATO chief would be virtually guaranteed.
According to an unwritten rule, NATO's secretary-general always comes from one of the European allied states, whereas the alliance's top military commander is American (currently General John Craddock).
Rasmussen and U.S. President Barack Obama -- whose country, like all alliance members, holds veto power over any candidate -- have never met, but the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says U.S. national security adviser James Jones could hold talks with the Danish prime minister in the near future.
Korski of the ECFR says there have long been "rumors" that Rasmussen is one of the top picks of both the previous U.S. president, George W. Bush, and the Obama administration.
Rasmussen's closest rival was thought to be the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. However, the Pole is seen by many Western allies as too critical of Russia.
Korski says the rising prominence of Russia on the international scene means the alliance may not be ready for an "outspoken" Eastern European leader.
"I think NATO would definitely be ready for a secretary-general from Eastern Europe, had it not been [for the fact] the NATO alliance is split so heavily down the middle on how to engage Russia," Korski says. "And I think the choice of a very outspoken Eastern European secretary-general would send a very different message to Moscow than the choice of someone who hasn't been particularly pronounced on this issue."
Warsaw's relations with Moscow have been strained since Poland joined NATO and the EU. But the Polish foreign minister himself has repeatedly upped the ante. Sikorski, for instance, is said to have recently argued that NATO must take "symmetrical" measures to counter Russian military aggression in places like Georgia.
Sikorski also angered Germany in 2006 by likening the planned Russian-German Nord Stream natural-gas pipeline -- which bypasses Poland and the Baltic states -- to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which Hitler and Stalin used to carve up Eastern Europe in 1939.
But Rasmussen, too, has a proverbial skeleton in his closet in the form of cartoons, published in 2005 by the Danish daily "Jyllands-Posten," which took aim at the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. The caricatures -- one of which depicted Muhammad's turban as sporting a lit fuse -- provoked riots in some predominantly Muslim countries.
Analyst Korski says those cartoons could come back to haunt Rasmussen in the form of a veto from alliance member Turkey. With Afghanistan -- also a predominantly Muslim country -- at the top of NATO's agenda, the cartoons could complicate Rasmussen's work.
But Korski suggests Rasmussen could defuse the issue with an early charm offensive in the Middle East. "If he were to be elected, an early tour to some of NATO's more moderate Arab allies could be a good beginning -- starting, for example, with Morocco, Egypt, and so on."
The prime minister argued throughout the cartoon crisis that opposition to the drawings represented an unacceptable compromise of free speech.
Rasmussen refused to negotiate on the issue with a group of ambassadors from Muslim-dominated countries stationed in Denmark or otherwise bow to outside pressure. He also stood firm as Saudi Arabia led a wave of boycotts of Danish goods and as Danish embassies had to close down in a number of countries.
The boycott on Danish goods has long since been called off, and the Danish embassies have reopened.
European observers suggest that his effective handling of the crisis is another factor counting in the Danish leader's favor.