NEWS ANALYSIS: Foreign Minister Børge Brende recapped his visit to Washington DC last week with some of the typical diplomatic rhetoric that stressed, for example, the “constructive dialogue” he claims he had with the US’ new conservative leadership. He left DC with the full realization that he and other Norwegian government officials have a lot more work to do, while Norway’s best “Trump card” at this point may still lie in the Arctic.
Brende’s week in Washington provided some golden opportunities to get Norway’s messages across, not least its own impact on the US economy. Brende’s visit also pointed up the challenges that abound when a small liberal social welfare state seeks good relations with a new ultra-conservative power bloc. None of the issues that Norway cares most deeply about (climate change, foreign aid and the Arctic, for example) are at the top of new US President Donald Trump’s agenda, to put it mildly.
Norway thus needs to find something else “to make itself relevant” to the new administration in Washington, according to Anders Romarheim of Norway’s Institute for Defense Studies. “Right now we don’t have as much to offer, since our major contributions (like humanitarian aid and saving rain forests) aren’t high on the White House’s list,” Romarheim told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).
Brende could report after his meetings in Washington that he does now feel assured, at least, that the Trump Administration will honour its commitments to NATO, of which Norway is a member. “I was worried about Trump’s view on NATO solidarity, but now it’s crystal clear that the US’ obligations will be respected,” Brende confirmed to DN after he met for the second time in a week with his new US counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Brende met Tillerson late last month at the G20 summit in Bonn and was one of the first foreign ministers to meet Tillerson more formally in Washington last week.
They only had a 30-minute meeting that Brende said spanned everything from relations with Russia to the war in Syria, the Arctic and Afghanistan. Tillerson reassured Brende about NATO, but was non-committal regarding Brende’s other main topic of interest, free trade agreements.
“I put forth my viewpoints about how important international trade really is, and showed him the report we’re delivering to Congress about how Norway has created jobs in the US,” Brende told DN. “We believe free trade is the foundation for the enormous growth in affluence we have had since World War II. He (Tillerson) listened, but there wasn’t time to go into detail about it.”
Brende contended he had a “constructive dialogue” with both Tillerson and the other Republican US politicians he met last week in Washington, “but during my next visit to Washington DC, I will try to get a meeting with their trade minister who is actually responsible for this field.”
Promoting intelligence in the Arctic
Brende was clearly pleased that Norway won an audience with Tillerson so quickly, with only the foreign ministers of neighbouring Mexico (which is locked in a Trump-created conflict with the US at present), Germany and the EU getting in the door of the State Department before he did. As for making Norway “more relevant,” DN reported that Brende “sold himself in” with the one issue that since the end of the 1940s has been an important and stable card for Norway: its expertise in collecting unique intelligence about Russian activity in the Arctic, through Norway’s various listening posts in its northernmost county of Finnmark and its territory in the Barents Sea.
DN got that confirmed from several sources within the Norwegian government. Brende was hesitant to discuss it, on the grounds it really was the responsibility of his colleague, Defense Secretary Ine Eriksen Søreide. Norway’s presence and expertise in the Arctic, however, is also believed to be the reason Søreide herself was able to have a relatively lengthy meeting with her own US counterpart and Tillerson’s colleague, Defense Secretary James Mattis, at the Munich Security Conference in Germany late last month.
“Cooperation in the Far North is important,” Brende acknowledged. “It’s also important (to the US) that we’re buying 52 F35 fighter jets (from the US), new surveillance aircraft and that the US is the only country that spends more on defense per capita than we do.” He denied that Norway’s expertise in brokering peace pacts or its involvement in the Middle East has been downgraded.
‘Rather demanding’ right now
“So far I’ve only had positive feedback from the Trump Administration, and that they want to continue and deepen cooperation for peace and reconciliation in Colombia, the Middle East and Afghanistan,” Brende told DN. He said he was told that the US also appreciates Norway’s contributions in the fight against the terror group ISIL.
“I don’t want to hide the fact that it’s been rather demanding to follow Washington during these first weeks (of the Trump Administration),” Brende told DN, in classic diplomatic language. “But it’s my job to look after Norway’s interests.”
Among them is tracking Russian activity in the seas off Norway, where Russia has some of its most important military operations. Norway has developed intelligence expertise over the years, can now boast two “spy ships,” highly sophisticated radar systems at Vardø and other strategic locations in the Arctic from Bjørnøya to Svalbard.
That gives Norway a decided advantage in making itself relevant to the US, despite Trump’s recent harsh criticism of his own intelligence community. The quality of Norway’s intelligence is viewed as good and Norway shares it with NATO and the US. In return, Norway receives other concrete information and political goodwill.
“Norway has long been a wholesaler of good intelligence about Russia,” noted Romarheim of the defense studies institute. “We handle an extremely important collective assignment on behalf of the alliance.”
Seeing ‘the importance of Norway’s work’
So doors are likely to remain open to Norwegian officials, despite the government’s initial lack of contacts and political affinity with the new Trump Administration. Romarheim said he’s not sure whether Trump is especially interested and noted how he remains in conflict with his own intelligence community, “but the political elite in Washington who are concerned with security see the importance of Norway’s work regarding Russia.”
Brende seemed pragmatic when leaving Washington last last week, and coincidentally traveling straight to Bogota to keep nurturing Colombia’s new peace pact. “I think everyone understands that it’s in Norway’s interests to work professionally with the Trump Administration, because the US is still our most important ally,” Brende said, adding that “every US president is welcome in Norway.”
Brende himself also remains keen on better relations with Russia, despite last month’s conflict of Members of Parliament being denied visas, the high level of tension at present and constant accusations of each country spying on the other, Brende will meet his Russian counterpart Sergej Lavrov later this month, after deciding to attend an Arctic conference in Arkhangelsk. It will be Brende’s first visit to Russia since the country controversially annexed Crimea in 2014.