More debate urged over foreign policy

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Complaints have arisen that Norway’s foreign- and defense policy run on “auto-pilot,” subject to very little public input or debate. Critics are responding by creating a new forum meant to illuminate and spur discussion of international issues and national security.

It hasn’t seemed to matter much whether a Conservative leader like Prime Minister Erna Solberg or a Labour leader like her predecessor Jens Stoltenberg, now secretary general of NATO, is in charge of the government. Norwegian foreign policy often seems to operate on “auto-pilot,” contend critics, with far too little public debate. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

The effort comes just as Norway is joining other allies and “partners” around the world in expelling Russian diplomats, and as relations with Norway’s increasingly aggressive neighbour in the north are worrying Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

At the same time, Norway is often involved in operations abroad that stir little if any debate. “How many Norwegians are aware that Norway is sending soldiers to Niger?” asks Kristian Berg Harpviken, former leader of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO). He was referring, in newspaper Dagsavisen, to a brief announcement on a Friday two weeks ago that Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen had confirmed participation in “capacity-building” exercises carried out by the US-led multi-national Flintlock operation in the Sahel region of Niger. Norway is due to send around 40 officers and special forces to Niger along with a Hercules aircraft next month, to train local security forces as part of an effort to ward off terrorism.

“Norway wants to contribute to strengthening stability in the region,” Bakke-Jensen stated. “Therefore the government has decided that the military in periods, together with other western countries, can contribute to the training and mentoring of security forces in the region.”

‘Consensus’ both a strength and a weakness
The decision to send military forces to Niger is an example, according to Harpviken, of how Norwegian governments on both ends of the political spectrum routinely set policy and agree on specific operations without public input. Harpviken also points to a lack of public debate over Norway’s operations in Syria and Iraq, at a time when calls for more military presence at home have been high.

Why is it, Harpviken asks rhetorically, that some of the most important foreign- and security policy decisions (not least including Norway’s international military operations)  are made without the public being part of the discussion? Why is foreign policy such a small part of the public debate in Norway?

Kristian Berg Harpviken is among those spearheading an effort to stir more public debate over foreign and defense policy. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

It’s not for lack of voters not caring, Harpviken told Dagsavisen, but rather because Norwegian politicians have grown accustomed over the years to making decisions in a “closed forum.” There’s a long tradition in Norway of  “broad agreement” and general political consensus on foreign policy, and it tends to be transferred from government to government to maintain consistency. There’s political precedent in Norway for the sitting government to have control over foreign policy, and when Parliament gets involved, it usually occurs through its expanded committee on foreign relations behind closed doors.

Norway’s participation in NATO also puts obligations on Norway’s foreign and defense policy. The country’s decision to actively take part in NATO’s bombing of Libya, for example, was made mostly by former Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who now serves as NATO’s secretary general.

“Many important foreign policy decisions are presented as if they’re unavoidable, that they’re made on auto-pilot,” Harpviken told Dagsavisen. Churning up various opinions through public debate, he suggests, can mean that politicians would need to choose other alternatives than those most readily available.

Harpviken believes the so-called “Norwegian consensus” on foreign policy is a strength, “but the absence of an exchange of opinion on foreign policy creates a risk that important decisions are made without being anchored in the public.” He and Hedda Langemyr, former leader of Norges Fredsråd (Norway’s Peace Council), have thus taken the initiative to form ta new forum called Utsyn (Outlook) that aims to create a broader, factually based debate.

Fending off public resignation
The Utsyn forum will involve foreign policy experts from academia, diplomacy, defense and the media in gathering various organizations that already exist while also encouraging new voices. Dagsavisen itself, for example, recently published a Prosjekt Utsyn commentary by Ingrid Marie Dybvig, who holds two master’s degress in international relations and the rule of law. She took up the issue of controversial drone attacks in the Middle East, and how Norway may have contributed to them.

The Utsyn forum has secured financial support from the foundations Bergenstiftelsen and Fritt Ord, which champion freedom of expression. Robert Mood, the outspoken retired Norwegian general who has headed UN missions in the Middle East, is another supporter, writing on the forum’s new website (external link, in Norwegian) that “the world is full of challenges … but the most dangerous is resignation, pretending as though the challenges aren’t there or pushing them away.” Mood, who now heads the Red Cross in Norway, claims Utsyn is needed to clarify issues and spark open debate.

“We’re living in complex times with great changes going on,” Langemyr told Dagsavisen. “That also applies to Norway’s role in the world.” She contends that Norway has gone from being a “soft power” active in peace negotiations around the globe to being a bigger player in military alliances.

“How does that affect our collective self-image, who we are and who we want to be?” Langemyr asks. “That needs to be discussed.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund