The Indispensable Bureaucrat Looking Out for Ukraine

The Indispensable Bureaucrat Looking Out for Ukraine

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced today that Jens Stoltenberg, its secretary-general for the past nine years, will stay on for an almost unprecedented tenth year. Last week, after that development had already been predicted by The Times of London, the Financial Times, Politico, and who knows how many defense-industry newsletters, I met Stoltenberg in his clean, functional, almost featureless office—white walls, gray carpet—deep inside NATO’s shiny Brussels headquarters. I asked him about it.

“I have one plan, and that is to go back to Norway,” he replied, deadpan. I raised an eyebrow. Yes, he conceded, there are “some requests for me to stay on.” Beyond that, he would not comment. Not hypothetically. Not under embargo. When the inevitable announcement was finally made this morning, he said in a statement that he was “honored,” because “in a more dangerous world, our great Alliance is more important than ever.”

It would be hard to find a better illustration of the qualities that make Stoltenberg so popular. NATO is a defensive alliance representing a wide variety of countries and regions—Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, Scandinavia and Turkey, Britain and France. It makes decisions by consensus. To achieve that consensus, the NATO secretary-general does not personally need to fight battles or win wars. That’s the job of the supreme allied commander, who is always an American, as well as the 31 NATO heads of state and their 31 armies. Instead, the secretary-general, who is always a European, succeeds if he talks to everybody, finds common ground, negotiates compromises, never leaks, and never puts himself at the center of the story, even when the story is about him.

In recent years, this sort of person—call him Multilateral Man (though of course some of them are women)—has had a bad rap. Enemies of the European Union, NATO, and the alphabet soup of organizations run out of Washington, Geneva, and Brussels have taken to calling their employees “unelected bureaucrats.” Multilateral Man is said to be lazy, or wasteful, or powerless. In an age that celebrates “sovereignty,” “national interest,” and the achievements of his chief opponents (usually called “strongmen”), critics disparage Multilateral Man as parasitic or pointless. Sometimes the critics have a point.

But Stoltenberg is where he is precisely because he actually believes in multilateral organizations, NATO in particular. More than that, he thinks they are force multipliers that function better than the autocracies run by strongmen. He has argued that point rather passionately with NATO’s critics, among them Donald Trump, whom he famously won over by showing him bar charts illustrating increases in allied military spending. (“I love graphs,” Stoltenberg told me.)

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He also thinks that endless rounds of negotiation over alliance policy are worthwhile, because ultimately the result is a stronger sense of commitment. To those who say NATO is less efficient, he asks: “Less efficient than what? Compared to what?” True, if you don’t have NATO, “you don’t have a slow-moving decision process.” But that’s because if you don’t have NATO, you don’t have any decision process at all, at least not a collective decision process. “I believe in collective defense; I believe in one for all and all for one, that attack on one ally will trigger a response from the others.” And this, he says, is not just “good for small nations”; it’s “good for big nations too.” Everybody needs friends, even Americans.

Strictly speaking, Stoltenberg is not an unelected bureaucrat in any case, given that he has now been “elected” four times by NATO heads of state, twice for regular terms in office and twice for extensions. He also spent many years as an elected politician. As prime minister of Norway (from 2000 to 2001 and again from 2005 to 2013), he regularly ran coalition governments, and so he got used to forging compromises. As the son of another Norwegian politician (his father was both defense minister and foreign minister), he grew up eating breakfast with world leaders, among them Nelson Mandela, and thus learned the value of personal contacts. He once told a radio station that he hadn’t realized until many years later that it is not actually normal for foreign ministers to invite foreign leaders into their kitchen.

Breakfast isn’t always practical, nowadays, and so, according to those around him, he makes up for it with flurries of text messages and a constant round of visits to NATO capitals. He attended the inauguration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month, spent extra time in Istanbul, brought his wife and squeezed in some conversations about Swedish accession. In the 48 hours before I saw him, he had met with the prime ministers of Denmark and Bulgaria, as well as the president of France. He had attended a training exercise in Lithuania the previous weekend, and a meeting of the European Council, which includes all European Union heads of state, that morning. If he was tired of this endless carousel, he didn’t say so.

But at this particular moment, what really qualifies Stoltenberg for this job is his clarity about the dangers posed by Russia and a special affinity for Ukraine. Here I am treading delicately, because we don’t yet know the full details of the package NATO will offer Ukraine at a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, next week. The Ukrainians are asking for full NATO membership, which is nothing new: This subject was first seriously discussed at a NATO summit back in 2008. The decision taken at the time, to deny Ukraine a path to admission but to imply that it might be granted in the future, was the worst one possible, because it left Ukraine in a gray zone, aspiring to join the West but without any Western security guarantees. The world has shifted since then, and many more countries are now open to the idea of Ukrainian membership. Although the U.S. government is reluctant to support that while the war continues, for fear that American soldiers would immediately be drawn into the conflict, the Biden administration might eventually consider it too.

