Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was making headlines in her homeland this week after describing the mood at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels as “a bit unsure and expectant,” and remarking that “we can’t take each other’s support for granted.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said much the same after attending both the NATO summit and the G7 meeting last week.
Political experts in Norway say they can never remember hearing a Norwegian prime minister say anything like what Solberg said in Bergen Monday afternoon. She echoed Merkel’s impression that European members of NATO can no longer fully rely on the US, although Solberg added that “I think it’s much too early to write off our NATO cooperation over the Atlantic.”
Solberg made her remarks as she welcomed all her four other Nordic prime ministers (from Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland) to a meeting in Bergen this week. Neither Sweden nor Finland are members of NATO, but Denmark, Norway and Iceland are, and their leaders all met new US President Donald Trump for the first time. Trump avoided any mention of NATO’s Article 5, in which it’s clearly stated that an attack on any NATO member must be seen as an attack on the entire alliance.
Trump has thus sewn real doubt, for the first time ever, over whether the US will carry out its NATO commitment. At the same time, Trump scolded all the NATO members who are not paying 2 percent of their gross national product (GNP) on defense. Norway, for example, is paying 1.55 percent.
Merkel, meanwhile, made remarks similar to Solberg’s at a campaign rally over the weekend after meeting Trump both at NATO and at the G7. She also said that existing alliances can no longer be taken for granted after both Brexit (Great Britain’s plan to leave the European Union) and Trump’s election in the US, suggesting European members must remain strong and united and be prepared to take care of themselves.
Solberg, speaking to reporters in Bergen, said that “we have a new (US) president and therfore we had the summit. We wanted to hear what he had to say. It’s a rather unsure situation in NATO, regarding the Americans and developments.” She said right after the NATO meeting that pleasing Trump wasn’t the most important item on NATO’s agenda.
Like Merkel, Solberg said she thinks cooperation within Europe will become more important for NATO’s European members regionally. “I think the Americans will become more clear in the future, even though they think we must all pay more for defense,” she said. “It’s not the first time they’re clear about that.”
Asked whether defense and security cooperation among the Nordic and European countries will play a bigger role in the future, Solberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) “yes, it will be more important to cooperate with Europe and the Nordic countries. But it’s also important with a good strategic cooperation with chosen allies. We’re doing that with Great Britain and Germany, through purchase of submarines. We do that with the US through purchase of aircraft and cooperation.”
The group of Nordic prime ministers agreed on Monday to further strengthen their own cooperation, although Solberg stressed that was not in direct response to the new signals from the US. “We are already boosting cooperation within defense,” Solberg said at a press conference after the first session of the Nordic meeting. Other themes under discussion involve the EU after Great Britain’s departure, terrorism, relations with China and Russia, digitalization and the fight against climate change, innovation and boosting competitiveness.
‘Surprises all the time’
Geir Lundestad, retired director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and a longtime professor specializing in US politics, told NRK there has never before been any real doubt about the US’ NATO participation. “There has never before been such a serious phase in NATO’s history that there’s been any doubt about the American guarantee,” Lundestad told NRK. “American presidents until now have stook by Article 5.”
Asked whether any Norwegian prime minister has said what Solberg has now, Lundestad said he didn’t “think that has happened.” He said most NATO members had thought he would confirm the US commitment to Article 5, “but that’s the way Trump is, he surprises all the time. Now we just have to buckle our seatbelts and be prepared for whatever happens. There are many things Trump promised in his campaign that he hasn’t carried out, but promises about the climate and now Article 5 are at least partially fulfilled.”
Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Oslo-based peace research institute PRIO, said he had never heard such comments about NATO from a Norwegian prime minister either. “But today we’re in a different situation,” Harpviken told NRK. “Many, including NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg (Solberg’s precessor as Norwegin prime minister) have downplayed the significance of what Trump didn’t say. The fact that he didn’t say anything about Article 5 is an extremely strong marking from his side.”
Forming ‘Plan B’ and ‘Plan C’
Harpviken said he thinks Solberg is hashing out a “Plan B,” involving cooperation with European countries, and a “Plan C,” which is cooperation among the Nordic countries.
Sverre Diesen, a former Norwegian chief of defense, agreed with Solberg that last week’s NATO summit generated “more uncertainty that we have ever had before.” At the same time, Diesen warned against making too big of a problem out of the “new style” of a US president. He stressed that the US has its own interests in NATO.
“I think NATO will survive, because the institution has a huge strength in itself,” Diesen told NRK. “But I think we might see an informal regionalization within NATO.” He called Solberg’s remarks “a rational and balanced comment about the situation NATO in fact finds itself in today.”