NEWS ANALYSIS: “Confidence in the US sinks just about every time Trump opens his mouth,” said former two-term Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik on Wednesday. He was among many “upset and uneasy” in Norway after US President Donald Trump’s shocking sweep through Europe last week, which left “scars” another former foreign minister predicts will take “a long time to heal.”
Reaction was strong from Norway’s political and intelligence community, and not least the media. “In less than a week, the USA’s president created unease at the NATO Summit in Brussels, insulted most people he met in London and then presented himself as a friend of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin in London,” began the main editorial in national newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. It went on to assess just “how bad” the situation really is, concluding that instead of promoting security policy in a troubled world, Trump was doling out just the opposite.
“Can Europe trust that such a man, if it’s needed, will help the US’ European allies?” Aftenposten asked rhetorically. “Today it’s difficult to answer ‘yes.'”
Trump, facing a torrent of criticism from even some of his most conservative supporters when he returned to the US on Tuesday, was ultimately forced to “clarify” the inflammatory remarks he made after his meeting with Putin in Helsinki on Monday. He offered no apologies but claimed he merely misspoke during remarks that suggested he had more trust in Putin than in his own country’s intelligence services. After blasting US allies in Europe both at the dramatic NATO Summit and later in London, and then lavishly praising Putin, some US officials were accusing Trump of treason. On Wednesday Trump made more claims that despite all his criticism last week, the US remained committed to NATO and that he thought he personally had strengthened the alliance. He dismissed accusations he had discredited his own intelligence services.
Bondevik, a former leader of the conservative Christian Democrats party (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF), was frank in an interview with newspaper Dagens Nærringsliv (DN) before Trump had to retreat, at least a bit. “I am upset and uneasy that an American president can behave in this manner,” Bondevik told DN. Bondevik speaks from experience, after becoming one of the first Norwegian leaders to visit a US president at the White House in several years at the time, but then refusing to go along with George W Bush’s request to back his controversial invasion of Iraq. Bondevik offered only humanitarian assistance afterwards instead. That brought Norway into disfavour with Washington but Bondevik, a former pastor, remained firm in his convictions that invading Iraq was a bad idea. Many have since agreed.
Current Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives, who served as a minister in Bondevik’s conservative coalition government during his second term from 2001-2005, was officially on summer holiday this week and thus could avoid requests for comment on the uproar over Trump. “It can’t be easy for a Norwegian prime minister to relate to the American president, when you don’t know whether you can believe what he says,” Bondevik told DN. Asked how he would tackle the current chaos around Trump, Bondevik said he would “try to tend to the US relation through other channels and levels, like the state department and the defense department at the Pentagon. He said he would have asked Norway’s foreign ministry and Norway’s embassy in Washington DC “to follow and nurture alternative channels to American authorities, outside the White House.”
That’s an extraordinary thing for a former Norwegian prime minister to say, that it has become necessary to work around the US president, not with him. It’s pretty much, however, what Solberg’s government already has been doing, even before Trump won the 2016 election that he since has been forced to “accept” was subjected to Russian meddling and disinformation. Putin himself confirmed at Monday’s sensational press conference that he was glad Trump beat the US Democrats’ candidate, Hillary Clinton, even after another dozen Russian agents were indicted by the US special prosecutor based on results of what Trump called a “witchhunt.”
It’s all put Putin and Trump somewhat on the same side, with both needing to hope that the very credibility of the 2016 election results are not called into even more question. Meanwhile, as “Teflon Don” ultimately had to respond to at least some of the criticism that now may be sticking to him, Bondevik believes there’s massive diplomatic activity going on around Europe, especially among NATO allies, as they try to help each other deal with Trump. “Confidence in the US is falling, and with good reason, ” said Bondevik, who also served as Norway’s foreign minister in the early 1990s. “This is very serious, both in the short and long term, that we now have an American president on whom we can’t rely.”
Anniken Huitfeldt, who leads the Norwegian Parliament’s defense- and foreign affairs committee, agrees that it’s important to separate what Trump says from what the US does. “One thing is what Trump says and what words he uses towards his own allies,”Huitfeldt, who represents the opposition Labour Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), “but in the (NATO) declaration, he has committed to the most important core values in NATO.” She was shaken nonethless by hearing Trump cast doubt on the findings of his own US intelligence.
