Labour Party leader Jens Stoltenberg, who’ll be taking over this fall as the next secretary general of NATO, could finally offer some insight this week into the months of high-level intrigue that brought about his major career shift. His party colleagues, some political opponents and lots of other Norwegians have said they’re sad to see “the Stoltenberg era” in Norway draw to a close.
“I’m going to miss Jens Stoltenberg,” declared Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg, who replaced him as prime minister after last fall’s national election. She and her new government played a key role, though, in helping him win the top civilian NATO post – allegedly not to get rid of their main political rival but rather because it’s the highest-level international appointment a Norwegian has received in more than 60 years, since Trygve Lie became the first secretary general of the United Nations. Stoltenberg has thanked them all for their support and confidence in his work.
He confirmed to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) earlier this week that the campaign to secure him the NATO post actually began in October, “just a few days after I returned to Parliament.” After winning re-election in 2009, the left-center coalition government that Stoltenberg led since 2005 had failed to win the national election last September. His Labour Party did well and still emerged as the largest in Norway with nearly 31 percent of the vote, but his coalition’s two small parties — the Socialist Left (SV) and the deeply troubled Center Party — lost badly at the polls.
Stoltenberg then became head of the opposition in Parliament and claimed he was happy to still lead Labour and be its prime minister candidate again. But then the phone rang, and it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the line.
“She wondered whether I’d be interested in the NATO job,” Stoltenberg told NRK. He said he was taken aback and “would have to ponder that for awhile.” Merkel had clearly been impressed by Stoltenberg during the years they both headed their countries’ respective governments. “But it just seemed too soon to think about making such a big move,” Stoltenberg said. “I’d just returned to the parliament.” And then he also was asked to become a UN special envoy on climate issues, which he accepted.
In January, the phone range again, this time in the offices of Norway’s new defense minister, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, and it was a top government official from Washington on the line. She reportedly was asked whether Norway, one of the founding members of NATO, would support Stoltenberg as the next NATO boss. Clearly the Norwegian government would, and Søreide got the message that Germany and the US supported Stoltenberg’s candidacy.
Both Stoltenberg and the conservative Norwegian government thought it was “improbable” that another Scandinavian would be chosen to lead NATO, right after Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Denmark. British Prime Minister David Cameron also took up the issue, though, when he had his first official meeting with Norway’s new prime minister, Solberg, in London in January. “Then it was clear that they’d all been talking about this,” Solberg told newspaper Aftenposten. “The most important question was whether the French would come on board, too.”
They did, even though Stoltenberg will be among the very few NATO bosses who doesn’t speak French. It ultimately boiled down to whether Stoltenberg himself wanted the job, and both US Secretary of State John Kerry and the US’ National Security Advisor Susan Rice did their best to convince him during a meeting in Washington.
Stoltenberg ultimately agreed, after, he said, getting his own family on board as well. “This really all came up very quickly,” Stoltenberg told NRK. “But through the winter it became clear I had a widespread support. And then I made it clear it was a position I could take on.”
That’s when Norway’s foreign ministry, led by Foreign Minister Børge Brende, and other members of the government started to discreetly lobby in Stoltenberg’s support. Aftenposten reported that a group led by veteran diplomat Victor C Rønneberg coordinated efforts within the political leadership of the foreign ministry, the defense ministry, the Office of the Prime Minister and a few selected Norwegian embassies in important NATO countries including Spain, Turkey, Italy and Poland, the last two because they had candidates of their own to lead the military alliance. Norway’s own ambassador to NATO, Vegard Ellefsen, also played a central role. Solberg also lobbied on Stoltenberg’s behalf behind the scenes at a meeting of European conservative parties in Dublin in early March. Brende was said to be very active despite all the distractions of dealing with the Russian intervention in Ukraine that was playing out simultaneously.
It all ended with the NATO ambassadors voting in favour of Stoltenberg last Friday, and the announcement that he’ll take over as secretary general of the important military alliance on October 1. Congratulations poured in, but in Oslo there was sadness that the Stoltenberg era in Norwegian politics was ending. He must step down as leader of the Labour Party and admits it’s unlikely he’ll return to Norwegian politics when his five-year term as NATO boss is over.
His Labour colleagues reluctantly went about the process of arranging his replacement, scheduling an extraordinary meeting to elect a new leader on June 14, widely expected to be Labour’s former foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre. Former party secretary Martin Kolberg, now a Member of Parliament, was among those admitting to sadness mixed with pride over Stoltenberg’s NATO job.
“When you’ve worked together with someone since 1979, this feels very strange,” Kolberg told NRK. “We sat on the board of the youth organization together. This is difficult.”
Stoltenberg himself admitted to being sad, and choked up when announcing his resignation as party leader. He was cheered by an NRK report of random “folks on the street” who unanimously wished him well in his NATO job, praised his political leadership of Norway over the years and said they’d miss him, too.
Management at Oslo Taxi, which cooperated with Stoltenberg on a famed taxi-driving stunt during last year’s election campaign, congratulated him as well, adding that “if the work pressure gets to be too much (at NATO), we always need new drivers.”