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NATO's new boss

Christoph Hasselbach / db
October 1, 2014

NATO's new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is experienced in dealing with Moscow. Some say that fact will help as the military alliance faces its toughest challenge in dealing with Russia.

Jens Stoltenberg Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

At the height of NATO's most fierce conflict with Russia in decades, another Scandinavian follows in the footsteps of Denmark's Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the Western alliance's Secretary General: 55-year-old Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg. He served as prime minister of his country for three terms, first as the youngest prime minister in Norway's history from 2000 to 2001, and then again from 2005 to 2013.

While Stoltenberg's Social Democrats were the strongest party in the 2013 parliamentary elections, the ruling coalition did not win enough mandates to form a coalition and Erna Solberg, the candidate for the conservatives, took over the government. Solberg honored Stoltenberg for his role in the wake of the Breivik attacks in July 2011. "You stood solid as a rock," she praised her predecessor.

Finding the right words

In fact, it wasn't until Anders Behring Breivik killed more than 70 people in Oslo and at the Social Democrats' youth summer camp on Utoya Island that Stoltenberg became known to a wider public outside of Norway.

Candles and flowers on the shore opposite of Utoya Island Photo: EPA/JOERG CARSTENSEN
A paradise island for young people was turned into a hell, Stoltenberg saidImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Once a board member of his party's youth organization himself, Stoltenberg reacted like a father figure, calming people after the massacre and giving comfort - he didn't get carried away by imprudent reactions.

"We must stand firm in defending our values," he said with tears in his eyes. "The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater participation in politics."

The dramatic weeks following the massacre, when Norway was in the international spotlight, were Stoltenberg's political acid test. The general consensus has been that he passed the test with flying colors.

Complete turnaround

Apart from three terms as Norway's prime minister, Stoltenberg also headed ministries in other governing cabinets but never served as defense minister. In the early 1990s, he was a member of the Defense Committee, possibly the only position associating him with NATO.

As a young man, Stoltenberg opposed Norwegian membership in the alliance and disputed US policies. In protest to the Vietnam War, Stoltenberg shattered windows at the US embassy building in Oslo, and later, as a young adult, he railed at the Western military alliance.

Then he changed his mind, and made sure that Norway's Social Democratic youth organization officially accepted the country's membership in NATO.

As prime minister, he was responsible for international military missions: Norway participated in the Afghanistan mission and joined the intervention in Libya, winning him and the country Washington's respect.

By then, the United States and other NATO states had forgotten his youthful follies - and he was gradually brought forward as a candidate for the alliance's top political job.

The Russian challenge

The Norwegian's diplomatic skills in handling neighboring Russia are an additional boon. He facilitated cross-border traffic by introducing visa exemptions along the land border, and he signed border agreements on the Barents Sea. Even before Stoltenberg had won the race for NATO's top political job, Norway's largest daily "Aftenposten" pointed out that his experience as a neighbor to Russia is "an asset." The new man at the helm is bound to be a NATO leader with more of a political than a military orientation, "Aftenposten" editor Harald Stanghelle said, adding: that he is "more secretary than general."

tanks on parade in Moscow photo: REUTERS/Grigory Dukor
Putin's expansionist policies are a challengeImage: Reuters

The conflict with Russia will certainly demand all of Stoltenberg's diplomatic skills within and beyond NATO. The key question at the start of his term as NATO head: how can NATO protect its eastern member states against Russia's grasp without provoking an open military confrontation with Moscow?

It's also about money. Even before the most recent conflict erupted, the United States repeatedly urged the European NATO allies to spend more on defense. Those demands have become louder.

But in that respect, Stoltenberg can rest easy: while most of the alliance's member states have consistently decreased their defense spending, Norway, under Prime Minister Stoltenberg, increased the defense budget.

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