US President Donald Trump has sent a letter to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in which he asks Norway once again to boost defense spending to 2 percent of GNP. A former Norwegian foreign minister to the US thinks the letter can be viewed as threatening.
“Trump makes it clear in the letter how vulnerable we are, which we realize, and how dependent we are on help from the US,” Knut Vollebæk, a former foreign minister in a conservative coalition government, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) over the weekend. “And in that lies a little undertone that if we don’t fulfill demands, it’s not certain the US will come to our rescue.”
The letter, dated June 19 and revealed by newspaper VG, made it clear what Trump expects of Norway on the eve of the annual NATO summit in Brussels next week.
Flattery becomes ominous
Trump started out in a flattering manner, calling Norway “the eyes and ears” of NATO’s northern flank and noting that Norway “contributes troops to the German-led multinational battle group in Lithuania.” He also noted that Norway has been “a gracious host” to 350 United States Marines, referring to the locally disputed placement of US forces in Norway that’s about to expand. Their presence is on a rotation basis, but it has provoked Russia.
Trump further wrote that he appreciates Norway’s “action” to increase its defense spending. Then came his complaint: “Norway, however, remains the only NATO ally sharing a border with Russia that lacks a credible plan to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense,” Trump wrote.
He referred to his meeting with Solberg at the White House earlier this year: “When we met in January, you spoke of Norway as the second-largest spender per capita on defense behind the United States, and of your procurement of quality military equipment including F-35s (fighter jets) from the United States.” He referred to both,though, as merely “good first steps” and went on to claim that it will become “increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries continue to fail to meet our shared collective security commitments.”
Trump concluded that while he understands “domestic political pressures” against more defense spending, he expects to see “a strong recommitment by Norway” to meet the 2 percent defense spending goal at next week’s NATO summit. He stated that “we must ensure Alliance credibility by living up to our agreed commitments.”
Government downplays any threat
Norway, which has a large economy and high GNP because of its oil industry and small population of less tha 6 million, spent 1.62 percent of its GNP on defense last year. Solberg’s defense minister, Frank Bakke-Jensen, downplayed the letter from Trump, telling VG he wasn’t surprised by its contents.
“In the letter he acknowledges that Norway is NATO in the north,” Bakke-Jensen said. “Norway is an important ally given our border to Russia, which has put security risks into a new light after it invaded Crimea in 2014.”
Norway’s defense minister thinks Trump merely makes it clear in his letter that Norway must stand by its commitments that we took on in 2014 (including the 2 percent spending goal) and we are well on the way to meet it.”
Bakke-Jensen claims Norway put forward “a very ambitious plan” for defense in 2016. He noted, however, that “the most important thing is to focus on what we get in return for the money. We will use a minimum of 20 percent (of the country’s rising defense budget) on new investments.”
Challenges remain, however, not least the “domestic political pressures” to which Trump refers. Bringing Norway’s defense spending up to fully 2 percent of GNP by 2024, to which all NATO members agreed, will mean a whopping 30 percent increase over today’s levels of defense spending, which are already up considerably. Solberg’s government, or any government, will face tough opposition in Parliament getting that through. Sheer spending, Bakke-Jensen notes, doesn’t necessarily instantly translate into better defense.
Vollebæk, who has also served as Norway’s ambassador to the US in addition to holding top security and peace-building posts through the UN, doesn’t entirely agree with Bakke-Jensen’s assessment of Trump’s letter. “I have especially marked how the letter refers to Norway’s proximity to Russia,” Vollebæk told NRK. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to state that (as Trump has done). Even though Trump starts off with a mild tone, it can be interpreted as threatening.”
Vollebæk also notes that “many are talking about how solidarity in the (NATO) alliance is threatened, that President Trump doesn’t stand by the US’ commitments in the same way as earlier presidents have and that Article 5 (NATO’s famous “all for one and one for all” commitment) is being undermined by that.”
Fears that Trump is threatening the solidarity of long-time alliances among democratic nations also emerged after he left the recent G7 meeting in Canada in a huff and withdrew from the meeting’s joint declaration that he had signed. He also referred to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as dishonest and weak. Canadian TV network CBC reported that Trump has also sent a letter to Trudeau that’s much sharper than his letter to Solberg, writing that the US is “increasingly unwilling to ignore (NATO’s) failure to meet shared security challenges.” CBC reported that Trump claimed there was “growing frustration” that allies like Canada, which spent 1.29 of its GNP on defense in 2017, have not increased defense spending as promised.
Vollebæk is now part of a forum of around 20 former foreign ministers including former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who’ve been discussing trans-Atlantic cooperation. Vollebæk told VG that they’re working on a letter they’ll send to Trump and the US Congress themselves.
“It’s important that no question be raised regarding the US’ commitments to its allies,” he said, “not least in the light of the difficult and perhaps unstable situation the world faces today.”