Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary- general since 2014, knows the importance of a measured response. When we meet in central Brussels, less than 72 hours after a missile had exploded in the Polish village of Przewodów, close to the Ukrainian border, he looks understandably exhausted. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion on 15 November, which killed two Polish farmers, many feared the worst. Łukasz Jasina, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson for Poland – a Nato member since 1999 – released a statement calling the missile “Russian-made”; Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in his nightly televised address: “Russian missiles hit Poland, the territory of our friendly country.” That same day Russia had launched its biggest missile onslaught against Ukraine since the war began.
The atmosphere was febrile and Western analysts speculated on whether Article Five of Nato’s founding treaty — in which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all members — would be invoked, dragging the West into direct military conflict with Russia. It wasn’t long before “World War Three” began trending on Twitter.
By the morning of 16 November, however, Stoltenberg, who is 63 and a former Labour prime minister of Norway, had convened a meeting of Nato ambassadors in Brussels and liaised with the Polish government. By this time, it was apparent that the explosion had been caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile that had been fired to head off Vladimir Putin’s assault. A wider war had been averted, but Stoltenberg was disturbed. “This is the most dangerous moment for Europe since the end of the Second World War,” he told me. “Of course, we had the Cold War, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis – but what we see now is a full-fledged war in Europe. And wars are dangerous: accidents may happen and incidents may happen, and there’s always a risk for escalation.”
Ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on 24 February, Stoltenberg has committed Nato’s unequivocal support to Ukraine. But now in the West concern grows about “Ukraine fatigue”, as inflation and energy prices continue to rise, in part as a consequence of the conflict. But Nato will not falter, Stoltenberg promised. “We will support them for as long as it takes. That has been stated again and again… both to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign independent nation, but also to ensure that President Putin and other authoritarian leaders do not believe that this behaviour pays off.”
How does he think the war will end?
“At the negotiating table,” he said. “But what happens around that negotiating table is fundamentally closely linked to the situation on the battlefield. So the best way we can maximise the likelihood of an outcome acceptable for Ukraine is to support them militarily.”
But if the interests of Ukraine and Nato were mapped out as a Venn diagram, they would not entirely overlap. Ukraine wants to win no matter the price; Zelensky told British MPs in a House of Commons address on 8 March, paraphrasing Churchill: “We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.” Stoltenberg also wants Ukraine to win, but he doesn’t want Nato to become mired in direct conflict with Russia, a declining but still dangerous nuclear power. “Of course, the war is devastating for Ukraine, but it’s also dangerous for Europe.”
Nato, he said, would not hesitate to invoke Article Five. “There should be no misunderstanding and no room for misunderstanding in Moscow about our willingness and readiness to protect and defend all our territory. It continues to be the best way to ensure peace.”
Yet as long as the war grinds on, as recent events in Poland demonstrated, “there may be many different types of potential incidents or accidents or provocations. So we need to be prepared for all eventualities. And that’s exactly what Nato is.”
Jens Stoltenberg was born in 1959 in Oslo into a cosmopolitan and political family. His father, Thorvald, served as Norway’s defence minister for the Labour party and then foreign minister, and later became a diplomat. He believed in “kitchen table diplomacy”, as Stoltenberg puts it, inviting leaders and human rights activists from all over the world to discuss politics with him at home; Stoltenberg first met Nelson Mandela as a boy over breakfast. His mother, Karin, also a politician, had previously been married to a Canadian poet and was friends with Leonard Cohen, the singer-songwriter.
After studying economics at the University of Oslo, Stoltenberg became the leader of the youth wing of Norway’s Labour party, which then opposed Nato membership; Stoltenberg later changed the group’s stance on the alliance. He rose through the party and served twice as prime minister, from 2000 to 2001, and then from 2005 to 2013.
It was during his second term, in July 2011, that Anders Behring Breivik, a neo-Nazi, killed eight people in a bomb attack in central Oslo and then another 69 in a mass shooting on the nearby island of Utøya during a Labour youth camp. Many of the victims were children and Stoltenberg knew several of them.
Norway, he said as prime minister, would respond to the atrocity with “more democracy, more openness and more humanity – but never naivety”.
Stoltenberg takes a similar approach to being secretary-general. While he could be described as doggedly diplomatic – refusing to be drawn on, for example, Nicola Sturgeon’s desire to remove the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent from Scottish waters – he’s not in denial about the challenges.
When he became secretary-general in October 2014, soon after Putin annexed Crimea, Nato’s direction seemed unclear. Commitment to the alliance – and defence spending more generally – varied among member states; Donald Trump called Nato “obsolete” in 2017, and Emmanuel Macron referred to its ongoing “brain death” two years later. The divisions in Nato caused by Trump’s presidency, and the uncertainty he instilled in America’s European allies, lingered even after he left office.
[See also: Letter from Kherson: The war of the villages]
Meanwhile, new challenges emerged. China was becoming an increasingly powerful – and increasingly aggressive – actor on the world stage, crushing civil society in Hong Kong and escalating its threats against Taiwan. Yet Nato members remain divided on how precisely to contain China, with the US taking a more adversarial position and many European nations, including Germany and France, a more conciliatory one. The Covid pandemic brought its own diplomatic and security pressures for the world as borders closed and supply chains fragmented. Then, in late February of this year, a major conflict broke out in Europe.
Putin’s war in Ukraine has reinvigorated Nato’s mission. Finland and Sweden have applied to join the alliance; 40,000 troops are under direct Nato command along its eastern flank. Yet fissures remain. Turkey has stonewalled Finland and Sweden’s membership over a dispute about policy on certain Kurdish organisations. But when asked about the disunity within Nato, Stoltenberg is characteristically pragmatic. “There have always been differences in this alliance. We are 30 democracies, with different histories and different geography from both sides of the Atlantic. During the period of President Trump, of course, we saw differences on issues like climate change or the Iran nuclear deal. But the success is that despite all these differences, we have always been able to unite around the core task, and to protect and defend each other, because you know that we are stronger together than alone. That has always been the case. It helped to preserve peace through the Cold War. It helps us to stand together in the fight against terrorism. And it helps us also today, in facing a more aggressive Russia invading neighbours.”
He neither criticises nor praises any one Nato head of state. When asked if Boris Johnson’s enthusiastic support for Ukraine was appreciated by Nato, Stoltenberg is strikingly cool. “The very strong support from the United Kingdom to Ukraine has been appreciated over a long period of time. It is also a strength that [Ukraine] has had strong bipartisan support, and has been supported by different prime ministers going back to 2014.”
It’s true that Nato survived the Trump years and Stoltenberg deserves some credit for what happened. Trump’s chief complaint was that other member states weren’t investing 2 per cent of their GDP on defence, as Nato members are asked to do. This was a familiar American concern. Barack Obama described countries not paying their fair share as “free riders’’ when he was in office. Stoltenberg has always maintained that all Nato members should be meeting their spending targets and urged them to do so. In 2019, Trump said of Stoltenberg: “I’m a big fan.”
Notably, since Russia invaded Ukraine, even the most reluctant members have come around; days after the war began, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced a special €100bn fund to upgrade Germany’s armed forces and pledged to honour the 2 per cent Nato defence spending target.
Stoltenberg is the second longest-serving secretary-general of Nato; his tenure ends in October 2023. (Though it’s not yet clear who his replacement will be, a few names have been mooted, including Canada’s Liberal deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland.) As he and other Western leaders have warned, the war in Ukraine shows no sign of ending. There is a possibility that Trump – or a similarly unpredictable national populist such as Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor – could enter the White House in 2024.
What, I asked Jens Stoltenberg, is the future of Nato in this era of great power rivalry, and as war rages in Europe? “The lesson we have learned from two world wars and the Cold War is that this transatlantic bond between North America and Europe is important for Europe… [and] in Nato, the United States has friends and allies in a way that no other major power has.” Much has changed since the defence alliance was first formed in 1949. “We live in a more dangerous world,” Stoltenberg said. But, also, “Nato is much stronger now.”
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette