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Unless European leaders ante up, America’s trans-Atlantic alliance risks losing relevance. 

Take a taxi in Washington, D.C., and, more likely than not, you’ll end up in a debate about politics with a cab driver who fancies himself or herself the next coming of Bill Maher or Sean Hannity. But that’s nothing compared to what some Norwegians experienced one Friday afternoon last August, when a cab ride through their nation’s capital turned into a discourse on everything from education policy to corporate governance … with their sitting prime minister.

As part of a campaign stunt during his Labour Party’s bid for re-election, then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg cruised the streets of his native Oslo picking up unsuspecting denizens for a quick (and surreptitiously videotaped) chat about the state of the country. The video, which the Guardian helpfully translates into English, reveals this calm and serious pol’s surprisingly affable touch. The fresh and funny back and forth didn’t help Stoltenberg at the polls — his center-left Labour Party lost to the center-right Conservative Party last year. But it is evidence of the sort of people skills that should come in handy in Stoltenberg’s newest gig, leader of NATO, where he must woo not just the average European official but also that most hard-bitten of politicians, Vladimir Putin.

Jens Stoltenberg indoors speaking to the press with a mic in front of him

Source: Corbis

Western leaders might not be expecting Stoltenberg, who became NATO’s secretary-general in October, to look into Putin’s eyes and see his soul, the way President George W. Bush “bonded” with him back in 2001. But they are hoping — often against hope — that this 55-year-old lifelong politician has the same deft touch with the Kremlin that he demonstrated during a decade leading this Scandinavian country of roughly 5 million.

That could help mitigate the fallout with Moscow over Russia’s military takeover of the Crimea, a majority-Russian-speaking peninsula that is part of Ukraine, earlier this year. No one thinks the Ukrainians are getting that territory back anytime soon. NATO’s immediate goal is to rally the collective weight of its 28 member countries to deter the Russians from going any farther into Eastern Europe, a prospect that makes members like Poland particularly nervous.

Formed by 10 Western European countries, the United States and Canada in the aftermath of World War II, NATO was originally organized to ward off the Soviets from gobbling up America’s democratic partners in Western Europe (Europe returned the favor after Sept. 11, joining with the U.S. fight in Afghanistan). Though it has since expanded to include many parts of the former USSR, NATO’s latest security crisis still has an eerie air of déjà vu: It’s a hairy time for Stoltenberg to jump into the fray. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the chief champion for Stoltenberg’s appointment, despite his relative lack of security credentials, based in large part on Oslo’s — and Stoltenberg’s — long-standing ties with Moscow, says Erik Brattberg, an expert on Europe and NATO at the Atlantic Council.

Stoltenberg has proven particularly adept in dealing with Moscow.

Norway and Russia share a 100-plus-mile-long land border and plenty of abutting maritime claims in the Arctic; they have an amicable if not always chummy relationship. Stoltenberg has proven particularly adept in dealing with Moscow, successfully negotiating a 2010 agreement on borders in the Barents Sea with then-President Dmitry Medvedev that the Russians and Norwegians had been haggling over for 40-some years. It’s the rare Western country that “has been able to maintain very good relationships with Russia” while at the same time being “very clear on [its] position against Russia and Russia’s role in the Crimea,” as well as Putin’s other strong-arm attempts, says Brattberg. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it’s not the only one Stoltenberg — sometimes dubbed the “Tony Blair of Norway” for the way he shifted his traditionally lefty party to the political center — pulled off while leading Norway.

Norway is one of the minority that has actually increased defense spending in recent years.

For eight years — almost an eon in parliamentary terms — Stoltenberg kept together a fractious coalition government. That gave him heaps of experience in the art of compromise, an integral part of the job at NATO as he tries to herd 28 countries toward consensus at a pivotal time, says Nina Graeger, a former adviser to Stoltenberg who is now senior fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

The current conflict with Russia, after all, just intensifies a bigger identity crisis looming for NATO as it closes a major chapter in its history — transitioning out of its long, frustrating war in Afghanistan. Looking ahead, the biggest question facing the future of the alliance: whether its cash-strapped member countries are really prepared to continue to invest in a robust collective defense.

In recent years, most NATO members have cut back on defense spending. That’s true for the United States, which has long propped up the alliance, accounting for 70 percent of NATO’s budget. American leaders say it’s now time for a change and are pushing the Europeans to shoulder more of the load. But few have responded. Norway is among the few nations that have increased defense spending — and has pushed NATO to refocus on home front security. Given the Ukraine crisis, that now seems quite prescient. The territorial spat also has U.S. military leaders taking another look at their decisions to shrink their European forces. But the question, as usual, comes down to costs. A big part of Stoltenberg’s agenda, then, is “managing European countries and convincing them to really take security seriously,” says Brattberg — in other words, being a diplomatic but strong leader who can make the hard sell.

Stoltenberg can lay claim to those kinds of credentials, most famously for his response in one of Norway’s darkest hours: the 2011 massacre of 77 Norwegians, many of them teenagers, by a deranged far-right extremist. He delivered a stirring address at the public memorial for the victims days later: “Our answer,” he declared, “is more democracy, more openness and more humanity” — a searing moment for Norwegians, akin to President George W. Bush’s impromptu bullhorn speech atop the rubble of the twin towers in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.

The quote seems apt again now, as the West tries to hold the line against an authoritarian-minded Moscow. They’re just going to need to back up their democracy and openness with some physical might.

Top Image Source: Geir Olsen/Corbis

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Emily Cadei

Ozy Author

Emily covers government, world affairs, business and sports for OZY. California-bred and D.C.-based, she's reported from four of the world's seven continents — still waiting for a byline from South America, Australia and Antarctica!