Jens Stoltenberg addressed the annual conference hosted by Norway’s employers’ organization NHO many times when he held government power in the country. This week he was back in his role as secretary general of NATO, and he wasn’t at all pleased with his homeland’s defense spending.
His address to Norway’s business leaders, top politicians and many others assembled for the prestigious event was full of warnings that the world has become a more dangerous place, and that uncertainty is high. Norway isn’t contributing its fair share, he claimed, to the defense alliance on which Norway relies for its security. It hasn’t yet reached the goal agreed by NATO members in 2014, when Stoltenberg was tapped to lead the alliance, to spend 2 percent of gross national product (GNP) on defense. Last year Norway spent 1.5 percent of GNP on defense.
“Norway is the only country that borders on Russia that has not invested 2 percent,” Stoltenberg complained. “The majority of NATO’s member nations have made plans to bring spending up to 2 percent. Norway hasn’t done that yet.”
NATO members have another five years to reach the goal, since the spending boost to 2 percent was expected within 10 years, by 2024. Stoltenberg wants Norway to, at the very least, clarify its progress.
“I expect Norway to do what all NATO countries are doing and invest more in defense,” Stoltenberg told news bureau NTB.
“Our contributions are too small,” he told his large audience assembled in Oslo, using “our” instead of “Norway’s” to stress, perhaps, that he’s still part of the Norwegian population even though he now works and mostly lives in Brussels. But then, as political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim noted in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), Stoltenberg also used “we” when referring to both himself and US President Donald Trump: “We would rather see that it (Norway’s defense contribution) was bigger.” He also dared to claim, in his homeland where Trump is unpopular, often ridiculed and worries most Norwegian politicians, that “President Trump is right that there’s been an unfair sharing of the burden” of defense spending, with the US paying the most.
“Either we (again portraying his roots in Norway) must say that we think that’s fine with such unfairness, which is something the countries that are using 2 percent won’t accept, or you need to invest,” Stoltenberg said. His words were more than likely music to the ears of Norwegian defense contractors, who recently have come under criticism for profiting on international conflicts, not least the war in Yemen.
Stoltenberg noted that the “quality” of the contribution that Norway does make to NATO is “very high,” but insufficient. “We have good soldiers but they’re too few,” he said. “We have modern equipment, but not enough of it. We contribute to NATO’s operations, but they are few.” Norway also recently lost 20 percent of its frigate fleet, and an investment of around NOK 5 billion, when the KNM Helge Ingstad collided with a tanker in November while returning to homeport in Bergen after taking part in NATO’s huge Trident Juncture exercise. The frigate is still lying mostly underwater off Norway’s West Coast, waiting for weather conditions to allow a salvage operation that also will put a large and totally unexpected burden on Norway’s defense budget.
Defense minister fights back
Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen was quick to respond to Stoltenberg’s criticism, stressing the conservative government’s “ambitions” to meet NATO’s 2 percent goal in the country’s next long-term plan (LTP).
“In the LTP we’re in the midst of now, we’re increasing the defense budget every year and following up what we’ve planned to do,” Bakke-Jensen of the Conservative Party told NTB. “We have started work on the LTP that will run from 2021 to 2024. In that work, there’s a premise that we will follow up our obligations to NATO, also financially.”
Bakke-Jensen claimed the government has boosted defense spending by 30 percent since the Conservatives took over government leadership from Stoltenberg, whose left-center coalition lost the election in 2013. “We are quite certain NATO is satisfied with the contributions we make,” he told NTB.
Stoltenberg himself was also criticized for allegedly inadequate defense spending when he held government power from 2005 to 2013. He did win praise and appreciation from NATO allies when Norway played a major role in the bombing of Libya in 2011, but criticism afterwards when NATO member nations and other western allies failed to do enough to stabilize Libya, which has since fallen into chaos and anarchy and is now used by smugglers fueling the migrant crisis. Norway’s current government of which Bakke-Jensen is a member admitted to a lack of follow-up in Libya earlier in the week, while Stoltenberg’s successor as head of the Labour Party who served as his foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, has expressed regrets as well.
Reluctant to meddle but…
Despite his criticism of the Conservatives-led government’s defense spending, Stoltenberg told newspaper Aftenposten that he didn’t want to get involved in Norway’s domestic politics again. “It’s an important part of my job as secretary general of NATO that I don’t meddle in things that become more complicated if I have an opinion on them,” he told Aftenposten with a smile. It was tempting to wonder, however, whether he would have been as strong in his complaints about Norway’s defense spending if his former Labour Party colleague Støre, was prime minister and in charge instead of Erna Solberg.
Stoltenberg made it clear that he’s especially concerned about funding for NATO to keep it strong at a time when Russia is becoming more aggressive. “We don’t want to use military force,” he said, favouring ongoing sanctions against Russia instead. He also said he strongly support “dialogue” with the Russians: “It doesn’t solve the problems, but in a time of high tensions and conflict levels, dialogue is important.”