The man who guided Norway through its worst crisis since World War II is now doing the same as leader of the world’s biggest defense alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has won praise for how he’s tackled quarreling NATO members, also while dealing with his own personal grief.
It’s been another challenging week for Stoltenberg. Most people didn’t know that while having to run arguably one of the most dramatic NATO Summits in decades on July 11-12, and deal with the uncertainty created by US President Donald Trump, Stoltenberg’s much-loved father and statesman himself, Thorvald Stoltenberg, was on his deathbed back home in Oslo. Stoltenberg flew to Oslo as soon as the extended NATO Summit finally ended, and arrived just in time to say “good night” to his father for the last time.
“I really felt in a way like he held out until I came home,” Stoltenberg told Norwegian reporters just before the weekend. His remarks came after a week he claimed was “absolutely dominated” by the death of his father, and were his first public remarks since Thorvald Stoltenberg died Friday morning July 13.
The elder Stoltenberg’s death was just the latest national bulletin in Norway after all of that week’s other stunning news that culminated with Trump’s sensational meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last Monday, and his shocking remarks afterwards. Thorvald Stoltenberg’s death topped newscasts and front pages, as the nation also felt the loss of a former defense minister, foreign minister, Labour Party veteran, UN envoy and ambassador. The elder Stoltenberg had been known for inviting top world leaders home for breakfast when in Oslo, and he was described by some as the entire country’s grandfather.
Jens Stoltenberg said his father had only been ill for a short while. A tumour that had been removed several years ago suddenly returned: “He became ill quickly and then it went quickly,” he told news bureau NTB. He also told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that his father died in the flat where he’d lived his entire adult life (when not on assignment abroad), on Mogens Thorsens gate in Oslo’s Frogner district. Stoltenberg said he died “with both veranda doors open, on a beautiful summer morning, with a view towards the Oslo Fjord and the world, and with his family around him.”
Stoltenberg admitted that as his father worsened, “I thought maybe I couldn’t handle the NATO Summit, but Thorvald (Jens often referred to his father by his first name) was very determined that I should carry out that summit. I cancelled a quite large program Thursday evening and Friday, so that I could travel home right after the summit was over.”
He said the two, who had spoken on the phone almost every day for years, had “a very good and warm conversation about major politics and the NATO Summit, but also about childhood memories and close family things. It was a proper farewell. The last thing I said to him was ‘good night.’ He died the next morning, with the family around him, without ever really waking up again.”
Stoltenberg returned to NATO in Brussels last week, only to return to Oslo this past weekend in order to attend the annual memorial ceremony for victims and survivors of the terrorist attacks on his former Labour Party government on July 22, 2011. Stoltenberg joined other mourners once again, this time to also witness the unveiling of a new national monument to the 77 people killed on what ranks as the worst attacks in Norway since World War II. And Stoltenberg will be back for his father’s funeral, which will be held in the National Cathedral in Oslo on August 2.
Through it all, Stoltenberg has also had to attend to the constant drama around Trump and strains on the NATO defense alliance. He’s received mostly high marks despite some criticism that he’s been somewhat “fawning” in his relations with Trump, even thanking Trump “for his leadership” as the recent summit began. “I don’t know who that embarrasses most, Trump or Stoltenberg,” wrote Alice Stollmeyer, leader of the public initiative Defending Democracy, when Stoltemberg said the meeting between Putin and Trump was “a sign of strength.”
Others suggest Stoltenberg’s praise for Trump at the summit has been necessary, since flattery can be the best way to deal with the US president’s vanity and need for attention. “I think the secretary general likes Trump, he may be the only one, but that’s fine with me,” Trump said himself when the two met over breakfast just before the NATO Summit officially began. Trump has also claimed that Stoltenberg is his “biggest fan.” He has called Stoltenberg “a friend,” and claimed that the NATO leader is doing “a fantastic job.”
Newspaper Aftenposten reported last week that Stoltenberg also gets high marks from officials in several other NATO delegations. They see it as a great advantage that Stoltenberg has managed to build a good relationship with Trump when few others have.
“Stoltenberg has had a clear influence on Trump in terms of how the president views NATO as a whole,” Jorge Benitez, an analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank and author of the blog NATOSource, told Aftenposten. Benetiz noted that Trump is critical of individual allies, most notably Germany, but has come to see the advantages of NATO: “Trump is usually not comfortable with international organizations, so that couldn’t be taken for granted.”
Other NATO diplomats who requested anonymity describe Jens Stoltenberg as an effective politician who doesn’t feel a need to grab glory himself. “Stoltenberg can enjoy great respect in capitals like Ankara, Berlin and Washington,” one diplomat told Aftenposten. “That’s actually just fantastic.”
Stoltenberg himself told NTB that Trump “has a more direct style than most government chiefs, but I think we communicate on the things that are important to NATO.”
Benitez said Stoltenberg “has no choice” in how he deals with Trump, because “a bad relationship between the US president and the NATO secretary general would be too much for the alliance to bear.”
“I think he (Stoltenberg) is doing a fantastic job, in a world that’s more complex and challenging than we’ve seen for several decades,” Benitez told Aftenposten. He also thinks Stoltenberg’s job will only get more difficult: “Trump’s expectations are way too high, and he traveled home with his attitudes even stronger.” Stoltenberg will thus likely miss his father, and the conversations they would have had, more and more.