Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen took some time to oversee a military dog-training course before his first NATO summit next week. It can come in handy before he’ll need some of the same discipline and patience featured at the Norwegian Armed Forces Dog School at Camp Hauerseter.
“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Bakke-Jensen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which tagged along on his visit to Hauerseter at Jessheim, not far from Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Bakke-Jensen was referring to his first nine months as Norway’s defense minister or to what he learned while watching how Norwegian soldiers train dogs for active duty in various situations.
The key elements of discipline and patience can undoubtedly help as Bakke-Jensen prepares for the NATO summit that’s bound to be one of the most challenging in years. One Norwegian foreign policy expert, Karsten Friis at the Norwegian foreign policy insitute NUPI, called it “the summit everyone dreads.” That’s because of all the confusion and unpredictability created by US President Donald J Trump heading into the important meeting of NATO defense chiefs in Brussels. Trump has also shown little if any patience himself, and has thrown the discipline within the alliance into question.
Trump, who was the one attending a NATO summit for the first time last year, spent much of his time criticizing all the other members of the alliance for not boosting their defense budgets sufficiently. Instead of reassuring fellow NATO members regarding the US’ commitment to NATO, he has continued to create uncertainty, not least at the G7 meeting last month, and also through his ambassador to NATO. It’s also worrying many that he’ll be meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin just two days after the NATO summit concludes.
Bakke-Jensen, like Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, concedes that the man now leading the country that’s long been Norway’s most important ally is “unpredictable.” Bakke-Jensen also allowed that Trump has “made the total picture more uncertain” after he pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, various trade pacts and said he’ll pull the US out of the UN climate agreement.
“The (NATO) meeting will be very tense, especially because of the uncertainty around what position the American president will take,” Bakke-Jensen told DN. “NATO is an alliance designed for American leadership. Unclear signals create greater uncertainty.”
Bakke-Jensen, who comes from Solberg’s Conservative Party, said he now hopes Trump will finally and explicitly declare that he supports NATO’s Article 5, which calls for any attack on one member to be viewed as an attack on all members. “That’s very important,” Bakke-Jensen said. “Everyone agrees that solidarity is the most important, and that’s what the American president needs to show.”
Asked whether he expects Trump to more clearly express his support for the alliance this year, Bakke-Jensen said “Yes. we expect that the US stands for its role in NATO.”
Trump himself has already made his own expectations of other NATO members clear in letters he sent to them last month, including one to Prime Minister Solberg. The letter to Solberg was viewed as “threatening” by former Norwegian Norwegian foreign minister and ambassador to the US Knut Vollebæk, while letters to other leaders of NATO countries reportedly were even moreso as Trump continued to complain that they weren’t carrying their share of financing NATO.
Bakke-Jensen, however, claims he’s heading into the NATO summit with a clear conscience. Norway, he noted, has steadily been boosting its defense spending and expects it to amount to 1.7 percent of gross national product in 2020. NATO members have committed to a 2 percent goal by 2024.
“We don’t know what Trump will talk about, but we have a good story to tell,” Bakke-Jensen told DN. “Long-term plans for Norwegian defense involve a gradual increase in budgets.” He has earlier said that simply “using massive amounts of money” won’t necessarily improve defense capability. It’s how the money is spent that’s more important.
He also noted that Norway is also already hosting US military forces in Norway, where they’re training with Norwegian forces. Asked whether Norway’s northern-most county of Finnmark could be defended if Russia were to invade, Bakke-Jensen said “we’ll have to, and we defend it today without the US.” He’s from Finnmark himself.
“But a total defense of Norway without being a NATO member would probably not be credible,” he conceded. “We are dependent on NATO defending Norway today, with the US as the biggest player. I don’t think anyone can pretend there’s any other way.”