Espen Barth Eide, another former defense- and foreign minister, wrote in a commentary in DN on Wednesday that he’s also concerned over all the uncertainty Trump is constantly creating. Eide, of the opposition Labour Party, wrote that Trump’s European tour has not only “left scars that will take a long time to heal,” but that his erratic behaviour actually “may not be as chaotic and unpredictable” as it seems.
Eide fears that European leaders along with those in the US may be making a mistake in trying to downplay Trump’s behaviour. Too many may dismiss Trump as being “perhaps unpredictable” with a “different style,” and cling to the belief that the workings of government in the US will continue as before. Prime Minister Solberg’s former and current foreign ministers have both stressed that it’s necessary to “look beyond all the tweets” from Trump and look at what the US is actually doing. Then it can be reassuring to see that the US is actually placing even more troops in Europe, boosting its own defense budgets and working hard to douse the fires Trump starts by, for example, sending out the US Defense Secretary to reassure European allies like Norway.
Eide wrote that he also hopes things “will continue as before” regarding US relations. “The problem is that I’m not convinced,” he wrote. He notes that Trump has in fact been doing what he said he would, putting “America (and himself, many claim) First,” lashing out at all the countries he claims have exploited US generosity over the years, and being highly skeptical to international institutions, alliances and multilateral agreements. Trump’s core voters applaud him for putting foreigners in their place, acknowledging Putin as the vigorous national leader that he is and challenging the liberal elite both at home and elsewhere in the world.
“Trump may have overplayed his role in Helsinki (with Putin), but don’t ignore the possibility that he in fact knows what he’s doing,” Eide warned, in ushering in fundamental and long-lasting changes in how the US operates.
Hilmar Mjelde, a Norwegian researcher at the University of Bergen who specializes in US politics, says Trump’s style is to first shock and offend his counterparts, and then praise them. He thinks Trump uses his angry rhetoric beforehand, but is actually conflict-shy in direct dealings. The rhetoric can simply be a negotiating tactic.
Mjelde is also among those still stressing what the US is doing, instead of what Trump is saying. “The Trump Administration has had a conciliatory tone but tough policies towards Russia,” he told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. “The US has imposed sanctions against Russia, sent weapons to Ukraine, more troops to Poland and attacked Russia’s ally Assad.”
Perhaps the most chilling reaction in Norway to the trauma Trump inflicted on Europe last week came from a retired general and former head of Norwegian military intelligence Kjell Grandhagen. He suspects that what he calls “a Russian x-factor” is behind Trump’s “otherwise completely incomprehensible” remarks that were “fawning” towards Putin.
“There must be something in the relation between Trump and Russia that we don’t know yet,” Grandhagen told DN on Wednesday. It’s the only thing, the former intelligence chief said, that can explain why Trump stood next to Putin in Helsinki and said that he basically believes as much in Russia’s and Putin’s denials of any meddling in the 2016 elections as he does in the US’ own intelligence experts.
“It was just incredible that he would stand there fawning for Putin,” Grandhagen said. “He completely let down the US as a nation and didn’t raise American viewpoints at all.” He urged viewing Trump’s week in Europe as an entire entity: First aggressively trying to split his own allies, then visiting London where he discredited and humiliated British Prime Minister Theresa May, and then the famous meeting with Putin.
“What we’re seeing is that Donald Trump is undermining confidence in the US as the guarantor of security towards its own allies in NATO,” Grandhagen, who now heads security for Norway’s biggest bank DNB, also told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. “This is extremely serious for NATO, and extra serious for a small country like Norway, which is completely dependent on NATO being upheld.”
Abid Raja, a Member of Parliament who represents the Liberal Party on the defense and foreign affairs committee, said it seemed as though “Trump doesn’t understand that Russia’s goal is to weaken and destabilize the trans-Atlantic bonds. That has great implications for us in Europe. We need to take more responsibility for our own defense and at the same time work to keep the US engaged in NATO.”
Grandhagen said the entire situation was “remarkable,” and therefore makes the special investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the election “steadily more important and more interesting.”