Samuel David Heins, the US’s new ambassador to Norway, had a big day in Oslo on Thursday. He was welcomed not just by King Harald and other Norwegian dignitaries, but also by his own fellow American expatriates at a “Town Hall” hosted by the US Embassy Thursday evening.
Heins finally arrived in Norway more than a year-and-a-half after the last US ambassador went home. Norwegian officials seemed to understand that the delay in replacing the last ambassador wasn’t Heins’ fault. The successful lawyer from Minnesota and his wife Stacey Mills, also a lawyer, had been ready to take on the post since last spring, when US President Barack Obama chose him to be his envoy in Oslo following the mess that Obama’s first choice, another Greek-American campaign contributor, had made of his nomination.
But then Heins’ nomination fell victim to the worst of partisan infighting on Capitol Hill. Petulant Republicans held up his Senate confirmation in what can only be described as a nasty power play, aimed at making things tough for Obama and the Democrats. The nomination finally cleared last month and Heins and Mills could fly to Washington DC for a celebratory dinner with Norway’s own ambassador to the US, and then on to Oslo, where the ambassador’s mansion in the Norwegian capital’s most expensive neighbourhood had been sitting empty.
It will be warmed up now, and Heins’ first formal task was to don a morning suit on Thursday and present his credentials to King Harald V, who’s never made any secret for his affecton for the US. It was his childhood home from 1940 to 1945 when the Norwegian royal family became royal refugees in London and Virginia. King Harald has always called the US his “second home” and likely was keen to welcome the ambassador from the US’ most important ally – ironically on the very same day that the king also granted a farewell audience to the Chinese ambassador, Zhao Jun. Diplomatic relations between Norway and China remain frozen over a Nobel Peace Prize flap, and now that ambassor post will be empty instead, at least until Beijing sends a replacement.
After all the royal pomp at 11am (which was followed by royal welcomes also for the new French ambassador Jean-Francois Dobelle and envoys from Costa Rica and Brunei) Heins said he was “grilled by the Norwegian press all afternoon, and they had quite a few questions.” Heins made his entrance into the Embassy’s “Town Hall” at precisely 7pm and got a standing ovation. Embassy staff seemed clearly relieved to finally have a new ambassador in place as well.
“It’s regrettable that we haven’t had an ambassador here for so long,” Heins told his audience from the altar of the American Lutheran Church in Oslo that was decorated with patriotic bunting for the occasion. “That’s behind us now.”
Heins went on to remark that the relationship between the US and Norway is remains “tremendously strong … this is an important international relationship for the US.” Norwegian media commentators seemed to agree. Harald Stanghelle, writing in the country’s biggest newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday, stated that the relationship has been “strong enough hang on during good days and bad.” Throughout the Obama Administration, Stanghelle noted, “there’s been hardly a bad word exchanged between Norway and the US, in contrast to during the years with George W Bush at the helm.” But even then, when Norway had a center-right government coalition of its own, Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got along famously and there were rumors he was eyeing her to be NATO’s new secretary general. That job later went to former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg from the Labour Party, with Obama’s blessing.
There also have been what appear to be genuinely good relations between Norwegian foreign ministers and their counterparts in the form of US Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton was very enthusiastic about Jonas Gahr Støre, while John Kerry and Børge Brende have a tight relationship as well.
Heins told his fellow Americans in Oslo Thursday evening that his goal, along with his wife’s, is “to be visible in Norway’s large and small places.” He praised Norway’s generosity, peace-keeping efforts and environmental initiatives, while adding that “on a personal note, we’re thrilled to be here in Oslo.” He said that he and Stacey had vacationed twice in Norway before Obama called, once on a cruise through the fjords and another time on a trip to Bergen with their son and “a couple of his cousins,” when they rented a car and drove around on their own.
“So when the moment came when we were asked whether we’d like to represent the US in Norway,” Heins said, the couple jumped at the chance. “There’s not a country in the world we’d rather go to,” Heins claimed.
His tenure, though, seems doomed to be short-lived. His term runs out when Obama’s does, after the November election. If Clinton wins her Democratic campaign for the presidency, she may ask that he stay on, but it’s customary for politially appointed ambassadors to tender their resignations. And if the Republicans win, Heins will likely leave immediately.
Meanwhile he seemed intent on making the most of his new diplomatic career in Norway. When the embassy’s Town Hall ended, everyone was invited down to the American Lutheran Church’s basement where they could eat chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies, buy American products like dill pickles, grape jelly and Hershey chocolates at the “Embassy Store,” see a model of the new embassy building under construction at Huseby in Oslo (due to open this fall “if we’re lucky,” one staffer said) and get information on registering to vote. Heins two new bodyguards were standing by discreetly in the background and the Oslo Police had a patrol car parked outside. It will be whole new life for the man from Minnesota and his wife from Nebraska, and a new chapter in Norwegian and American relations.