NEWS ANALYSIS: Foreign Minister Børge Brende got right to the point when he recently delivered the government’s annual foreign policy address to the Norwegian Parliament. Norway faces a “more challenging” situation for its foreign policy and own security that it has for a long time, he said in his opening remarks, and that will force changes in how the country allocates its resources and braces for an even worse year ahead.
Brende was unusually blunt in his remarks: While both 2014 and 2015 were “demanding” years for Norwegian officials, as they faced a newly aggressive Russian neighbour and an influx of asylum seekers amidst a sagging national economy, 2016 will be “even more difficult.” Brende had already noted how Norwegians are “experiencing increased vulnerability” and “a feeling that the order we have built up in Europe and globally during the past few decades is more fragile than we thought.”
He summarized all the conflicts that threaten to overwhelm politicians both at home and abroad: War and conflict close to Europe in addition to the ongoing trouble in Ukraine, the highest number of people killed last year for 25 years and more than 60 million people forced to flee their homes worldwide, itself the highest number since World War II. Around 125 million people around the world have an acute need for humanitarian aid because of war, hunger and poverty. Terrorist organizations, meanwhile, keep attempting to spread fear and destabilize not only their home turf but also targets in Europe and elsewhere.
“We also face a more assertive and unpredictable Russia, both in the east and in Syria,” Brende said from the podium in Parliament. “European cooperation is being put to the test by migration, economic crises, terror threats and international rules of conduct that are under pressure.”
And through it all, geographic distance from hostilities now provides a much lower degree of distance from the problems, he said. Brende also stressed how “serious” the situation is at present and cautioned early on that all aspects of his address would reflect that, what the Norwegians call alvor.
Brende’s admittedly melancholy tone throughout his address also sent a clear signal to Norwegian politicians and Norwegians in general: It’s time for everyone to brace for whatever may be coming, and that’s likely to be much tougher times both in terms of economics and security. Commentator Harald Stanghelle in newspaper Aftenposten called Brende’s words “strong and dramatic” when they come from the “country’s foreign minister speaking from the country’s most important podium.”
They also came just as newspaper VG was revealing the contents of an internal 10-page memorandum written by two senior diplomats at Brende’s foreign ministry. They delivered an even more alarming assessment of the challenges facing Norway, and suggested that most Norwegians are not mentally prepared for their consequences. A ministry spokesman didn’t want to comment further on the document that detailed consequences of an ongoing refugee crisis, a rise of right-wing extremism around Europe, more terror, a far more nationalistic and aggressive Russia and the possible economic and political collapse of countries both in and around Europe. It’s no coincidence that the beleaguered European Union (EU) is reportedly about to send hundreds of millions of euros to Greece to help it care for thousands of asylum seekers stranded within its borders, after borders to other European countries closed.
The sheer severity of all the troubles is prompting Norway to reevaluate its foreign policy and reallocate resources, not least those earmarked for foreign aid. Norway has long been one of the world’s most generous donors on a per capita basis, and even though its own fortunes are suddenly sagging because of the dive in the price of its important oil exports, the country will continue to spread its wealth. Soon, it appears, in different ways.
The government has already signaled plans to revamp foreign policy by identifying and choosing new priorities. A series of debate meetings will begin soon around the country through a project called Veivalg i norsk utenriks- og sikkerhetspolitikk, which roughly translated means that Norway will be choosing a new course. Some foreign policy experts, like Ulf Sverdrup at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, have already called for the country’s huge sovereign wealth fund known as the “Oil Fund” to play a bigger role. As Norway moves from being a “petro-state” to being a major global investor of its oil money, the country now has ownership stakes in more than 80 other countries around the globe, through both shareholdings and real estate acquisitions. The fund “shouldn’t become a foreign policy instrument,” Sverdrup wrote recently in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), “but it’s high time we looked more closely at what the Oil Fund means for Norway’s international profile and for the policies Norway should and can carry out.”
More aid to vulnerable states
Money is power, and Norway still has quite a lot of it. Brende touched on how some of it can be used in the current crises in his address, suggesting already that the government will direct more of its foreign aid to vulnerable states. “From North Africa and Sahel via the Middle East to Afghanistan, there’s a belt of vulnerable states that are struggling with radicalization and violent extremism, as well as weak state leadership and high unemployment,” Brende declared in his address. He intends to channel more of Norway’s foreign aid to these areas, not least to the countries currently producing the largest numbers of refugees.
In addition to the aid sent to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Brende suggested the Norwegian government would thus put a priority on economic growth, education and job creation in hard-hit areas within the “belt,” a move one local foreign policy expert called “sensible.” Professor Rolf Tamnes, a researcher at Norway’s Institute for Defense Studies, noted that the world has become a more dangerous place because of the lack of stable regimes North Africa and the Middle East. “It’s in the Middle East where it’s burning now, and that’s where we need to send the fire brigade,” he told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday, in response to Brende’s address.
Some bright spots
It wasn’t all gloom and doom. Brende himself noted early in his address that the world has managed to produce some important agreements on the climate, world trade, new sustainability goals and Iran’s nuclear program. Global poverty has declined, more children are receiving education and health care has improved in many areas, while economic growth has continued in both Asia and Africa. Tamnes agreed: “If you look beyond the dramatic changes in the Middle East, the world today isn’t too bad. The overall standard of living has risen for large groups of people.”
For Brende, it all boils down to priorities. “We must be clear over what’s in Norway’s interests,” he said. “We must separate vital, important and other interests. We must recognize that we can’t do everything. We must search for broad solutions together and with others. And we must have the will, the ability and effective diplomatic tools to follow the vital interests.”