Norwegian Prime Minister Solberg Visits the Oval Office: “Exciting, yet uncertain how it will go”
January 9, 2018
The last time Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, visited the White House, she was one of five Nordic leaders to participate in a first-of-its-kind U.S.-Nordic Leaders’ Summit on May 16, 2016, which culminated in a state dinner.
So much has happened since May 2016. This was before the United States fully understood that Russia was attempting to influence its presidential election. It was a month before 52 percent of the British people voted to leave the European Union, leading some to suggest that the United Kingdom should follow the Norwegian model of relations with the Union. It was two months prior to the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). And it was six months before the election of President Donald Trump, whose policies and style have rattled many of the norms of transatlantic relations and of U.S. foreign policy globally.
On President Trump’s inauguration day, Prime Minister Solberg was asked her views about the new president. She stated that she was “going to miss President Obama” because he was a dedicated multilateralist and advocate for international law. She tried to downplay fears about the incoming administration, but she also said that working with President Trump was going to be “exciting, yet uncertain how it will go.”
Fast forward one year, and that uncertainty applies as well to Prime Minister Solberg’s first bilateral meeting with Mr. Trump. She participated in the May 2017 NATO Leaders’ Meeting in Brussels, which had many leaders reeling after Mr. Trump failed to reaffirm the U.S. security commitment to NATO, while publicly and privately castigating NATO allies about their poor defense spending habits. She has surely received wise counsel from Danish prime minister Lars Rasmussen and Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, who have had their own close encounters with President Trump.
The prime minister is in a somewhat delicate political position as she continues talks to form a coalition government long after Norway’s September 11 parliamentary elections. Norway relies heavily on its strong transatlantic security and political ties, especially as a non-EU member. Its membership in NATO and its strong bilateral defense relationship with the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European partners are important pillars for Oslo, which has a 195-kilometer land border and treaty-based interaction with Russia on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. Norway has traditionally balanced strong defense capabilities with equally persistent efforts to cooperate where possible with the Russian government. Since Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and illegal annexation of Crimea, Norway has struggled to maintain this balance both within the government and Norwegian society, while adjusting to a newly assertive Russia.
The future of Russia and U.S. policy toward the Kremlin will be on Prime Minister Solberg’s mind, particularly in light of the administration’s recent decision to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine (antitank weapons and sniper rifles), as well as the implementation of U.S. sanctions legislation against Russia. Strengthening NATO in the lead-up to the July 11–12 NATO Summit in Brussels will be a key focus, as Norway prepares to host a major NATO military exercise in the fall. Today, there is a 330-person U.S. Marine rotational force in Norway conducting training and exercises to strengthen extreme cold-weather combat capabilities as Russia increases its military presence in the Arctic. Although Norway has not met the criteria to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense spending (it has until 2024 to do so), its defense spending is growing. And it has focused on modernizing its defense forces well before other NATO allies and has purchased F-35s, as well as new maritime patrol aircraft, to monitor growing Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic. Of particular interest to senior Norwegian officials is the establishment and mission of a third NATO command, focused on the North Atlantic, which some suggest the United States could lead. Prime Minister Solberg will emphasize how important this new NATO command is to the defense of Norway, as is continued U.S. leadership in NATO.
Prime Minister Solberg and President Trump may also be able to compare notes on opening the Arctic to energy exploration. President Trump has reversed executive orders made by President Obama to encourage onshore and offshore energy development, including in the American Arctic. The Norwegian government has also encouraged the sale of new leases in the Barents Sea, although this has stirred political controversy in Norway because increasing access to fossil fuels, which fuels Norway’s economy, contradicts Norway’s eco-friendly environmental policies.
It will be interesting to see how or if the two leaders will discuss the Middle East, as they substantively disagree more than they agree. Proud of its role in the Oslo Peace Accords that brought together Palestinian and Israeli leaders, Norway did not support President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Moreover, Prime Minister Solberg supports continuation of the JCPOA, while President Trump may make a decision this week for the United States to quit the agreement. Norway recently suspended armed sales to the United Arab Emirates for its military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, while the United States supports the Saudi intervention. Norway is a member of the anti-ISIS coalition and has sent advisers to assist the peshmerga in Iraq to combat ISIS, and in 2016 it generously pledged $1.17 billion over four years for humanitarian and development assistance to Syria and the region.
As President Trump’s 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy states, “America’s allies and partners magnify our power and protect our shared interests.” Norway is a powerful example of the magnification of American power through active intelligence sharing, strong defense cooperation, and positive economic relations. Norway is assuming “greater responsibility for addressing common threats,” and it is hoped that President Trump acknowledges this in his meeting with Prime Minister Solberg while the leaders discuss a wide range of pressing policy issues. It would be exciting if this would happen, but we are deeply uncertain that it will.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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