It was his older sister Camilla’s 60th birthday on Monday but NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg was formally back in Norway on an official visit. Family parties were set aside as the former Norwegian prime minister tackled issues ranging from defense funding to tensions with Russia and Turkey. He flatly refused to answer questions about the drama within the Norwegian Labour Party he once led, or what he might have known about the sexual harassment complaints surrounding his former minister Trond Giske.
Stoltenberg seemed to move with his trademark professional ease through a busy day that started with a speech in the University of Oslo’s Aula before moving on to an audience with the king and crown prince. That was followed by meetings at the Parliament and with Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, along with his first press conference back in Norway since the Labour Party wound up at the center of the harassment complaints that also have hit all political parties in Norway.
He thanked Prime Minister Erna Solberg at the press conference for the “warm welcome and good lunch” at her official residence, which also served as his own home until she and her Conservatives defeated him in the 2013 election. He rebounded by becoming secretary general of NATO in 2014. Instead of being political rivals, Stoltenberg and Solberg are now colleagues of sorts in the defense alliance on which Norway depends for its own security,
“The house is in good shape,” Stoltenberg remarked from the podium as Solberg chuckled in the background. He went on to praise Norway’s contributions to NATO, mentioned its huge investment in new F35 fighter jets and talked of how he’d met Norwegian soldiers on duty at NATO operations in Lithuania and Afghanistan. He’s glad Norway hosts major NATO exercises and is boosting its own defense budgets, even though it’s not up at the full 2 percent of GNP yet. That’s largely because Norway’s economy has grown “faster and more strongly” than expected since budgets were set, Solberg said, stressing that actual spending was up by NOK 8 billion during her tenure and that her “ambition” is to reach the full 2 percent goal.
“You take NATO seriously and are a committed chief in a country that contributes to the alliance,” Stoltenberg stated approvingly. He said they’d earlier talked about boosting Norway’s “and everyone’s” financial contributions “because the world is changing.” He acknowledged the challenge of meeting 2 percent goals in countries with economic growth, but stressed how NATO members retain 98 percent of GNP that doesn’t have to be spent on defense.
“Growth in no disadvantage, it’s an advantage,” Stoltenberg said. Growth is good, he stressed, “and should make it easier to reach the goal of 2 percent.”
He noted that NATO continues its dialogue with Russia, stressed their six meetings since 2016 and, on a question from Russian news agency Tass, confirmed that NATO is preparing for a new meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, but no agenda or date has been set. “These are difficult discussions, on Ukraine, transparency, military exercises,” Stoltenberg said, but they will continue.
As for Turkey’s controversial decision to cross the border into Syria in an allegedly defensive move against Kurds in the area, Stoltenberg called the ongoing civil war in Syria “gruesome” but that NATO itself is not “on the ground” there and thus thinks discussions over Turkey’s moves are best held between countries that are also “on the ground, especially the USA.” NATO finds itself in an awkward situation, with one NATO member (Turkey) on the offensive and other NATO members unhappy about that.
“We are deeply worried” about what’s happening, claimed Norway’s Solberg, but she noted Turkey’s “right to defend itself” within the rule of law. Stoltenberg also seemed to defend Turkey by noting that it has taken in millions of refugees from Syria, is “an important NATO member” and suffered serious terrorist attacks in recent years. “I have been in contact with Turkish authorities and (Turkish president) Erdogan, and with the Americans,” Stoltenberg said, “but the most important thing is contact between those on the ground in Syria, to avoid a further escalation of a difficult situation.” He stressed the need for a “political solution.”
No comment on Giske
While Stoltenberg seemed glad to be home in Norway and mostly able to speak his own language on Monday, he firmly refused to get involved in his Labour Party’s domestic crisis. Norwegian Broacasting (NRK) posed three specific questions to Stoltenberg: Did he know about the rumours around Trond Giske (who faces multiple complaints of sexual harassment dating back more than 10 years) when he was party leader, what did he do about them, and did he feel any responsibility for the situation that has arisen?
“That type of question was handled by the (party’s) secretary generals at the time (Martin Kolberg and Raymond Johansen), they have commented and I have nothing to add beyond that,” Stoltenberg said, towards the end of the press conference. One of the women filed her complaints with the party’s youth organization when Stoltenberg was party leader and prime minister in Norway and Giske was in his cabinet. She received little if any reaction. She refiled complaints in December, after the international “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment emboldened women to speak up around the world. She has since left the party and claims to have no political motivations. She has received an apology from Giske.
In comments earlier in the day, while speaking to Den norske Atlanterhavskomité at the university, Stoltenberg said the most important jobs for NATO now, in order for it to handle a “new reality,” are “to strengthen our defense at home, handle crises and uncertainty abroad and strengthen our trans-Atlantic ties.” He stressed that NATO doesn’t want any revival of an arms race with Russia, or a new Cold War. He denied Canada and the US were abandoning Europe, noting on the contrary that the US was strengthening its presence in NATO countries. That has not been well-received by Russia.