Jens Stoltenberg was briefly back home in Norway this week, right when he could celebrate his first year as NATO’s secretary general. He’s busier than ever and the world seems a grimmer place, given the escalation of the civil war in Syria and Russia’s unwelcome interventions, but the man who ranks as perhaps Norway’s most popular prime minister ever still manages to smile.
Stoltenberg served two full terms as Norway’s prime minister, from 2005 to 2013, and also a briefer stint in the post in 2000-2001. He led Norway’s Labour Party from 2002 to 2014 and succeeded in bringing peace among the ranks of quarrelsome and competitive Labour politicians.
Now his mission is to try to bring peace in and around Europe and it’s a daunting task. He told newspaper Aftenposten last summer, after nine months in the top NATO post, that he’d hoped to explore the parks, neighbourhoods and museums in Brussels, where NATO headquarters is located, as he settled into his new home there. When there was no time for that, he hoped there would be when his wife, diplomat Ingrid Schulerud, finally joined him Brussel this fall to take on her new job as Norway’s ambassador to Belgium. That also seems unlikely. It simply takes too much time to try to solve the world’s problems, leaving little time for leisure.
“I’m generally only three places in Brussels,” he told Aftenposten, “in my office, in my house or sometimes in a park right next to the house. That’s all I’ve seen of Brussels.” He said he “has an ambition” to be at his wife’s side when she needs to host representative events, though. “At least that’s the resolution I made,” he said with a laugh.
He spends most of his time traveling and this week his jetting around brought him to Stavanger, where he spoke to 300 politicians during the NATO Parliamentary Assembly at the Stavanger Forum. He had a lot of bad news to summarize: Condolences and regrets over the US’ bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan, a status report on the deadly conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine, and the devastating civil war in Syria. He had already spent several days criticizing Russia’s sudden involvement in Syria, including its attempts to bomb IS targets in military action that supports the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Assad regime,” Stoltenberg said in Stavanger, “is a major reason for the refugee stream from Syria, with its brutal attacks and bombs against Syria’s own people. Russian forces are also bombing groups that are fighting ISIL, and going on the attack against moderate opposition groups fighting the Assad regime. It (Russia’s invovement) is not a construction contribution to a solution.”
Russia seems keen on reestablishing itself as a power in the Middle East, with some foreign policy experts saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to position the country so it can play a major role in whatever ultimately becomes of Syria. The efforts are not welcomed by Stoltenberg, who earlier had good relations with neighbouring Russian leaders when he was Norway’s prime minister. He even managed to settle decades of territorial disputes in the Barents Sea, after Russia took the initiative under Dmitry Medvedev to agree on a new borderline. Stoltenberg, on good terms with the Russians, was seen as the right man to take over NATO last year and still seems to enjoy the support of important players like US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Stoltenberg is a big believer in dialogue and political solutions to conflicts.
He’s now dealing with some of the biggest conflicts since the Cold War years. He recently told Aftenposten that he thinks NATO is stronger now than when he took over “because we have invested more in collective defense, established a quick reaction force, practiced more together and raised military presence in the Baltic. But all that comes as an answer to the world around us. We are a stronger NATO, but with bigger challenges.”
He thanked his successor as prime minister, Erna Solberg of the Conservatives, for boosting Norway’s own defense budget. And he enjoys coming back to Norway when he can, not least to visit his 84-year-old father Thorvald Stoltenberg, a former defense- and foreign minister in Norway who was just elected to Oslo’s city council. He spends quite a few weekends in Oslo and admits he misses Norway. “I miss the people, family and my friends,” he told Aftenposten. He’d prefer being able to walk the streets and bicycle in the hills of Nordmarka than be driven around in big NATO cars, surrounded by staff and security at all times. He tries to find time to go jogging, especially since he often has two dinner engagements in the evening and lunch meetings where more fine food is served. It’s a far cry from the simple and light knekkebrød and cheese lunches that many Norwegians eat.
But he doesn’t regret taking on the NATO job and thinks he’s managing well: “I’m very good at accepting help. That’s a strength, not a weakness.” He has had a few awkward moments, like after a dinner in Turkey with NATO’s foreign ministers and generals when they linked arms and sang “We are the world,” and the impromptu performance showed up on YouTube. He hadn’t intended it to go public, but claims he wasn’t embarrassed. “I’ve gone along with similar things before, so I took it with low shoulders,” he said, borrowing an often-used Norwegian expression that translates to “sinking your shoulders” instead of getting all hunched up and stressed.