NEWS ANALYSIS: Helicopters have been whirling overhead in Norway’s capital this week, a sure sign that Very Important People are in town. Oslo has been the destination for the foreign ministers of both Iran and the US, the vice president of the EU Commission in charge of foreign and security policy, peace mediators from around the world, rain forest activists and even a home-grown UN envoy. As Norwegian officials proudly hosted the influx, though, they also seemed to underestimate their own stature once again.
The latest to arrive, on Wednesday, was the US Secretary of State John Kerry. He was due to take part in the Oslo Forum Network of Mediators at Losby, where Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also paid a call earlier in the week. Kerry would also meet Prime Minister Erna Solberg and attend the rain forest conference that’s underway, be honoured with an audience at the Royal Palace with King Harald V at 3pm and eventually take off for Svalbard with Norway’s own Foreign Minister Børge Brende on Thursday.
Brende was the busy main host for the other high level dignitaries in town this week as well. On Monday he met Iran’s foreign minister for “conversations” involving “bilateral issues, the conflict in Syria and other regional and international questions” before also escorting him to a seminar on relations between Norway and Iran and meetings with Solberg and the president of Norway’s Parliament. On Tuesday, Brende, Zarif and the EU’s Federica Mogherini took part in the opening session of the annual Oslo Forum peace mediators’ gathering.
Not everyone was happy with Zarif’s visit, with Norwegian Iranians staging protests about conditions in Iran and the Israeli Embassy in Oslo issuing a press release that could only be described as downright bitter. While claiming to support “any forum that involves the promotion of world peace and conflict resolution,” it suggested the Oslo Forum organizers were “quite hallucinatory” in inviting the foreign minister of Iran, accusing his government of being a “regime that is systematically promoting war, stimulating conflict and sponsoring terror.” The Israelis can’t claim much success with conflict resolution of their own, but went on to describe Zarif’s presence as “regrettably Orwellian absurd.” The Norwegian foreign ministry offered no comment.
There was no such hostility regarding the visits of the EU’s Mogherini and, not least, top UN official Erik Solheim, a Norwegian himself who once led a party in opposition to the one now heading Erna Solberg’s Conservatives-led government. On Tuesday, in his new role as the head of the UN environmental program, Solheim was full of praise for Solberg and other Norwegian officials for their efforts to protect rain forests. “Thank you, Erna!” Solheim proclaimed from the podium at another large rain-forest conference in Oslo. He added that such policy cooperation across political lines was one of the great strengths of Norwegian society.
On Wednesday, the arrival of John Kerry “overshadowed” all the other high-level visits, according to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Top-ranking US politicians are always officially welcomed with open arms in Norway, no matter which political party has control of the government. Kerry’s visit was portrayed as “a big feather in the hat” for Brende, who was keen to promote the good personal relationship he has with Kerry as well. “I won’t hide the fact we have a very good tone between us and have had good cooperation for many years,” Brende told DN. “I’m extremely glad that the US’ foreign minister is visiting, and it’s a great acknowledgement for Norway. It’s not everyday that we have an American foreign minister here.”
Brende’s adulation for Kerry and the importance of his visit didn’t stop there. “Kerry is one of the foreign ministers we cooperate with most closely,” Brende told DN. “He is positive, open and cooperative.” He added that the visit also gives Norway a “unique chance” to promote its views, not least on Arctic issues. Given new tensions with Russia, Brende bluntly told DN that it’s “especially important that we can be sure the US will back us up.”
There was no mention, though, that Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton, who’s now running for the presidency in the US, also visited Norway, also spent time traveling up to Svalbard and also had a good personal relationship with Brende’s predecessor, Johan Gahr Støre of the Labour Party. US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have also visited Norway in recent years and Obama just recently hosted Prime Minister Solberg at the White House.
Amidst all the Norwegian gratitude for high-level visits, Norwegian leaders themselves seem to overlook that there’s a reason powerful people come to Norway. While the Norwegians tend to be self-deprecating and regularly use the refrain that “Norge er et lite land … (Norway is a small country),” Norway has emerged over the past few decades as a very wealthy country that wields more power than the locals may recognize themselves. Norway is an expert on the Arctic, still has vast oil and gas reserves and the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, remains non-confrontational and non-threatening, while holding both a strategic location and financial, diplomatic and natural resources that are extremely attractive to many other countries.
So there’s a reason why Kerry and Javad and Mogherini and even the Clintons and Obama take time to visit, and nurture relations. Norway has a lot to offer, and countries like the US have a lot to gain by investing in the relationship. Just recently it’s needed a berth for its submarines, and it may not be a coincidence that the Norwegian government is expected to announce a major boost in defense funding later this week. The US and NATO have been wanting that for years.
The Norwegians don’t need to be as grateful or even surprised by the attention they get abroad. Norway is no longer just a small country near the north pole that once produced hundreds of thousands of economic refugees itself. It just seems to be taking time for Norwegian leaders to realize how important they now are themselves.