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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Støre defies critics over his choice of a new ambassador to the US

It’s only been a few months since Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had to fire his foreign minister, Anniken Huitfeldt, because her husband’s stock trading landed her in various conflicts of interest. Now Støre wants to send her to Washington DC as Norway’s new ambassador to the US, and that’s sparked massive criticism.

Jonas Gahr Støre and Anniken Huitfeldt have been Labour Party colleagues for years, albeit with her more on the left side of the party and him on the right. They’re pictured here in New York early last autumn, heading for a session at the UN, just before she landed in trouble over personal conflicts of interest tied to her husband’s financial investments. PHOTO: NorwayUN

The critics can’t understand how Støre could express a lack of confidence in her in October and then turn around to offer her what’s widely viewed as Norway’s most important diplomatic post. “If this happens, Jonas Gahr Støre is exhibiting very poor judgment,” wrote Sylvi Listhaug, leader of the opposition Progress Party and its delegation in Parliament, in an email to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday.

It’s not just opposition politicians like Listhaug who are objecting to the appointment. Other critics include professors, political commentators, editorial writers at several of Norway’s major newspapers and professional diplomats within Norway’s foreign ministry. There were several other qualified applicants for the post, including Norway’s current ambassador to the UN Mona Juell, and the diplomats’ professional organization complained that established processes were being ignored by the government.

“We believe in principle that it’s problematic when ordinary hiring practice, which follows the law and employment regulations, has been set aside,” Frida Fostvedt, deputy leder of the organization representing employees at the foreign ministry, Akademikerne, told newspaper Klassekampen last weekend. She thinks “objective criteria” is falling victim to political interests.

Anniken Huitfeldt at the nationally televised press conference last fall, where she admitted to how her husband had traded shares in companies that have done business with the government. She still insists she was unaware of his investment activity. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Even some top politicians within Støre’s and Huitfeldt’s own Labour Party have expressed reservations. They include the president of the Norwegian Parliament, Masud Gharahkhani, who reportedly warned against appointing Huitfeldt as ambassador to the US. Not only would it demand highly unusual permission to withdraw from an elected post (her seat in Parliament), Norway’s own Constitution decrees that foreign service personnel can’t be elected to Parliament. The president’s major concerns, however, involved the controversy around Huitfeldt’s conflicts of interest that led to her replacement.

Other Members of Parliament have also voiced objections, with Bård Ludvig Thorheim of the rival Conservative Party telling newspaper VG that Støre was misuing the foreign service to solve some internal problems within Labour. Thorheim worked as a diplomat himself for several years and views the pending appointment of Huitfeldt as a reminder of when Labour “gave ambassador posts to their own,” as a reward for long service.

Researcher Halvard Leira told Klassekampen that such political appointments are much more common in other countries, and haven’t occurred often in Norway. Earlier examples, also in which a politically chosen ambassador was relieved of parliamentary duties, have included Labour’s appointment of Reiulf Steen as ambassador to Chile, Thorvald Stoltenberg’s appointment as ambassador to Denmark and former Conservatives’ leader Jan Petersen’s appointment as ambassador to Austria, but that came when Petersen’s term in Parliament expired and he was no longer in government.

It was DN that first reported, just before Christmas, how Huitfeldt suddenly had become the top candidate to take over as US ambassador when the post opens up in August. It’s currently held by a professional diplomat, Anniken Ramberg Krutnes, an expert on security policy and Arctic issues who has worked for the foreign ministry since 1994 and earlier served as Norway’s ambassador to both Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Her term in Washington is due to end later this year.

Another former foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party, was reportedly offered the US ambassador’s post first, but turned it down. She’s shown here with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in 2021. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Trude Måseide

DN reported that the government had initially offered the post to another former foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party. The idea, it seems, was that given the turbulent political situation in the US at present, it would be best to send a seasoned politician to Washington who would best know how to deal with Congress, not just the White House.

Søreide, however, reportedly turned down the offer and has refused any comment on the matter. The idea of appointing Huitfeldt instead, according to DN, came up after Huitfeldt had to give up her foreign minister’s post because of her husband’s investment activity of which, she claims, she was unaware.

Støre, who has also refused comment on his pending appointment, told TV2 last week that he thinks it’s become more important for future ambassadors to the US to have political experience and a political network. As a former diplomat himself, he thinks such networks will become even more important in the future.

Anniken Huitfeldt has already met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken several times, both in Norway and abroad, like here in Washington in October 2022. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Ragnhild H Simenstad

While some critics like Janne Haaland Matlary, a political science professor and former state secretary in the foreign ministry, think Huitfeldt lacks “diplomatic competence,” others note that Huitfeldt does have lots of foreign policy experience. Before serving as Støre’s foreign minister from 2021 to late 2023, she led the Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee for eight years. It may also be an advantage that since she’s a former foreign minister who’s had direct dealings with other high-ranking government officials, she may command more respect and invitations in status-conscious Washington.

Others wonder, though, whether Huitfeldt, age 54, is the best candidate if Donald Trump returns to the White House in the fall elections. As a leftist politician in Norway, she may not command his respect or get along with members of his administration to the degree that Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg did as chief of NATO. Stoltenberg, who has candidly stated that he resorted to flattery in order to get along with Trump, will be leaving his NATO post this fall and likely would have been the very best candidate as ambassador to Washington, not least since Trump did listen to him. Stoltenberg has said he wants to return home to Norway, though, after more than two terms as NATO chief in Brussels. An ambassador post in Washington may not have been seen as a step up for him either, as speculation flies over whether he’ll secure another high-ranking international post.

Norwegian media was reporting on Friday that Huitfeldt’s appointment is only awaiting formal acceptance from US authorities, or so-called agrement. That can take anywhere from one to four months. It remained unclear whether Huitfeldt’s husband, who effectively spoiled her career as foreign minister, will be moving with her to Washington DC if her appointment goes through as planned.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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