Jens Stoltenberg received a much anticipated nod from the 31-member bloc on Tuesday to continue to helm the transatlantic security organisation that he has served so well since 2014. It is a measure of how much rests on his stewardship — Nato obviously saw sense in continuity given the multifarious challenges stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the alliance’s own unity — that this is the fourth extension he has received in the job.
Stoltenberg, who was twice prime minister of Norway — from 2000-2001 and from 2005-2013 — had indicated in February that he was no longer in the run, but will now lead the strongest military alliance in history into its 75th anniversary when the US and the bloc summit in Washington next year.
Much is already known about Stoltenberg’s widely acknowledged leadership, but one would like to share both a professional and personal account that, at once, shines a light on the person, leader and the country he comes from.
In 2005, I interviewed Jens Stoltenberg in the same office of the same building which was rocked by a bomb blast on July 22, 2011. The explosion came as a rude shock to Norwegians, who were world famous only for being generous hosts to leaders seeking a quiet retreat to settle global flashpoints in the 90s. Oslo was deemed too cold for heated exchanges in a manner-of-speak.
Meeting the-then prime minister made for a fond memory. Just a month after the devastating earthquake rattled Pakistan in the winter of 2005, yours truly was requested — and air dashed — to interview Stoltenberg.
The conversation in scenic Oslo preceded his visit to Islamabad in what was a poignant gesture from a great friend by statistical bent alone: Norway was the second highest donor behind the US in trying to get a Pakistan on her feet again.
The Oslo sojourn, in hindsight, seems like the work of a magician given the frantic pace at which it was conjured: sounded out one late night, visa stamped early morning the next day and off I went along with fellow scribe Nusrat Javeed in the evening.
At -18C, it was my first severe test of the dead of European winter as we arrived in Oslo and the day stretched to 27 hours thanks to the time difference.
The common sense recourse would have been to stay put in the cosy hotel where we were lodged, but an apparent need forced me out: I had forgotten to bring a neck-tie and felt it would seem less than formal to go and interview a head of state, especially a foreigner in his own land, in an informal attire.
Emerging from the nocturnal embrace of Oslo, I awakened to a world awaiting discovery. The sun’s golden rays spilled over the city, beckoning me forth. Determined, I ventured into the wintry streets, my breath forming crystalline trails in the frost-kissed air.
Shivering to the last bone and struggling to hold steady on inches of snow, I somehow made it to a nearby superstore, reading from a map — against advice from Nusrat, who joked the heavens wouldn’t fall if I didn’t make the “editor’s cut”.
Having grabbed a genuine article from Italy, no less, I returned to the hotel feeling triumphant only to discover that I had grossly miscalculated the currency conversion and paid at least 10 times more than I had thought!
The interview was delayed by a day but that was the least of our worries. What had us in a bit of shock was when our contact, an official of the prime minister’s office, told us politely but firmly that we were to drive down to the office ourselves!
We were of course, given directions but in a nutshell, the message was that while the tour was guided it wasn’t “protocol-driven”. It took us a while to get the drift of this egalitarian bent. In due course, one would come to admire, not just appreciate, the order of things.
So we flagged a sleek Volvo for a private cab, and soon enough discovered that while the distance wasn’t much, the tab certainly was. But we didn’t have time to ponder over deep holes as we surveyed the surroundings.
As would be expected of a stranger in a strange land, we soon reverted to the tested and tried method: asking a local to guide us to the PM’s office.
We were told that the building a few yards ahead was where the most powerful man in Norway worked. We looked at each other in disbelief as he pointed to some floor on the building where Stoltenberg served time. I had a serious apprehension over the “unofficial roadside guidance” and even suggested to Nusrat that our guide was probably poking fun but he felt we wouldn’t be the wiser without giving it a shot.
Running out of time, soon we were in the building, walking ever so bewildered to the reception manned by just two persons in security uniform. We introduced ourselves and were immediately asked for supporting document and passport copies in a business-like fashion. Once again, we couldn’t believe our eyes or ears, when one of them directed us to take the elevator and reach the floor mentioned by the guy we had sought directions from down the road.
When we reached there, we could see another reception desk, where the officer on duty simply matched the Xerox of our passports he had most likely received from downstairs while we were in the elevator. A staffer then ushered us into a room nearby and offering drinks requested us to wait while the PM emerged from a meeting.
Five minutes later, in walked Mr Stoltenberg — just like that!
The PM apologised profusely for being ‘late’, which he said, was because the weekly meeting with the monarch had taken slightly longer!
The whole phantasmagoria bordered on virtual disbelief. We had come to meet a prime minister in a private car, sought directions to his modest office on some floor of a building that resembled a mall — courtesy an ordinary Norwegian on a roadside — and reached our destination and the man guiding Norway’s destiny without any physical check. And he’s apologising to us for being five minutes late!
The interview itself was a walk in the park but it was Stoltenberg’s unassuming side that was impressive. He seemed genuinely interested in knowing if we were at home and how much of Oslo we had seen and would be seeing in the days ahead.
I was able to even broach an issue concerning the local Pakistani community — noteworthy for being the largest expatriate population in Norway — and assuring me of his whole-hearted support, he gave me a brief of how parliamentary committees work in Norway and how he intended to use his party’s influence to get Pakistan enhanced and sustained assistance post-earthquake.
The prime minister’s down-to-earth demeanour stirred a kindred spirit within me, reinforcing the view that true leaders emerge not from the ashes of grandeur but from the embrace of humility.
l The writer is Op-ed Editor. He may be reached at [email protected]
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