Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s highly popular former prime minister, has been chosen as the next civilian head of NATO, and politicians in Norway were already congratulating him on national radio Friday afternoon. Stoltenberg, whose Labour Party in Norway immediately began the process of naming a new leader to succeed him, will be the second Scandinavian in a row to lead the military alliance and the first Norwegian ever.
Stoltenberg’s selection by NATO ambassadors on Friday culminated nearly two weeks of intense media speculation in Norway. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Friday that no NATO ambassadors had any major objections to Stoltenberg, meaning that he’ll succeed Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, when Rasmussen’s term as NATO’s secretary general ends in September.
NATO announced the appointment around 4pm saying Stoltenberg will formally take on his new duties as of October 1. Trine Skei Grande, head of the Liberal Party in Norway, was among those congratulating Stoltenberg, adding that his appointment was “good for Norway, too.”
Earlier speculation had started flying already last year that if Stoltenberg’s Labour Party-led government failed to win re-election for the second time last fall, he would probably go on to assume a top international post. Stoltenberg repeatedly denied that, saying that he “couldn’t think of anything more meaningful” than leading Norway’s government again. Commentators claimed he could continue to lead the Norwegian Labour Party for as long as he wanted, so solid was his base of support and popularity. Stoltenberg himself said he intended to start plotting Labour’s return to power as his era in office came to an end.
He accepted a new international post as UN special envoy on climate issues just a few months later, though, claiming that he could still combine his new UN duties with his role as head of the opposition in Parliament. And later last year, it’s recently been revealed, he was approached about taking over as secretary general of NATO when Rasmussen’s term expires.
The news of that didn’t break until March 18, when Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Stoltenberg was a leading candidate and had the support of both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama. That set off a media frenzy in Norway that has continued since.
Stoltenberg, who turned 55 on March 16, will now launch into a new career for a committed social democrat whom the Wall Street Journal dubbed this week as having a “radical” background in his political youth. While he secured the support of NATO’s most powerful members, he has some critics among those who think he’s too liberal to lead a conservative military alliance. He’s been a member of the Labour Party since he was 14 years old and followed in his father Thorvald Stoltenberg’s footsteps when he eventually became a government minister in charge of business and energy issues in 1993, when Gro Harlem Brundtland was prime minister for the third time. His father had earlier served as both defense minister and foreign minister in Brundtland’s governments.
Stoltenberg, though, has been been an active supporter of NATO not least during his years as premier, sending Norwegian troops into NATO-led operations and winning praise for Norwegian fighter jets’ participation in Libya. He clearly was happy to be offered the job, and sees his NATO appointment as a new challenge at a critical time. Stoltenberg has had good relations with Russian leaders like Dmitry Medvedev and excellent relations with Merkel and Obama. British Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier this week that he thinks Stoltenberg will do a good job as NATO leader, while others think he can defuse tensions.
The Labour Party, meanwhile, called in its central board to an emergency telephone meeting at 3:30pm on Friday. It was widely expected that Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s former high-profile foreign minister during Stoltenberg’s government, will succeed Stoltenberg as party leader and become Labour’s new candidate for prime minister.