Jens Stoltenberg | NATO’s top civil servant 
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The Secretary-General is leading the alliance through challenging times 

July 10, 2022 01:51 am | Updated 08:55 pm IST

Jens Stoltenberg

Jens Stoltenberg | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R Kumar

There is a strange symmetry to Jens Stoltenberg’s stint as Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). When he took charge in October 2014, it was in the middle of a ‘Ukraine crisis’ — Russia had annexed Crimea and NATO was under pressure to come up with a response. Mr. Stoltenberg’s tenure was supposed to end this year, in October. Norway had even announced, in February, that the 63-year-old — a two-time Prime Minister who has also served as Finance and Industry Ministers — would be its next Central Bank Governor. But in the same month, a bigger Ukraine crisis flared up: Russia invaded Ukraine.

NATO decided that Mr. Stoltenberg was the best man for the crisis on hand, and extended his tenure to 2023. Norway said it would wait for Mr. Stoltenberg to finish his term in 2023, and then appoint him Central Bank chief — a sensitive, globally influential position that involves managing Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the biggest in the world. Evidently, Mr. Stoltenberg, the son of a former Defence and Foreign Minister, is an international politician the trans-Atlantic elite are comfortable with.

But it was not always the case. When news broke in 2014 that Mr. Stoltenberg would be NATO’s next Secretary General, the Wall Street Journal, a bellwether of mainstream Western opinion, took issue with his “early radicalism”, complaining that he had “joined a 1995 bicycle rally from Oslo to Paris to protest French nuclear weapons testing”, and noted with concern that “his radical notions have been merely diluted with age — but not altogether discarded.” As it turned out, its concerns were misplaced.

Mr. Stoltenberg’s career is a story of early radicalism steadily supplanted by mature ambition. As a teenager, he flung rocks at the American Embassy to protest against the Vietnam War. As head of the Labor Party’s youth wing, he had endorsed its then stand that Norway should leave NATO.

But with the traditional left-wing party morphing into ‘New Labour’, Mr. Stoltenberg, as its chief, embraced both NATO and neoliberal policies of the Blairite kind. As Prime Minister, he pushed through the most ambitious privatisation programme Norway had ever seen, reduced the progressive aspect of Norway’s tax regime, and increased military spending. It was also under his premiership that Norway contributed troops to NATO’s Afghanistan campaign, and aircraft for NATO’s military intervention in Libya.

In 2010, he showcased his diplomatic skills by negotiating a landmark treaty with Russia that ended a 40-year dispute over maritime borders. In 2011, in the aftermath of the Breivik massacre in which 77 people were killed by a far-right fanatic, he proclaimed that Norway’s response would be “more democracy, more openness, and more humanity, but never naivety” – a speech that won him many admirers on the international stage.

His familiarity with NATO military campaigns, experience as Premier of a nation that is a NATO co-founder, his diplomatic skills, experience in negotiating with the Russian establishment, as well as his grounding in neoliberal economics all seemed to have worked in his favour as he got picked for the top civilian job in NATO — one that majorly involves consensus-building in the face of petty rivalries.

Rough years

These skills came in handy during the rough years (for NATO) of the Trump Presidency, when Mr. Stoltenberg resorted to some deft financial window-dressing to show steady increases in European contributions and massage the ego of an American President who kept ranting about how the U.S. was bearing a disproportionate share of NATO’s expenditures.

The biggest legacy of Gen. Stoltenberg’s tenure, however, could be the humanitarian cost of holding fast to a policy that some of the West’s own strategic experts consider misconceived: NATO’s relentless expansionism. Initially created as a defensive alliance to forestall Soviet aggression on European soil, NATO’s raison d’etre disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed. But NATO reinvented itself as an all-purpose alliance whose military footprint extended far beyond Europe, and Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine seemed to prove the expansionists right.

NATO’s track record under Mr. Stoltenberg indicates that it has been more successful as a tool to consolidate America’s geo-political footprint in Europe rather than as a means to ensure peace in the region. European nations who want to be NATO members — such as Ukraine, Sweden and Finland — because of a perceived threat to their security from Russia, have so far failed to come up with a clear answer to a strategic conundrum: while it may be true that only NATO membership can insulate them from the threat of a Russian invasion, isn’t it also true that it’s the prospect of joining NATO that activates this threat in the first place?

Mr. Stoltenberg, as NATO’s top civil servant, and as someone with intimate knowledge of Russia’s geopolitical obsessions, could perhaps have done more to prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of course, that would have entailed challenging NATO’s 30-year-old policy of endless eastward expansion regardless of the cost. In his eight years as NATO’s Secretary General, he would have had plenty of opportunities to do just that.

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