Ex-foreign minister defends his record

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Børge Brende traveled almost constantly during his four-year term as Norway’s foreign minister, but wasn’t always effective, according to foreign policy researchers in Oslo who have tracked his tenure. Brende instead came across as unclear and literally absent, they argue, but the man who now heads the World Economic Forum disagrees with their criticism.

Børge Brende handed over the key to the foreign minister’s office in October to Ine Eriksen Søreide. Brende is now chief executive of the World Economic Forum. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

It was recently published in the magazine Internasjonal Politikk, where researchers from the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI argue that Brende was off traveling much too often. Globe-trotting and meeting counterparts is a critical part of the job for any foreign minister, but the researchers claim Brende failed to expand Norway’s room for foreign policy negotiations like his predecessor Jonas Gahr Støre, now leader of the Labour Party, did by concentrating on Norway’s Arctic areas.

“Børge Brende appeared, to a much greater degree, to have a more narrow outlook, and he was a more reactive ‘diplomacy minister’ who focused on concrete political and personal relations,” wrote NUPI researchers Halvard Leira and Nina Græger. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has reported on their work, which has raised some eyebrows in the foreign ministry.

There’s no question that Brende, from the Conservative Party, was confronted with some huge issues as soon as he took on the post in the fall of 2013. He’d been tapped by Prime Minister Erna Solberg with one major assignment, to restore diplomatic relations with China that had been frozen since 2010. Ukraine was in uproar, however, then Russia annexed Crimea, the war in Syria was raging, Britain decided to leave the EU and Europe was faced with massive migration and an influx of refugees. Not only was Brende distracted, wrote magazine editor Niels Nagelhus Schia, he he could also be pre-occupied with details of running the ministry at home. He was not entirely popular within the ministry.

Brende has since lashed back at his critics, claiming that the researchers did not view his work as a whole and therefore do not present a correct picture of his ministry period. He notes that relations with China eventually were restored, the immigrant influx was stopped (not least over Norway’s northern border with Russia), Norway helped push through an international nuclear pact with Iran and Norwegian prisoner Joshua French was finally brought home from Congo.  Enough progress was also made to end years of conflict in Colombia that its president won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I think we ran things securely and predictably in an extremely demanding situation,” Brende responded, referring also to the war against the terrorist group ISIL. Norway also took up the fight for the rights of girls to go to school, oversaw shipments of chemical weapons out of Syria and maintained good relations with the US and the EU. He claimed that articles were characterized by unsubstantiated opinions and too much bias on the part of authors by Græger and Iver B Neumann.

Brende resigned after four years in the demanding job, shortly after the conservative coalition government in which he served was re-elected in 2017. Neumann has earlier called Brende a “weak” foreign minister, spending more energy on profiling himself than forming foreign policy. Even though relations with China were restored, Neumann claims Norway ended paying a high price by acknowledging the political system in China and breaking with 70 years of distancing itself from authoritarian regimes.

Others were more positive towards Brende including China expert Henning Kristoffersen and NUPI director Ulf Sverdrup, who think the agreement with China was important.

“Just like Støre will be remembered for the Barents border agreement with Russia, China was Brende’s major accomplishment,” Sverdrup told NRK.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund