BRUSSELS: NATO chose former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as its next leader Friday, at a crucial time when the Western military alliance faces a resurgent Russia following the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Stoltenberg will take over as secretary-general of the 28-nation group on Oct. 1, succeeding former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has led since 2009.
Stoltenberg, the first Norwegian to occupy NATO’s top post, will take over at a time when NATO, which is seen by some as a Cold War relic, has gained new relevance due to concerns over the Ukraine crisis.
“Norway is seen as a very serious defense player and has always taken the challenge of Russia very, very seriously. I think there is a little bit of a signal there,” said Daniel Keohane, a FRIDE think tank defense expert.
The Ukraine crisis means that the alliance, which is due to end combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of this year, is likely to refocus on its core task of defending its member countries.
NATO foreign ministers are expected to meet in Brussels next week to discuss how to reinforce the alliance’s military presence in eastern European countries such as the Baltics and Poland, which fear they might be vulnerable to Russia.
Stoltenberg will also face a challenge in trying to persuade many European countries to reverse, or at least end, sharp cuts in defence spending that were adopted in response to the financial crisis.
Stoltenberg, who served for nearly 10 years as Norway’s prime minister before losing elections last September, was backed by the United States, NATO’s dominant power, and Germany. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that he also backed Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg is considered a skilfull economic operator who pulled Norway through the global financial crisis relatively unharmed as the government used its massive stored oil wealth to boost spending, create demand and limit unemployment.
His governments backed NATO’s military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya. During his time as prime minister, Norway also began to place orders for Joint Strike Fighter aircraft from U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. to replace an ageing fleet of F-16s.