Norway is heavily represented at the NATO summit led by its former prime minister and getting underway in Warsaw this weekend, and has one item high on its own agenda: The Northern Areas in the Arctic and Barents Sea. Amidst all the other challenges facing the alliance, Norwegian leaders don’t want NATO leaders to overlook defense needs in the far north.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide are all in Warsaw for the NATO summit, the first one to be led by their fellow Norwegian and former political rival Jens Stoltenberg. He headed Norway’s Labour Party and served as the country’s premier for eight years until Solberg’s Conservatives won the parliamentary election in 2013 and formed her own minority coalition. After just a few months back in the Norwegian Parliament himself, Stoltenberg was offered the job as secretary general of NATO and took it a year later.
Now he’s hosting everyone from US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who played key roles in his appointment, to his former Norwegian counterparts and the leaders of all the 25 other countries that are members of NATO (28 all together) plus leaders from the EU, “partner countries” Sweden and Finland, and countries caught in serious situations where NATO is concerned or involved like Afghanistan, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
The agenda for the two-day meeting is long and ambitious, with members due to formally deploy four NATO battalions in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, declare their missile defense system operational in Europe, deploy AWACS surveillance aircraft in the fight against ISIL and take steps to improve cyber defense systems and civil preparedness while also addressing challenges in Southern Europe, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the training of Iraqi soldiers in Iraq and the need for all member countries to boost defense budgets.
The Norwegian delegation doesn’t want its northern areas bordering on Russia to be overlooked amidst all these issues. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported on Friday that there’s a fear all the attention on NATO’s eastern and southern flanks will pry away resources from the north, especially at sea.
“It’s easy to forget that it’s difficult to secure supply lines if you don’t have control over the seas,” Prime Minister Solberg told news bureau NTB this week. She also stated that Norway has been working hard for increased maritime strength within NATO, which she considers “critical” for the entire defense alliance.
Defense Minister Søreide said her most important message at the summit will nonetheless be the need for “strong allied relations.” She called NATO “the fundamental pillar” of Norwegian security policy, and that it’s NATO that guarantees Norway’s own security.
Norway’s long coastline and geographic location in the Arctic with a border to Russia has long made Norway strategically important for NATO as well. Renewed tension with Russia since its annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine remains as thorny a problem as when Stoltenberg took over as NATO’s boss two years ago. Under his leadership, NATO has already strengthened its defenses considerably and Russia has reacted by boosting its own as well.
“Russian analysts and officials feel the West is out to get them, but if NATO is to survive, the alliance must make sure that all its members feel relatively secure,” Ståle Ulriksen, a researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told Dagsavisen.
There are differing opinions within the alliance, with some members clamouring for a tougher line against Russia and others warning against too much sabre-rattling and urging more dialogue. Ulriksen doesn’t think relations with Russia are as cold as they were in 2014, and Stoltenberg confirmed earlier this week that there will be a meeting between NATO and Russia next week, after the Warsaw summit is over.
Stoltenberg strives to strike a balance
It’s been a difficult balance for Stoltenberg to strike, but he’s received generally good marks two years into the job. Newspaper Aftenposten, which polled various international experts on Stoltenberg’s performance so far, was told that he was viewed as “hard-working” and “down-to-earth,” if a bit more reserved and “stiff” than he was during his years as Norway’s affable and well-liked prime minister. While some were concerned that Stoltenberg’s “nice guy” image could leave him too “mild” when up against Russian leaders, he has clearly strengthened NATO and can “talk tough” when he needs to. While he has stressed that “we don’t want any (new) Cold War” with Russia, he also made it clear that NATO’s troop build-ups in Eastern Europe are aimed at fending off any aggression.
Stoltenberg lacked the military and defense experience of some of his predecessors and even his father, Thorvald Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian defense minister. But as his dad celebrated his 85th birthday in Oslo on Friday, the younger Stoltenberg seemed confident leading other world leaders in Warsaw.
“The world is a more dangerous place than it was just a few years ago,” he said when welcomed to Poland by its president, Andrzej Duda, on the eve of what Stoltenberg himself called “a very important summit.” He claimed that NATO has responded “with speed and determination” and that the weekend summit would be “a defining moment for our security” that would “demonstrate NATO’s unity and strength.”