LONDON – NATO named a new leader Friday, tapping a former Norwegian prime minister as it seeks to shore up the alliance amid fears of a new Russian expansionism.
Jens Stoltenberg will take the reins from current NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in October, becoming the second consecutive Scandinavian to occupy the post. Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish premier, has headed the 28-nation alliance since 2009.
The scheduled change in leadership comes as the West confronts what some fear is a newly aggressive Moscow, which under President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea earlier this month after Russian forces invaded the peninsula and wrested it away from Ukraine.
The incursion is a major issue for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was forged in the Cold War and has tried to define a new role for itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Most of Fogh Rasmussen’s tenure has been occupied with the war in Afghanistan and such challenges as the Libyan uprising that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Kadafi. The outgoing secretary general has frequently called on NATO’s European member states to reverse their trend of cutting defense spending and their reliance on the United States to shoulder the burden of keeping the alliance strong.
Via Twitter, Fogh Rasmussen called Stoltenberg "the right man to build on NATO’s record of strength & success" and said that the Crimean crisis showed the "need for continued strong & determined leadership" of the alliance. British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted his delight at the appointment: "He'll bring a wealth of experience to [the] role."
Under Stoltenberg’s premiership from 2005 to 2013, Norway increased its defense budget and now spends more, per capita, on defense than most other countries in the 28-nation alliance, according to NATO.
Stoltenberg, 55, became a familiar face to many people outside Norway three years ago after the bombing and shooting rampage in Oslo and Utoya Island by anti-Muslim extremist Anders Behring Breivik, which left 77 people dead. As prime minister, Stoltenberg was lauded at the time for his dignified and measured response to the attack.
A year later, however, an independent inquiry blamed police for failing to prevent or respond more effectively to the massacre.
In 2013, Stoltenberg resigned as premier after his Labor Party won a plurality but not a majority of seats in parliament. He also had come under criticism for a campaign stunt in which he posed as a taxi driver in order to hear the opinions of ordinary Norwegians; some of the supposedly unwitting passengers he chatted with on film were revealed to be paid actors.