Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was formally introduced as NATO’s next secretary general at the NATO Summit in Wales on Friday. As he received the applause of 28 government leaders including US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Norwegians could still glimpse the down-to-earth Labour leader they’ll always know simply as “Jens.”
He told Norwegian reporters in Cardiff that it almost felt strange not to have any formal duties at the important meeting, but he’s ready to get to work. He’s been busy preparing for his new role all summer: “I’ve had the opportunity to work with the issues I’ll be responsible for in a few weeks, and that’s been very useful,” he said.
He’s been working out of offices at Oslo’s historic Akershus Fortress, appropriately enough, when he’s not visiting NATO member countries and being briefed and drilled by military brass and a host of advisers. He has assembled the staff he’ll have in Brussels, including several Norwegians, and will take over on October 1.
Stoltenberg, age 55, has come a long way from his days as the handsome, slightly radical son of a veteran Norwegian diplomat. He grew up in cities from San Francisco to Belgrade, as the family followed his father Thorvald Stoltenberg’s postings, but he’s mostly lived at home in Oslo, sharing a modest duplex with his sister’s family and his own in the hills northeast of downtown. He once opposed Norway’s membership in NATO but ended up becoming active like his father was in the Labour Party and becoming Norway’s government minister for business and energy when he was still in his 30s. His father had served as defense minister for the same Labour Prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland.
Jens Stoltenberg became Norway’s prime minister for the first time in 200o and noted on Friday that he attended his first NATO meeting in 2001, but then Labour lost the election to a center-right coalition. Stoltenberg triumphantly returned to the Office of the Prime Minister in 2005 and won reelection in 2009. He wanted to win a third term last fall but voter fatigue had taken over and while his party still won more votes than any other, his two coalition partners fared poorly and they collectively lost. Stoltenberg gamely declared that he couldn’t think of anything “more meaningful” than to be opposition leader in the Norwegian Parliament and gear for another run for prime minister in 2017, until the NATO job came along. After winning the post last spring, he stepped down as leader of the Norwegian Labour Party in June.
Talking and listening
He stayed out of the spotlight on NATO’s outgoing secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, at the meeting on Friday. “I want to use this meeting first and foremost to talk with people, listen, to be as well-prepared as possible in October,” he said. “My job will be to implement and follow up on the measures agreed and proposed at this meeting.”
They included a pledge by NATO’s allied leaders to agree to a request by the US that they all reverse years of defense cuts to “reaffirm the trans-Atlantic bond.” All 28 government leaders agreed to boost defense spending over the next 10 years, to meet the existing NATO guideline to spend 2 percent of gross national product on defense, so all can meet “NATO capability priorities.” The crisis in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden burst of military intervention has surprised and upset all NATO members, and reminded them of the need for strong defense after years of friendly relations with Russia. They were relieved yet skeptical that Putin reportedly ordered a ceasefire in the battles with Ukraine on Friday.
The allied leaders also agreed on several measures to enhance military cooperation and make NATO more flexible, to improve its ability to move quickly to meet challenges.
Meeting with Obama
Stoltenberg ate lunch with all the government leaders and also met with Obama later in the day. The two have met several times before, not least when Obama was in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Obama’s administration has been pushing hard to get other NATO members to carry more of the load of defense spending. The US now covers around 70 percent of NATO’s budget, and Stoltenberg will be responsible for continuing to prod others to pay their fair share. His own governments in Norway increased defense spending and modernized the military, so his own record was intact.
In addition to trying to get Putin to halt his aggression and resume cooperation, Stoltenberg also needs to tackle other conflicts threatening Europe including not least the horrific fighting in Syria and Iraq, which border on NATO member Turkey. NATO remains concerned about Afghanistan and the unrest in North Africa. His top job at NATO will be an enormous challenge but he’s looking forward to it.
“These are all people (the 28 allied leaders in NATO) whom I have worked with for many years,” he said. “These are our closest allies, our friends. I know them well. So it’s not like I feel like I’m going into completely unfamiliar party.”