NATO Taps Norway’s Stoltenberg to Deal With Russia, Afghans

NATO picked former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as its next civilian leader, as the western military alliance confronts a more assertive Russia and winds down the war in Afghanistan.

Stoltenberg, 55, will become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 13th secretary general and first Norwegian to hold the post, representatives of the 28 allies decided today in Brussels. He will take over from Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark in October for a term of four years.

Stoltenberg, a trained economist who at the start of his political career campaigned for Norway to exit the U.S.-led alliance, was prime minister from 2000 to 2001 and again from 2005 until losing elections last year. Today he denounced Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s southern Crimea region, while saying the alliance isn’t out to antagonize the Kremlin.

“What we have seen in Ukraine just reminds us of how important NATO is,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Oslo. “The idea of NATO’s collective defense is becoming even more important when we see how Russia is using force to change borders in Europe.”

Founded in 1949 to resist the Soviet Union, the trans-Atlantic alliance reinvented itself as a policeman of the Balkans during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. It went further afield, to Afghanistan, after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

NATO’s drawdown from Afghanistan, possibly entailing a complete pullout by the end of the year, also coincides with declines in European defense spending and the paring of the Pentagon budget after increases for the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Crimea Annexation

The alliance has repeatedly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea and stepped up its military presence in eastern European countries that joined the alliance after a half-century under Soviet domination.

“Recent events in Ukraine have underlined that, even once we complete our mission in Afghanistan, there will be new challenges to respond to,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. He said Stoltenberg will bring a “wealth of experience” to the job.

Norway shares a 196-kilometer (122-mile) border with Russia, leading to a relationship with the Kremlin that is at times cooperative, at times competitive.

In 2010, Stoltenberg settled a territorial dispute with Russia over access to gas and oil deposits in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean. The two sides agreed on a demarcation of the seabed and pledged to develop energy deposits in the border area jointly.

Oil Riches

“A strong NATO is also needed for a dialogue with Russia,” Stoltenberg said. “Norway has a long experience of dialogue with Russia.”

Oil has made Norway one of Europe’s richest countries. Stoltenberg tapped oil revenues to shield the country from the recessions that gripped Europe after the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008.

At the same time, Stoltenberg helped put in place fiscal rules that limit the government to using a maximum of 4 percent of Norway’s $850 billion sovereign wealth fund to pad budgets.

The son of a Norwegian foreign minister, Stoltenberg studied economics at the University of Oslo. He and his wife Ingrid Schulerud have two children, son Axel and daughter Anne Catharina. Stoltenberg entered Norway’s parliament in 1993 and also served as trade and energy minister and finance minister. He has led the Labor Party since 2002.

Island Killings

On July 22, 2011, Norway went through its biggest peacetime trauma, when extremist Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb in the Oslo government district and went on a shooting rampage on a nearby island, killing 77, mostly teenagers.

Stoltenberg preached against vengeance. He was later forced to defend his government’s failure to prevent the attack after an inquiry found deficient leadership at key institutions and “unacceptable” delays as the tragedy unfolded.

Stoltenberg said the U.S. sounded out Norway’s government in January over the possible appointment. His selection by NATO national ambassadors today contrasted with the intrigue and high-level diplomacy that surrounded the naming of Rasmussen, then Denmark’s prime minister, in 2009.

At his first NATO summit, President Barack Obama had to overcome Turkey’s objections to Rasmussen because of the Danish leader’s defense of a newspaper’s right to publish cartoons lampooning Islam.

European Chief

Rasmussen was the first sitting prime minister to be picked to run the alliance. He had backed the Bush administration’s “war on terror” by sending Danish forces to Iraq and Afghanistan over domestic opposition.

In Brussels this week, Obama praised Rasmussen, 61, for “extraordinary work.” Rasmussen played a role in the buildup and drawdown in Afghanistan and in the alliance’s air war over Libya in 2011.

NATO’s civilian chief is traditionally a European while the military headquarters is run by an American. The current supreme military commander is U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, in a line tracing back to Dwight Eisenhower.

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