Sun shone on more friendly US talks

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The weather seemed to cooperate as much as the two main players involved, when foreign policy leaders for the US and Norway wound up two days of meetings in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø over the weekend. Talks of their much-vaunted friendship and partnership turned to how they’d jointly handle the future of sensitive Arctic areas.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had more time than usual to talk over the weekend, here on a boat trip off Tromsø. PHOTO: Andrea Gjestvang/Utenriksdepartementet

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ended her four-day Scandinavian tour with a visit to Sweden on Sunday, but Norwegian officials could correctly note that she’d spent the vast majority of her time in Norway. After first landing in Oslo Thursday night, she and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre flew north to Tromsø Friday night, where they also had time to talk for hours, not least over a relatively private dinner, without the constraints that usually surround official visits.

“I’ve spoken with her many times, but we are both veterans of being places with limited time-tables,” Støre told newspaper Aftenposten afterwards. “This was the first time we could sit, the two of us, and talk over dinner for several hours. That gave the meeting a new dimension, and we could take up issues and thoughts there normally isn’t time for.”

With the sun shining and snow-capped mountains looming in the background, the setting likely enhanced their feelings of goodwill and cooperation. Meetings and speeches in Oslo on Friday already had sent the message loud and clear that the US and Norway are firm allies with “common values,” and that current leaders of both countries seem to be part of a mutual admiration society. The boasts of friendship continued in what Clinton called “the High North.”

Clinton and Støre walked through Tromsø Friday night, still in daylight because of the Midnight Sun at this time of year, trailed by their horde of assistants and security personnel. PHOTO: Frode Overland Andersen/Utenriksdepartementet

Støre also adopts the “High North” term when speaking English, along with claims of “low tension” over security policies in the area. There have been differences, however, regarding whether the sovereignty over Svalbard that Norway was granted in a treaty from 1920 can also apply to the continental shelf around Svalbard. Norway claims authority both on land and offshore, and newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Saturday how Støre himself has acknowledged that “the Americans have been somewhat reserved” about the issue. He called the US’ lack of clear support for Norwegian sovereignty merely a matter of diplomacy, though, and not anything that amounts to a dispute.

With the Arctic rapidly emerging as an area of extreme strategic importance not least over access to potentially enormous economic resources, the US clearly is eager to assert itself in issues where Norway has clear geographic advantages. Not only does Norway have huge oil wealth and the expertise needed for finding more offshore oil and gas, it has many indisputable territorial rights, especially after resolving border issues in the Barents Sea with Russia. Norway, with a long history as a shipping nation, also sits at the gateway of what likely will be important new shipping routes as ice melts in the Arctic areas.

The problem with China
With countries including China eager to asset themselves in the area, too, tensions may rise. China wants to be granted observer status on the international Arctic Council that oversees Arctic issues, of which Norway is a permanent member along with other countries bordering on the area. Given China’s refusal to talk with Norwegian government leaders since the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo nearly two years ago, Norwegian officials find it difficult to accept China’s application.

Clinton confirmed to Aftenposten that it will be a challenge to deal with all the countries now showing interest in the Arctic, but claimed she believes in “a peaceful cooperation” and that the council’s operations will “set the standard for how we can work together in these areas.” Støre confirmed that he and Clinton “spoke a lot about how we can relate to steadily more countries, especially China, which show greater interest in the northern areas.”

The pressure on the Arctic
The main question remains over how the fragile Arctic can survive increased human economic activity from shipping traffic to oil and gas exploration. Environmentalists want to fend off much of it, while demands for energy and the potential for profits adds to the pressure of exploitation.

Clinton stressed that she believes the Arctic Council (external link) will be “the most important forum” for managing the Arctic in the future. And it’s now based in northern Norway, with its secretariat hosted by the Norwegian Polar Institute at the Fram Centre in Tromsø. Its officials took Clinton out on their research vessel Helmer Hanssen and gave Clinton an intensive course in Arctic issues.

“I told her a lot about climate change and how the melting of ice in the Arctic has consequences for the whole world,” said Jan Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. “Temperatures are rising both in the US, and in China.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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