UPDATED: Leaders of several NATO member countries reportedly want NATO’s Norwegian secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to remain at his post beyond October 1, when his latest extended term is due to expire. The Norwegian Parliament, meanwhile, has dropped its probe of the process behind Stoltenberg’s recent appointment as the next leader of Norway’s central bank, citing the current “security situation.”
Stoltenberg, who turns 63 on March 16, has long been a popular man both at home in Norway and abroad. He served three terms as Norwegian prime minister and then was recruited by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former US President Barack Obama to take the helm at NATO in 2014.
He’s now due to move back home to Norway and assume his new and hotly debated post as governor of Norges Bank by the end of the year. Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen reported this week, however, that once again, several key NATO allies want him to stay on. Some now also reportedly think his long-planned departure has become a case of very bad timing: With NATO now having to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it would be preferable if the alliance didn’t need to search for and install a new leader.
Dagsavisen reported that Stoltenberg was thus being “informally” urged to stay on, since “continuity is important” during times of crisis. The leaders of all NATO countries are due to gather for a summit in Madrid in June, where they’re also due to agree on their first new “strategic concept” since 2010. Stoltenberg has had an important role in forming the concept and will present the document at the meeting, where his successor is also due to be presented.
Now, with NATO caught in a serious conflict with Putin, others are also questioning whether the time is right for a change of leadership at the top. “A lot can happen during the next few months with both Ukraine, Russia and the rest of Europe,” Professor Nina Græger, a researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told Dagsavisen, “so I think NATO will be evaluating this from month to month.”
Græger noted that Stoltenberg’s departure date has long been set for October 1, “but his term has been extended earlier. It’s unusual, but there’s nothing in the way for his departure to be postponed if the situation remain so precarious.” She added that it’s up to all 30 NATO countries to decide on Stoltenberg’s successor: “The process is not very transparent, but I would think there’s room for flexibility here. Given the circumstances, I’m reasonably certain that if the countries that set the tone, especially the US, want Stoltenberg to continue for a few more months, it wouldn’t be impossible.”
Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud, another researcher at NUPI, also thinks it’s poor timing to switch NATO leaders now. “Regardless, it would certainly be possible to postpone Stoltenberg’s departure and his new job in Norway if that’s what’s wanted,” he told Dagsavisen. Putin’s spokesperson in Moscow has already sought to exploit Stoltenberg’s “lame duck” status, claiming at a recent press conference before the invasion that he’s more concerned now with “being a banker” in Norway.
Neither Stoltenberg nor his spokespersons would initially comment directly on the issue. One of his “communications advisers,” however, Sissel Kruse Larsen, wrote in a message to Dagsavisen that Stoltenberg “has his full attention on the job he’s doing today.” She noted that NATO’s 30 members choose a secretary general and Stoltenberg himself “does not participate in the debate.”
Five days later, on March 16 when Stoltenberg was leading an extraordinary meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, he still didn’t want to answer questions about whether he would extend his term. “I have one focus now, and that’s to do my job at NATO,” Stoltenberg said during a meeting with Nordic journalists. He called his job “important and very meaningful” during an extremely difficult situation but added that he has accepted a job in Norway “that I plan to begin towards the end of the year, that’s been the plan all along.”
Stoltenberg has also declined comment on the debate back home in Norway about how he came to be chosen as the next leader leader of the central bank. No one questions his qualifications for the post, but concerns have arisen over the political aspects of his appointment, also over whether it involved a network of locally powerful players including the new head of Norway’s huge Oil Fund (which is administered by the central bank) and the son of Stoltenberg’s former mentor and prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
The Norwegian Parliament’s disciplinary committee has been raising questions about the process behind his appointment, which will result in a former Labour Party leader and prime minister now reporting to a current Labour Party leader and prime minister. Norges Bank’s deputy leader, Ida Wolden Bache, had long been viewed as the best professional candidate, has no politial party ties and would have been the first woman to lead the central bank. She was the front-runner until Stoltenberg was also suddenly asked to apply as well last fall, and he was eager to do so.
Probe now ‘put on ice’
The parliamentary committee, led by the opposition Conservative Party, wanted to know when and in what context Stoltenberg’s name first came up, not least because he’ll now be reporting to former government colleagues who used to report to him when he was prime minister. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum have been among those asked to answer a long list of questions about the hiring process, even though Støre had declared a conflict of interest early on. Committee leader Peter Frølich of the Conservatives still believes Stoltenberg’s appointment is “problematic” because it has sewn “unnecessary doubt regarding the central bank’s independence.”
Committee members weren’t entirely satisfied with the answers they received to their questions, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has suddenly made the issue pale in comparison. On Thursday they decided to put their probe on ice.
“From our point of view, it’s not a priority to have a hearing on this given the security situation at present,” Frølich told news bureau NTB on Thursday. “We still have questions, but both the government and NATO now need to use all their energy to handle the current security situation.”