US President Donald Trump’s fiery speech at the UN in New York this week was setting off some alarms back home in Norway on Thursday. A Norwegian expert on defense and US relations thinks the government and Parliament need to take Trump’s tough talk far more seriously than their initial reaction suggests. He urges a serious and critical discussion of alternatives to the country’s reliance on NATO and the US.
Svein Melby, senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, was disturbed by Trump’s speech, during which the new US president threatened to all but wipe North Korea off the map and pull out of the international agreement with Iran on its own nuclear program. While Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Foreign Minister Børge Brende and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg all tried to downplay Trump’s rhetoric this week, Melby called the speech “a dramatic departure” from earlier US policy and a “fundamental change of course.”
Melby told Oslo newspapers Aftenposten and Dagsavisen on Thursday that at the very least, Trump’s torrent of harsh words proved once again neither he nor his administration are highly regarded diplomats at a time when diplomacy is, in his opinion, more important than ever.
“The problem with Trump’s rhetoric is that it raises temperatures,” Melby told Aftenposten. “The nervousness in the region (around North Korea) rises. Even though the US “needs to show willingness to use military power,” Melby said it also needs to ward off unnecessary conflicts, and that’s where diplomacy is crucial.
Consequences for Norway
Melby’s biggest concern is over what all the inflammatory rhetoric and international tensions mean for Norway. He told Dagsavisen that Trump’s debut at the UN sets off serious concerns about how Norway should now relate to the country that’s traditionally been its “most important ally” for decades.
Major changes within US politics both with and without Trump “have huge consequences for the direction of our own security policies, in terms of how they’re formed, the future of our defense forces and how much money we should use on our defense,” said Melby, a former Fullbright and Ford Foundation scholar in the US who conducted research at Norway’s foreign policy insitute NUPI for 20 years before joining the defense department’s research unit. He suggested that there are now too many questions and too many concerns around Trump’s unpredictability.
“We must work out a Plan B for our security,” Melby said. “This is a debate that’s being pushed upon us.” He wonders whether it’s wise “to downplay this problem in the long term,” a clear reference to the initial public reactions of Norwegian and NATO leaders on Wednesday.
Melby noted how Norway’s defense and security policy is based on NATO and Norway’s bilateral relation to the US, and NATO’s “all for one and one for all” position in its now-famous Article 5. Despite some assurances that Trump will respect Article 5, his “America first” strategy can suggest otherwise. Melby worries that “when the Americans are unsure about their collective defense obligations, it creates uncertainty in the whole system.”
Melby acknowledged that it was “understandable” that Norwegian leaders like Solberg and Brende “have been careful about speaking too loudly about any uncertainty regarding the US. If you do that, you risk bigger problems. The thinking has been that we’re better served by downplaying the meaning of Trump’s message in his UN speech, and trying to calm things down.”
He remains convinced, however, that the US under Trump is no longer putting the same weight behind NATO, and that’s something Norwegian politicians have to understand: “This is all about how we shall prepare ourselves and whether we should dare to base everything on American guarantees.”
‘Regional solutions’ and importance of the EU
Melby stopped short, however, of suggesting specific alternatives to NATO and the US, but thinks more “regional solutions” could be considered, perhaps with the EU. Proposals have been aired for years about building up defense cooperation among the Nordic countries, and much exists already, but that’s been complicated because Sweden isn’t a member of NATO. “We may need to raise the debate over EU membership again,” Melby told Dagsavisen. At the very least, he said, it will be important to closely follow the debate over increased cooperation and and funding of European defense.
Foreign Minister Brende, who’ll be leaving the government in mid-October to become president of the World Economic Forum, has attempted to raise Norway’s relevance in the US, countered Trump on occasion and even come with unusual criticism. Norwegians in general have expressed an “unfavourable impression” of the new US president, so politicians aren’t likely to face much opposition to any reevaluation of US and defense relations. Norway’s membership in NATO, however, has broad support in the country and even its biggest critic, the Socialist Left party (SV), has gone along with it for years.
Melby believes the new concerns over defense and security will continue even after the Trump period ends. “We can make it too easy for ourselves to think that everything will revert to how it was before,” he said, but he thinks the “political landscape” in the US has already changed. “It won’t be like it was before.”