NEWS ANALYSIS: As nervous and bickering leaders of NATO member countries gathered in London on Tuesday, their own Norwegian leader Jens Stoltenberg was using all his diplomatic and folksey skills to keep them united. Norway’s biggest dilemma, meanwhile, is over the US’ proposal that NATO view China as a threat.
Stoltenberg already tried in advance to fend off US President Donald Trump’s constant complaints that other NATO members, including Norway, aren’t spending enough on defense. The man still known simply as “Jens” back home in Norway could point to the fifth year in a row of “large increases” in defense spending by the US’ European allies and Canada. It’s up 4.6 percent overall, and up USD 130 billion since 2016 (see a chart of each member country’s defense spending at he bottom of this page).
It’s unclear whether that will satisfy Trump, and Norway is among NATO members that still hasn’t brought its defense spending up to 2 percent of GNP. Figures released by NATO late last week put it at 1.8 percent largely because of Norway’s large oil-fueled GNP. Norway can counter that it’s defense spending per capita is high indeed.
Many, not least French President Emmanuel Macron, think NATO has been paying too much attention to meeting spending goals and not enough on actual defense and security policy. The so-called “burden sharing” nonetheless tops the agenda for NATO’s actual meeting on Wednesday, which looms as the alliance’s shortest summit ever. National leaders will have just four hours to formally discuss not only their individual financial contributions but also Russia and arms control, terrorism and Macron’s recent tough criticism in The Economist that NATO is “brain dead” and that Europe needs to strengthen itself as a power factor.
Erna: NATO not brain dead
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has since claimed that NATO is not brain dead, but told news bureau NTB that Macron “has a point” that the alliance could use better “consultation mechanisms.” Stoltenberg himself has said that NATO members should spend more time discussing strategy while also “holding up” investments. “A strong NATO needs to concentrate on both,” he told newspaper Aftenposten prior to this week’s gathering.
Solberg and others in Norway, meanwhile, are perhaps most nervous about the final item on the NATO agenda Wednesday regarding China. Trump remains tough on China, not just regarding trade and the US’ support for Hong Kong residents’ desperate attempts to retain democracy, but also on defense. Trump and many others in Asia and the Pacific view China as an emerging military threat that can challenge security policy.
The US’ desire for other countries to also get tougher on China comes as the country reported stronger economic growth figures this week after struggling for months. Norway, however, risks landing in what two Norwegian defense researchers described as a “squeeze” on Tuesday, caught among the US, Russia and China, with the latter two seemingly becoming more friendly of late. Many Norwegians, meanwhile, feel their government undermined its principles on human rights and democracy in a controversial agreement three years ago that ended a diplomatic freeze between Norway and China that began over a Nobel Peace Prize to the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo when Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister. His administration was unable to mend ties (and trade) with China without sacrificing principles. Solberg’s administration later agreed to refrain from criticizing China’s internal affairs in return for restoring diplomatic relations, and being able to renew free trade talks and sell lots more salmon and other Norwegian goods.
Unease continues to rise within Norway over the government’s subsequent lack of criticism over China’s internment of Muslim minorities, for example, or support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong. Solberg won’t want to jeopardize her government’s hard-won truce with China through any confrontration by NATO. It will be demanding for Norway to balance its need for close relations with the US and NATO without being frozen out again by China and needing to retain a sharp focus on Russia.
Warnings from Jens’ foreign minister
China has so far not posed a threat in the North Atlantic area, but concerns have been rising that it could in the Arctic as melting ice opens new shipping routes. The US thinks NATO should agree that China represents a challenge worldwide, in terms of its acquisitions and ownership of stragegic and electronic infrastructure (harbours, airports and 5G technology), its military build-up, its closer cooperation with Russia, its disdain for a rule-based world order and how lukewarm it is towards nuclear non-proliferation and arms control.
“This can all put Norway and Europe in a squeeze,” wrote researchers Johannes Gullestad Rø and Ingeborg Nortvedt Bjur in newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday. Stoltenberg’s former foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre also warns against Norway supporting any NATO offensive against China, telling newspaper Klassekampen on Tuesday that NATO should not become militarily engaged in Asia. Støre opposes a “NATO confrontation” with China in the Pacific or Asia, not least because Europe and Norway need to concentrate on their own security.
As other confrontations occurred between Turkey’s authoritarian president and Macron, and between Trump and various European allies like Germany, there were few signs of optimistic and happy NATO members gathering to also celebrate the alliance 70th anniversary in London. Stoltenberg would do his best to infuse optimism and solidarity, and Queen Elizabeth helped by inviting everyone with partners to a reception at Buckingham Palace Tuesday evening. Solberg and her husband were on the guest list, as were Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and her husband. The queen would also be meeting Stoltenberg alone in a private audience before the reception.
Stoltenberg, meanwhile, stressed to Aftenposten that “Europe can’t defend itself alone, and the EU can never defend Europe.” Therefore, he thinks, it’s “important to have the USA on the team” and he’s succeeded so far in retaining good personal relations with Trump on one side of the Atlantic and Macron, for example, on the other.