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For the moment, NATO will offer a series of proposals for longer-term military integration and aid. Ukraine will shift from Soviet to Western weapons systems and will be offered new institutional arrangements, including the creation of a NATO-Ukraine council, which don’t sound like much outside the Brussels bubble but mean a lot to people inside. Plans for eventually speeding up the process—Ukraine, like Finland and Sweden, may eventually be allowed to join without an extensive “membership action plan”—are also under consideration. Some countries may ultimately offer bilateral assurances as well.

Naturally, Stoltenberg didn’t tell me which countries hold which positions, even though these are widely reported. “My main task,” he said, “is not to give interesting answers, but it is to ensure that we make progress on the issue of membership for Ukraine.” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told me that Stoltenberg hasn’t been looking for “the least common denominator” in his negotiations, but is rather seeking to forge the best deal possible for Ukraine. Maybe this is American spin in advance of the summit, but if so, it has a broader point. Because Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that time is on his side, one of NATO’s central tasks is to convince him that time is not on his side, that the Western alliance will go on backing Ukraine, indefinitely. The expression long term comes up in a lot of transatlantic conversations about Ukraine. So does the word permanent. Stoltenberg’s durability is part of that message too.

But why should a former leader of the Norwegian Labor Party (and youthful anti-war activist) be so dedicated to this task? I saw Stoltenberg speak with great emotion about Ukraine at a private event a few months ago, and last week I asked him about that too. He told me that this was the result of personal experience. He visited then-Communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and saw stark contrasts between its inhabitants and their counterparts in the West. “I thought these were totally different people,” he recalled. “They have different clothing, everything smells different … and it was really dark, and it was so far away. But now I go to Riga or to Tallinn—I was just in Vilnius—and these are very trendy, modern cities; if anything, they are more trendy, more modern, and more creative than in Scandinavia.” The people were not different after all: “This was about politics, the rules that they lived under, and I am ashamed that I didn’t realize that earlier. And to some extent, I also made the same mistake about Ukraine.”

For Stoltenberg, as for so many Europeans, the current war stirred some even older memories. Turning to his office wall, Stoltenberg pointed to a photograph (black and white, in keeping with the austere aesthetic) of his grandfather at age 100, a former Norwegian army captain who was at one point in German captivity. Both his parents and grandparents used to walk around Oslo and point out locations of wartime events—“There was an explosion there, a sabotage attack here; the resistance used to hide in that flat”—and he knows this tour so well that he can do it with his own children. The Ukrainians, he told me, “are fighting the same fight that we fought against Nazism.”

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This dual realization—that Ukrainians aren’t so different from Westerners, and that they are fighting a familiar kind of war—isn’t unique to Stoltenberg. On the contrary, quite a few European leaders, and for that matter ordinary Europeans, have traveled the same journey, which is why he and others in and around NATO seem so confident in their “long term” and “permanent” commitment to Ukraine. He insists that this transformation began not last year but at the start of his term in 2014, when NATO had just been surprised and confused by the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas. After that, spending rose, and strategic plans shifted. In 2016, the alliance agreed to set up battle groups—led by Americans in Poland, Germans in Lithuania, Brits in Estonia, and Canadians in Latvia. By February 24, 2022, “NATO was prepared. We had all of the increased readiness, we had all of the increased defense spending, we had deployed forces to the eastern border, and we had agreed defense plans—new defense plans—that we activated that morning.”

Not everybody had taken this shift seriously. In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron described NATO as “brain dead.” The Russian president’s disregard for NATO and its leaders had far greater consequences. Putin claimed to be offended by NATO’s presence on his western border, but in practice he was not bothered by it, and certainly not deterred by it. Had he really believed in the transatlantic commitment to Ukraine, or had he really feared NATO aggression, he surely would not have invaded at all.

But although historians will argue about whether NATO could have done more to deter Russia, it is already clear that NATO did much more to help Ukraine than Putin expected once the war began. Putin not only underestimated Ukraine; he also underestimated Multilateral Men—the officials who, like Jens Stoltenberg and his counterparts at the European Union, helped the White House put together the military, political, and diplomatic response. Putin believed his own propaganda, the same propaganda used by the transatlantic far right: Democracies are weak, autocrats are strong, and people who use polite, diplomatic language won’t defend themselves. This turned out to be wrong. “Democracies have proven much more resilient, much stronger than our adversaries believe,” Stoltenberg told me. And autocracies are more fragile: “As we’ve just seen, authoritarian systems can just, suddenly, break down.”

Here is a prediction: Over the next year—and this one, everyone swears, really is his last—Stoltenberg won’t be making any charismatic speeches about Ukraine or NATO. He won’t join the fray, start arguments, or appear on television unless he has too. Instead, he will keep talking about a “multiyear program of moving Ukraine from Soviet standards and equipment doctrines to NATO standards and doctrines,” keep meeting with prime ministers and foreign ministers, keep working on the integration of Ukraine into Europe. And then, one day, it will have happened.

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