BONN — The appointment of West German Defense Minister Manfred Woerner as the new secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization seemed certain Monday when former Norwegian Prime Minister Kaare Willoch withdrew his candidacy for the post.
Willoch's withdrawal averted what could have been an embarrassing fight within NATO, where, traditionally, a new secretary general is named by unanimous consent of the 16 member nations.
Britain's Lord Carrington, the current secretary general, has announced plans to retire next year, having served in the $200,000-a-year job since 1984.
After Willoch's withdrawal was made public at NATO's Brussels headquarters Monday, Defense Minister Wim Van Eekelen of the Netherlands, speaking at a news conference, described Woerner as a highly qualified candidate and said, "We are looking forward to his confirmation."
Van Eekelen said that foreign ministers of the alliance are expected to formally appoint Woerner as Carrington's successor when they meet Dec. 11 in Brussels.
Ordinarily, the ministers of the Atlantic Alliance decide privately on an appropriate secretary general, usually from one of the small member nations. This time, however, the West Germans quietly put forward the name of Woerner, 53, who has been defense minister since 1982, hoping that there would be no overt competition.
But to the Bonn government's dismay, the Norwegians put up Willoch, who served as prime minister from 1981 to 1986. An awkward contest for the top job seemed to be in the offing when the angered West Germans made Woerner's candidacy public.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed Woerner's nomination and was tacitly supported by the United States and Britain, among others. But Bonn did not want to be put in the position of steam-rollering a smaller member like Norway.
"I have come to the conclusion that the wisest reaction would, after all, be that my candidature now be withdrawn," Willoch wrote in a letter to the Norwegian foreign minister.
Willoch's decision to stand aside was greeted with relief in most NATO capitals and in the Brussels headquarters.
Woerner is a staunch conservative who relishes the job of defense minister and will be the first West German to hold the top post in the alliance founded in 1949.
As defense minister, Woerner oversaw the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles in West Germany, a difficult decision for NATO members since the weapons were fiercely challenged by opposition parties. The missiles would be phased out under a treaty scheduled to be signed by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at their Washington summit meeting next week.