Never before have a Norwegian prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister faced more uncertainty and anxiety following the inauguration of a US president. As Donald J Trump begins his first week in the White House, the messages he was sending remained unclear, while Norway also may get caught in squeezes between the US and China, the EU and Russia.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitted during the weekend that she’ll miss US President Barack Obama. “I’ll miss his speeches and his impact,” Solberg told Norwegian news bureau NTB.
Even though Solberg leads Norway’s Conservative Party, and Obama was a Democrat more politically alligned with Norway’s Labour Party, Solberg greatly appreciated what she called Obama’s “international orientation” and his efforts over the past eight years to seek, as she put it, “multilateral cooperation, that the US shouldn’t go it alone.” She hailed Obama for promoting “an international world order based on the rule of law,” and for “building up alliances and coalitions between many countries.”
Trump’s Inaugural Address just before the weekend made it clear that from now on, he claimed, “it’s going to be only America first.” Every decision on trade, taxes, immigration and foreign affairs will be made, Trump said, on the basis of what’s in the US’ best interests, not necessarily other US partners’. He spoke of a need to protect the US’ borders from the “ravages” of other countries, and his speech was full of protectionist overtones regarding trade. After months of repeatedly criticizing NATO, of which Norway is a founding member, Trump carried on by claiming that the US had been defending too many other countries for too long, at the expense of its own military.
The new US president remains scant on details and consistency about what his forceful remarks will really mean, though, leaving Solberg and many others around the world wondering how they will manifest themselves in terms of policy. “In many areas we don’t know what his policies will be,” Solberg told NTB. “That makes the situation tense and uncertain.”
The US has always been Norway’s most important ally, she stressed, and Norway must adapt to the decision that the US election system made in selecting Trump as president. “Norway will cooperate with the American president regardless of who it is,” Solberg said.
Solberg’s defense minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, predictably says the same thing. She and many others in Norway’s and Europe’s defense establishment heaved a sigh of relief when Trump’s new Secretary of Defense, former General James Mattis, described NATO as “the most successful military alliance in history.” At the same time, however, Mattis’ boss Trump was calling NATO “obsolete” and forcing NATO’s Secretary General, Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg, to reassure other members and go on the defensive himself.
Now Søreide is most keen to stress that her defense ministry “will continue the good cooperation” it has had with the Americans for the past 70 years. “Our relations are solid and firmly anchored,” Søreide insisted to NTB, despite shifting political administrations on both sides. “The US is our biggest and most important ally, Norway has through changing times prioritized its cooperation with the US,” she added. “We want to continue that good cooperation with the new US administration and for me, especially with the new defense secretary.”
Opposition politicians are less positive and diplomatic. “We simply don’t know what role he (Trump) will play and how he will use cooperative organizations (like NATO),” said Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party. She leads the Parliament’s foreign and defense committee, and called Trump “unpredictable with great ability to change his positions.”
Kari Elisabeth Kaski of the Socialist Left party told newspaper Dagsavisen that she’s worried, and that “we can’t just pretend nothing has happened and carry on as before.” She also worries about changes in how, or even if, the US will continue to cooperate on climate change issues. Kaski thinks Norway must also start taking a more independent role on foreign- and security policy.
It’s no secret that Norway’s foreign ministry was also unprepared for Trump’s election victory, and had for many years formed close ties with his rival, Hillary Clinton. Those ties were especially close during the former government, when Stoltenberg was prime minister and his foreign minister, now-Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, got along famously with Clinton when she was US Secretary of State. Clinton was in Norway on various occasions and was especially interested in Arctic policy and climate change. Trump has shown little interest in either.
Top Norwegian politicians were also openly concerned about Trump during the campaign. Solberg herself said she was worried about some of Trump’s campaign claims and positions, Støre shared those concerns in opposition in Parliament and Foreign Minister Børge Brende officially spoke out against Trump’s early criticism of NATO. “We have no tradition for getting involved in other countries’ election processes, but the situation tied to some of Trump’s positions are so extraordinary that I have chosen to object,” Brende said last August. Among his objections was Trump’s decision to raise questions about the collective solidarity of NATO.
