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Jens standing with a gray windbreaker on with trees fallen behind him
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Jens Stoltenberg

Source: Geir Olsen/EPA/Corbis

Then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg visits a flood-affected area in Kvam, central Norway, on May 23, 2013.

taxi driver

Jens Stoltenberg

Why you should care

America’s transatlantic alliance, a ballast of international security since World War II, risks losing relevance unless European leaders ante up.

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 him or herself the next coming of Bill Maher or Sean Hannity. But that’s nothing compared with 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 with the common man (and woman). 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 fall. 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’ll not only have to woo officials across Europe but also that most hard-bitten of all politicians, Vladimir Putin.

Western leaders may not exactly be expecting Stoltenberg to look into Putin’s eyes and see his soul, the way President Bush “bonded” with him back in 2001, but they are hoping against hope that this 55-year-old lifelong politician has the same deft touch with the Kremlin 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 last month of the Crimea, a majority-Russian speaking peninsula that is part of Ukraine — though no one thinks the Ukrainians are getting that territory back anytime soon. The bigger goal for this 65-year-old alliance and its new leader will be rallying the collective weight of NATO’s 28 member countries to deter the Russians from going any further into Eastern Europe, a threat that has members like Poland particularly nervous.

Stoltenberg has proven particularly adept in dealing with Moscow.

Inked by 10 Western European countries, the United States and Canada in the aftermath of World War II, NATO was originally formed 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 one-time USSR, NATO’s latest security crisis still has an eerie air of déjà vu.

In other words, it’s a hairy time for Stoltenberg to jump into the fray. But that didn’t stop the alliance from announcing late last month that the two-time Norwegian prime minister (who first assumed the post at just 40 years old) would succeed current Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the organization’s highest civilian post this coming October. 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.

The two neighbors share a 100-plus-mile-long land border and plenty of abutting maritime claims in the Arctic, leading to an amicable, if not necessarily chummy, relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 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.

Norway is 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,” not to mention other strong-arm tactics Putin has tried in the past, 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.

For eight years, he helped keep together a fractious coalition government, made up of Labour and two other parties — practically an eon in that type of parliamentary arrangement.

That, says Nina Graeger, a political adviser to Stoltenberg when he was Norway’s minister of energy and now a senior fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, gave him heaps of experience in the art of compromise, which will be an integral part of the job at NATO as he tries to herd 28 countries toward consensus at a pivotal time.

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

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.

For the last five or so years, the majority of NATO members have been cutting back on defense spending, a trend that looks set to continue. 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 one of the minority that has actually increased defense spending in recent years — and has pushed for NATO to refocus on homefront security. Given the Crimea crisis, that now seems quite prescient. The territorial spat also has U.S. military leaders taking another look at their decisions to shrink the size of their European forces. But the question, as usual, comes down to costs.

A big part of Stoltenberg’s agenda, then, ”will be managing European countries and convincing them to really take security seriously,” says Brattberg. ”That’s going to require both diplomatic skills but also being a person that’s viewed as a strong leader, who can put some pressure on some of the European countries.”

The 55-year-old Stoltenberg can lay claim to those kinds of credentials, as well, 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, and akin to President George W. Bush’s impromptu bullhorn speech atop the rubble of the twin towers in the days after September 11, 2001.

One of Stoltenberg’s jobs at NATO will be to help foster the kind of secure environment so that no other world leader has to make those kind of remarks to a grieving public ever again.

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Meet The Author Emily Cadei

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!

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