As speculation rises over whether Norway’s former prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, will become the new boss of NATO, support for his candidacy seems to be growing. Former Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is also widely tipped to succeed Stoltenberg as head of Norway’s Labour Party and be its candidate for prime minister.
Stoltenberg continued to good-naturedly refuse to confirm or deny his candidacy as the next secretary general of NATO. Norwegian media outlets claim they have confirmed it, though, with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reporting on Thursday that it materialized during a trip Stoltenberg made to Washington DC last month.
The trip was initially set up as part of Stoltenberg’s work as a special UN envoy on climate issues but DN reported that a considerable portion of Stoltenberg’s meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice centered on whether Stoltenberg would take over the top NATO post being vacated later this year by Ander Fogh Rasmussesn, himself a former prime minister, of Denmark.
DN reported that Stoltenberg had already received signals earlier this winter that he was under consideration for the post, which is filled through a secretive and highly political process involving all NATO members. Stoltenberg is said to have, however, the critical support of both German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reportedly initiated Stoltenberg’s candidacy, and US President Barack Obama. Kerry’s and Rice’s job in February, reported DN, was to determine whether Stoltenberg was interested in the post and would accept it if offered. Stoltenberg, according to several major media Norwegian outlets including state broadcaster NRK and newspapers VG, Aftenposten and DN, was receptive and willing.
Cheering section in Oslo
Norway’s new conservative coalition government predictably supports Stoltenberg’s candidacy, with Prime Minister Erna Solberg indicating on Wednesday that Norwegian politicians would cheer him on. They also feel it would be an advantage for Norway to have Stoltenberg as head of NATO, of which Norway is a longtime member even though it’s not a member of the European Union (EU).
And even though other candidates may emerge, not least after Stoltenberg’s name has been floated, there seems to be a broad consensus that Stoltenberg is favoured. He has the political respect, the connections, a proven ability to create consensus himself and, most importantly, he’s simply well-liked. Not only was he arguably Norway’s most popular minister of all time but he seems to get along with a wide range of world leaders as well, not least the former Russian president, now prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Given the current tensions with Russia, that can be a decided advantage.
Stoltenberg’s colleagues in the Labour Party, which remains Norway’s largest single party even though it lost last fall’s re-election campaign, say Stoltenberg will be sorely missed but most agree that Jonas Gahr Støre is his most likely successor and a popular and strong one at that. Støre was a highly respected foreign minister who also served briefly if less successfully as health minister in Stoltenberg’s last government, and he also has a wide network both at home and abroad. He enjoys strong support within Labour and a transition from Stoltenberg to Støre would likely be relatively smooth.
Støre would then also become Labour’s new candidate for prime minister heading into the next national elections in 2017. A transition now, it’s argued, would give Støre time to prepare his own base and campaign. “There’s no doubt that Jonas Gahr Støre is a good candidate,” Robert Svarva, county leader for Labour in Nord-Trøndelag, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. Støre himself tried to remain as non-committal as Stoltenberg.
“It’s very nice that folks speak so kindly about me,” Støre told Dagsavisen, “but I don’t want to speculate on a theme that as of today is hypothetical.” His biggest competition for the post of party boss would likely come from Trond Giske, who traditionally has represented the left wing of Labour, but he doesn’t have the same support that Støre has. “Right now we have an excellent Labour leader and whether we get an excellent NATO leader is currently unknown,” Giske told Dagsavisen.
Grassroots groups within the party were calling on Stoltenberg to clarify his NATO candidacy. Bjørn Tore Ødegården of the Buskerud County Labour chapter said that Stoltenberg “is a leader of international format who would take on the job of NATO chief in an excellent manner,” but Ødegården was preoccupied with the process of a party leader shift.
“It’s not good in the long run for a party to be caught up in speculation over its leadership,” he said. “With Labour in opposition, we need to devote all our energies to politics and we need a clarification. I expect that Jens, as the good leader he is, will make sure that happens.”