Today Brende claims that he’s working to protect the ties between Norway and the US, also stressing how the US is Norway’s most important ally. “I visited the US shortly after the election, and met representatives for Trump’s transition team and the new administration,” Brende told Dagsavisen. He said Norway’s embassy in Washington is also working “systematically” to establish contacts with the Trump Adminstration.
“We have already, in meetings we’ve had with the Trump team, been clear about what’s in Norway’s interests, including cooperation in NATO,” Brende said. “The new administration must be allowed to have some time to form its policies. We want to continue our cooperation (with the US) and contribute to long-term and strong ties between our two countries.”
Squeezed between US, China and Russia
Many questions and potential dilemmas remain, not least over where Norway’s loyalties will lie in the rising tensions between China and the US under Trump. Norway has just normalized diplomatic ties with China, after conflict over the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident, and doesn’t want to have to choose between the US and China. At last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, which both Brende and Solberg attended, it was all but paradoxical that the president of communist China was talking about taking a leading role in promoting international trade, while Trump of the capitalist US is calling for protectionism.
“I don’t want to set countries up against each other,” Brende told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) while still in Davos. He chose to view the remarks of Chinese President Xi Jinping as merely “continuing along the lines that have brought us a lot of affluence in the past few decades.”
Both the US under Trump and the UK after its Brexit vote to leave the EU, however, are questioning that affluence and how it’s been distributed. Norway will also need to hammer out a new trade deal with the UK, but Brende doesn’t think it will be particularly protectionistic, not will the US’.
“Trump has said he wants to expand the US’ number of bilateral trade agreements,” Brende noted. “He doesn’t want the concept of mega-regional free trade agreements.”
Then there are the ongoing tensions with Russia. Norway and Russia are neighbours and have cooperated on many major issues lately, but Norway also strongly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine and supports sanctions against Russia. Trump has spoken more favourably about Russian President Vladimir Putin than he has of Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, also one of Norway’s most important allies. Norway does not want to get caught between Russia, the US and the EU either.
Echoing Solberg, Brende said “time will tell” how Trump’s policies play out. As for China, Brende stressed that relations “are now repaired, and that’s important for Norway if we want to play a role within climate, energy, the environment, the UN and not least economically.”
Negative reaction to ‘ugly’ Inaugural Address
Reaction to Trump and his controversial Inaugural Address characterized the weekend news in Norway. Thousands of Norwegians marched in Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim on Saturday to protest Trump’s derogatory remarks towards women, immigrants and people with disabilities, among others. One assistant professor at Kristiania College in Oslo who’s an expert on rhetoric called Trump’s address “perhaps one of the ugliest in history” given its attacks “on everyone” sitting behind him on the podium, including nearly all former US presidents.
“If anyone thought this was supposed to be a speech from Donald to the American people, it instead became a speech from Donald to Donald,” Kjell Terje Ringdal told newspaper Aftenposten, describing the speech as characterized by “pure egoism.” Ringdal rejected how the administration billed the speech as aimed at unifying a divided country: “The best part was when he talked about how everyone bleeds red blod, whether you’re black, brown or white. That was the most poetic and fine moment, but the rest of the speech didn’t hang together with that.”
Others in Norway said they were almost frightened by Trump’s promotion of “America first” as being overly nationalistic. “This was an egocentric speech full of exaggerations,” said Geir Lundestad, former director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and a professor of American history. “An inauguration speech is supposed to unite the nation and be conciliatory. There was little of that here.”
Lundestad and many others in Europe also picked up on Trump’s statements of making America first, and the lack of any statements about having common interests with other countries. Henrik Syse, a political philosopher at Oslo’s peace research institute PRIO and current member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the Peace Prize, cautioned that “the world is more than Donald Trump. Everything that happens won’t only be decided by him, and Trump will have to meet reality.”
Syse, who’s also the son of a former Norwegian prime minister from the Conservatives, joked that the world had already survived Trump’s first days in office. “We must not let him have an even bigger place than he deserves,” Syse said.