A steady rise in the presence of US troops and military equipment on Norwegian soil looks set to reach a new high, setting off a torrent of objections and angry commentary in both local and national media. Critics claim the Norwegian government, by offering the Americans unprecedented access and liberties, is violating its own base policy that’s been in force since Norway joined NATO in 1949.
Defenders of Norwegian base policy stress how it’s always been aimed at warding off tensions with Norway’s powerful neighbour to the east. Legendary post-war Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen of the Labour Party did not want to provoke the Soviet Union at the time. Norway became a member of NATO on the condition that Norway would not allow any stationing of NATO troops or atomic weapons.
Things have changed in recent years, in line with the emergence of a more authoritarian Russia that’s been flexing its own muscle from the Black- to the Barents seas. NATO members have all been beefing up their defenses and the alliance has been led for the past seven years by another former Labour prime minister in Norway, Jens Stoltenberg.
Norwegian governments under both Labour and Conservative leadership have most always been eager to please NATO and the US, which is consistently referred to as “our most important ally.” That’s now led to what many claim is a new divergence from Norway’s base- and anti-nuclear policies.
There’s already been lots of rumbling in recent years over the stationing, albeit in rotations, of US Marines in Trøndelag and Northern Norway. There’s also been rising concern over US intelligence and surveillance operations and some of the biggest NATO exercises in Norway in years.
Things heated up in recent months over both the controversial landings of new US bombers in Norway and the US’ renewal of requests to use a civilian harbour not far from downtown Tromsø for its nuclear submarines. Now the US wants to be able to berth and use the base to change crews during patrols in the Arctic.
The Norwegian government willingly complied as it normally does when asked to accommodate its allies, but protests have been loud and strong in Tromsø itself. Its local city council had turned down initial requests in 2016 and 2019 but felt forced to relent last fall, after Norway’s tranport ministry claimed it had to follow maritime law in connection with harbour use. Tromsø residents have been mounting demonstrations against the US’ unwelcome nuclear subs, fearing accidents and a lack of preparedness for any that might occur. There are widespread fears over the first US nuclear sub arrivals this month. Local officials have been doling out iodine tablets to residents and preparing evacuation procedures.
Then came news of an even bigger military deal between Norway and the US, and it’s set off the most controversy. Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that the US military is now set “to move in” to Norwegian military bases, as part of an agreement that would give the US an “historic foothold” in Norway. It’s not part of any NATO agreement. It applies only to Norway and the US.
The agreement was first reported last month, as a major American “investment” in Norwegian military facilities. Some commentators, including Sverre Strandhagen in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), applauded the proposed deal as a means of making it easier for American soldiers to train in Norway and be better able to help in an emergency. DN editorialized that the US was “securing Norway in an unstable world,” suggesting that Norway should welcome the investment.
It may come at a high cost, though. Under terms of the deal, which still needs approval from Parliament, the Americans would pretty much be able to operate as if they were home in the US, according to Aftenposten. They’ll be able to bring in their own equipment to which Norway won’t necessarily be privvy. Both American civilians and military will be allowed to travel seamlessly in and out of Norway. US military police would also have jurisdiction over both US soldiers and civilians tied to the US operations, also if they commit crimes while on time off from their bases. Norwegian law wouldn’t necessarily apply.
According to Aftenposten, the Americans will be allowed “unimpeded access to and use of” their own quarters on Norwegian bases such as Evenes outside Narvik in Northern Norway, Rygge near Moss in Southern Norway and Sola south of Stavanger. Commentator Erik Sagflaat in newspaper Dagsavisen wrote that Norway will basically turn over considerable areas within the air bases, for example, to the US defense forces.
“We’re doing this to make sure that our most important ally will be able to contribute to, and strengthen, the defense of Norway in crisis or war,” Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told Aftenposten.
Norway’s defense department told Aftenposten that having US soldiers at Norwegian bases will give Norway “extra protection.” NATO’s security guarantee will be more credible, says Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, a former defense minister herself. The US, meanwhile, has long complained about Norway’s ability to receive allied forces in a crisis situation. Now the Americans can make their own preparations themselves.
The US also wants to land and take off with their own bombers, fighter jets, surveillance aircraft and transport planes. That’s why Evenes, Rygge and Sola have been chosen. The Ramsund base west of Narvik has also been targeted: That’s where some of Norway’s own special forces are based, along with the Navy’s logistics base for Northern Norway.
Norwegian defense officials did not answer whether Norway will be more secure if Parliament approves the agreement and it takes effect. Bakke-Jensen responded that the agreement “is important for Norway, Norwegian security and Norwegian interests.”
It’s set off some strong protests within Norway, most predictably from the Socialist Left (SV) and Reds parties but also from the Center Party and several defense analysts who question whether Norway will give up control over what might happen on its own territory. Critics claim Norway may even sacrifice sovereignty, a sore point in a small country that’s fiercely patriotic and only been fully free of foreign control since 1905.
Russian officials are also protesting, with the spokesperson for Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling the proposed deal “new proof that Oslo is gradually giving up its own restrictions” on foreign or ally influence. Even several Norwegian researchers and defense analysts say they can understand Russia’s contention that the deal can also turn Norway into a “springboard” for American and NATO military activity, as NATO continues to surround Russia.
Bakke-Jensen confirmed to newspaper Klassekampen last month that the deal came at the US’ initiative, and that it reflects similar deals the US has struck with other countries. The US will cover the costs of all investments made, but resulting facilities will remain under Norwegian ownership with the US having user rights. Several top politicians in Parliament, also from the Center Party, insist Norway must remain in control. “We don’t want an Americanization of our bases,” said Center’s defense policy spokesperson Liv Signe Navarsete, a former government minister herself. She claimed her party would “thoroughly examine” the deal before it comes up for a vote in Parliament.
Critics including Sagflaat question the “amazingly small amount of public debate” over the agreement before it was presented last month. Now he and others are calling for a lot more in the months ahead.
“Unfortunately the signals from the Labour Party have been mostly positive,” Sagflaat wrote this week. “But for Labour, the Gerhardsen tradition should now remain strong.” Labour, expected to regain government power in the next election, will need to govern with both Center and the Socialist Left party, which firmly opposes the deal.