On March 28, NATO announced that Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s former prime minister, will become chief of the alliance when current NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen steps down in September. Not only is he going to be the first NATO secretary general from a country bordering Russia, he is also undoubtedly the first with anti-war credentials, albeit in his youth. When he became leader of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth wing in 1985, Stoltenberg initially affirmed its policy of withdrawal from NATO but later pressed the group to reverse this position. He also threw stones at the U.S. embassy in Oslo during anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1970s.
During almost a decade as prime minister of Norway, however, Stoltenberg was a staunch supporter of NATO. Under his leadership, the country participated in the war in Afghanistan and contributed to air strikes in Libya. Norway is also one of the few NATO countries that increased its defense budget in recent years.
NATO’s first secretary general was appointed in April 1952. Since then 12 different European diplomats have served officially in the position and two others on a temporary basis. (NATO’s top general is always an American.) The secretary general serves as the leader of the organization’s staff and as its chief spokesman. In addition to these official responsibilities, the secretary general must maintain close relations with the head of state of each NATO country and work both formally and informally with other diplomats to deal with issues facing the alliance.
Stoltenberg is an economist by training but a career politician by profession. In addition to having to learn French—one of the two official languages in NATO—he faces a number of major challenges as head of NATO that will severely test his political acumen and consensus-building skills.
The Tasks Ahead
The most immediate task facing NATO’s new chief will likely be the crisis in Ukraine. In his acceptance speech in Oslo, Stoltenberg highlighted the need for both dialogue as well as military strength in resolving the tense situation in the Crimea, saying that : “Russia’s move is in breach of international law and it’s a type of power policy that belongs in a past era.”
The current secretary general has adopted a hawkish response to the burgeoning confrontation with Russia. But when the alliance seeks to mend relations with Moscow—as it surely must at some point—Stoltenberg may be an invaluable mediating voice. As a former prime minister, he has strong international networks, well-developed skills as an international negotiator, and friendly ties with Moscow. For instance, he negotiated a deal with Russia in 2010 that ended a four-decade Russia-Norwegian dispute over their Arctic maritime borders and thereby built a friendship with then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
Some challenges facing Stoltenberg are internal—for instance, the long-standing division over NATO’s central strategic mission. Should it continue to seek global military missions or draw in its horns to focus on its Article 5 commitments to collective defense? The 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon agreed to a new strategic concept but left many questions unanswered or tasked further progress for future NATO Summits. At the next NATO summit in Wales in September, the focus will likely be on developing a new strategy for the alliance that pits NATO against Russia rather than in partnership with Russia. The United States, Britain, and most Eastern European member states are likely to support this push toward modernized deterrence, while Germany remains the most skeptical. Given that Stoltenberg only takes up the reins after the summit, he may be presented with a fait accompli that he will find difficult to implement.
NATO’s new strategic concept acknowledged the importance of partnerships and the need to create further or enhanced mechanisms for partnership with other relevant international organizations. NATO partnerships include relations with Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and 19 other countries within the Partnership for Peace framework. Ten countries in the Middle East participate in the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperative Initiative, and there at least eight other individual “partners across the globe.” NATO is also committed to a fresh impetus in its engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. Making NATO’s policy of partnership appear reliable to the Arab street will be a particularly challenging task for Stoltenberg.
NATO’s growing interest in the Arctic region, or the High North, will resonate strongly with a domestic Norwegian audience. NATO has been involved in discussions on evolving economic and strategic trends, “consequence management” in the Arctic, and Nordic defense cooperation. With the opening of a new Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia across the top of Russia—regarded in Moscow as its own Suez Canal—the region has heightened strategic importance.
There is growing recognition within NATO that new security challenges, ranging from cyber attacks to failing states, cannot be deterred by the threat of military retaliation and that military operations will not be the appropriate response in most cases. Emphasis is shifting toward prevention and enhancing resilience. The creation of an Emerging Security Challenges Division within NATO is intended to send a strong political message that NATO is systematically bringing together work on terrorism, cyber attacks, threats to energy supply, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But can NATO play a meaningful role in addressing such challenges?
One of the longest running fault lines within NATO has been the burden-sharing debate, with accusations that Europe spends too little on defense and is being protected at American taxpayer expense. But is the U.S.-European “capabilities gap” a result of European NATO countries spending too little or the United States spending too much? Despite cuts in the armed forces of many of its member nations, NATO remains by far the largest military force in the world, outdoing any potential rivals in terms of numbers and military expenditures. Three NATO member states also deploy nuclear forces while others participate in “nuclear-sharing” arrangements, although the precise mix between nuclear and conventional capabilities and the role of missile defense continues to be controversial.
It will be particularly interesting to see Stoltenberg’s take on the nuclear sharing issue. As a minister, he took part in an Oslo-Paris bicycle relay in 1995 to protest French nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll. Traditionally, Norway has been one of the more progressive anti-nuclear weapon states.
Connections between special forces, secret intelligence, and new forms of power projection (such as unmanned drone strikes and cyber attacks) are likely to be increasingly discussed in NATO circles. Partly a response to new threats, as well as the ongoing “war on terror,” debates on the accountability, legality, and effectiveness of these technologies and “new” forms of warfare are likely to be controversial and challenging. Again, Stoltenberg may bring a more measured approach to counter-terrorism issues within NATO, as he did in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Norway in 2011. At the memorial service to commemorate the victims of the atrocity, he pledged to respond with “more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.”
NATO needs to be an updated, more open, transparent, and accountable alliance, appropriate to 21st-century expectations. Decision-making within NATO remains largely the exclusive preserve of the executive branch of government and an array of inter-governmental bureaucracies. The alliance still does not have an information disclosure policy, while mechanisms for parliamentary oversight within NATO are inadequate.
Despite NATO’s almost daily bombardment of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with press statements, news stories, and background videos, the “diplomatic brick walls” remain intact. And as for trying to secure copies of the documentation that might allow an independent evaluation of what NATO officials are thinking and with whom they are doing business—forget it.
To improve transparency and accountability, national member parliaments need to sharpen their scrutiny of NATO affairs. At a minimum, this means establishing permanent standing committees of lawmakers dedicated to NATO. The democratic mandate of the NATO parliamentary assembly also needs to be strengthened, with greater accountability and openness about how members are selected. NATO should adopt an information openness policy consistent with the access to information laws already in place in the alliance’s 28 member countries. Such a policy should include guidelines for the proactive publication of core information, a mechanism for the public to file requests for information, and an independent review body for hearing appeals against refusals or failures to make information public within a short timeframe.
There also needs to be greater transparency in the way the secretary general is selected. As Lauren Harrison writes, Stoltenberg was chosen “through an informal consultation process, whereby member states suggest names, confer and bargain with other member states, and, after enough horse-trading, reach consensus. The process is opaque and conducted outside the public eye; we have no definitive record of which candidates were considered, his or her merits, and which countries supported each candidate.”
The imperfect selection process notwithstanding, based on his experience and CV to date, Stoltenberg may well turn out to be a high-quality choice for NATO, European security, and transatlantic cooperation. Whether he is able to bring a similar degree of understanding and compromise to his new role, however, will partly depend on other power centers within the NATO system, and above all else, whether he retains the support of the dominant force in the alliance: the United States. He may yet regret throwing those stones at the U.S. embassy!