Foreign Minister Børge Brende took time to reflect on a turbulent year when he finally spent some hours in his own office in Oslo just before Christmas. After an estimated 180 travel days this year that can stretch over three continents in the course of a week, there aren’t many indications his tempo will slow down next year either.
“We have to train ourselves to be able to handle what’s unpredictable,” Brende told newspaper Aftenposten in a pre-holiday interview just after he’d returned from Beijing on Tuesday and before he left for meetings in Madrid on Thursday. After a year that had him dealing with issues like Britain’s looming exit from the EU, the crises in the Middle East, immigration drama and the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, Brende is already looking ahead to elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands that may also be characterized by reaction against the refugee influx. That’s given rise to right-wing populism and more of the nationalism that contributed to Trump’s election. Brende’s own Conservatives-led government in Norway is up for re-election as well.
“The immigration wave has created unease in many democracies,” Brende told Aftenposten, adding that “we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg with the immigration wave.” He stressed, though, that “Europe can’t solve all the challenges” of the social and economic migration from Africa and the Middle East. “We have to think new, come together and take more responsibility. If we don’t succeed in creating peace, security and greater welfare in Mali, for example, we will feel it in Europe a week later in the form of more immigrants.”
Europe, including Scandinavia, also must take more responsibility for its own security, according to Brende, and funnel more resources into defense while facing new threats. “And all this is happening at a time when we’ll also meet a more unstable Russia, have weaker economic growth in Europe and technological development that challenges traditional production and jobs,” he told Aftenposten.
Brende, who’s been teased by US Secretary of State John Kerry for being cloned because he’s “everywhere, all the time,” also travels constantly to deal with trade issues, not just peace and security. Brende fears a “more protectionist world” after the election of Trump. Major free trade agreements have been put on ice, but then national economic growth can dive, Brende warns.
Norway won’t cooperate, however, with OPEC on efforts to raise oil prices, even though higher oil prices can greatly boost Norway’s own fortunes because of its offshore oil and gas industry. Asked why, Brende merely said it was because of “an overall evaluation” with broad support in Parliament.
Accomplishments in Iran, Colombia and China
There have been some accomplishments during the past year, in Brende’s opinion, such as Iran carrying out its part of the landmark nuclear agreement that ended sanctions against it. Norway played a role in securing the Iran agreement and Brende doesn’t think Trump will, or can, scrap it as he’s threatened to do: “When the new (US) administration is in place and is briefed on the agreement’s contents, I hope they will want to stick with it. The agreement is an important diplomatic breakthrough to hinder the spread of nuclear weapons, even though Iran has always claimed that they never had intentions of acquiring such weapons.”
Asked what he thinks he’s achieved in the past year, Brende immediately pointed to the peace pact in Colombia (which Norway also helped nurture), maintaining broad agreement among Norway’s political parties on foreign- and defense policy and more funding for foreign aid.
Most important, though, was finally normalizing relations with China after six years of a diplomatic freeze. That was one of his highest priorities when he assumed his post in 2013, “but I had no idea how deep the lack of confidence was.” It took much more time to come to terms “but this is important for Norway and for Norwegian business,” Brende said, flatly denying that Norway made any major concessions to Chinese officials. “The entire agreement has been made public, unlike those struck by other countries that have kept parts of similar agreements secret.”
Brende refused to answer, however, whether Norway will issue a visa to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo when he’s released from jail in China, so that he can come to Oslo and finally receive the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2010. “I won’t answer such hypothetical questions,” Brende said.