Norway champions the liberal international order

Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

“President Roosevelt once told the world to look to Norway,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg noted in a January 10 speech at Brookings, as part of the Alan and Jane Batkin International Leaders Forum. “Maybe it is only we who remember it,” she added. In her remarks and in a conversation with Vice President and Director of the Foreign Policy program Bruce Jones, Solberg gave a full-throated defense of the liberal international order, its accomplishments, and its principles, and called for continued U.S. leadership.

Solberg stressed that Norway, for its part, has “always tended to look to the U.S.”—as an inspiration in the writing of its own constitution in 1814, as a destination for emigration, and as an ally in the country’s “darkest hours” under occupation and beyond. She argued that Europeans might still be migrating to America, “had it not been for visionary U.S. leadership” and investments in the international system, European security, and the European economy after the Second World War, so that “Europe became an asset for the U.S. … a huge export market. A staunch ally, a humanitarian giant, and a net contributor to peace and security across the globe.”

The Norwegian approach

With the world facing great challenges and uncertainty, Solberg stressed that Norway navigates by four fundamental principles:

  • Upholding international law;
  • Fostering close international cooperation, including strong and adaptive international organizations like the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union, as well as a strong transatlantic bond;
  • Engaging “beyond our own neighborhood,” with a firm commitment to international development. “Responding to crises as and when they arise may provide temporary relief,” Solberg argued. “But there is a high chance that the problems will reappear, at a later stage, in another form and with a higher price tag. In the long run, the only viable and cost-effective solution is to address the underlying causes”; and
  • Rejecting protectionism and embracing free markets. Solberg stressed Norway’s investments in the United States and their support of 470,000 American jobs.

Noting that “we are the last generation that can prevent irreversible climate change,” Solberg argued U.S. leadership in reducing carbon emissions is “still needed” and that the United States is uniquely positioned to benefit from opportunities “as the world economy goes green.”

“NATO’s gatekeeper in the north”

Solberg called defense the area where the transatlantic bond was most important, however, and detailed Norwegian defense investments including purchases of U.S.-made aircraft and other systems. She noted that while Norway spends less than the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP, the wealthy country has the second-highest level of defense spending per capita among NATO’s 29 members, after the United States.

The prime minister also flagged an area of Norwegian comparative advantage on defense. “In many ways, Norway is NATO’s gatekeeper in the north,” where “Russia is re-introducing a forward defense concept for its strategic nuclear assets,” increasing Moscow’s “ability to disrupt the transatlantic sea lines of communication in situations of crisis or war.” Solberg noted that Norway is “working actively to increase NATO’s focus on strategic development in the North Atlantic. We have in-depth knowledge of developments in the region and we are committed to following the situation closely and keeping allies informed on an ongoing basis.”

Solberg was measured in her rhetoric on Russia. Asked by Jones about the Trump administration decision to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons, Solberg did not take a clear stance, but noted: “Everything we do is named provocative by the Russians.” She ventured that while the weapons “shift the balance,” it might not be as big an issue as it would have been two years ago.

Searching for stability in the Middle East

Norway has participated in the counter-ISIS campaign, and Solberg argued that governance and stability of territories recovered from the control of ISIS is primarily the responsibility of the countries themselves. However, she saw conflict prevention as a “very important European responsibility” in the neighborhood, still needing U.S. assistance. In particular, she stressed the importance of more inclusive governance in Iraq. “I don’t believe you can create stability from the outside. You have to also put pressure on the political systems from the inside,” Solberg said. “Our biggest challenge today is … the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis in this region. … The Saudis and Iran have to work together to make sure this situation doesn’t come out of control again. Then we are prepared to help” with military training, development aid, and mediation.

“We may be waiting awhile for Saudi-Iranian cooperation on these issues,” Jones replied.

Empowering women

Asked about her advocacy of women and girls’ empowerment, as well as the #MeToo movement, Solberg argued that countries like Norway still have challenges. “Even if you have formal representation that doesn’t really mean that you are getting an equal society between the sexes,” she noted. She said Norway’s legal system may not function well enough for women who are abused.

Regarding Norwegian foreign policy and development assistance, Solberg championed investments in girls’ education. “A lot of women’s issues have had setbacks the last year,” she said. “We have increased our funding for reproductive rights after the new American administration cut on that, because we think control of your own body and reproductive rights is a core issue of how you build women’s participation in the labor market and enlarge their possibilities in societies.”

Solberg also noted Norwegian support for women’s networks fighting violent extremism and for increasing women’s participation in politics. She recalled meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s all-male delegation with an all-female Norwegian delegation and joking to him about equal imbalances. “I’m not sure he takes it seriously,” but at least he laughed, she noted.

Brexit’s Impact on Norway

Asked about Norway as a potential model for a post-Brexit United Kingdom’s relations with the European Union, Solberg emphasized that the basic argument driving the vote in favor of the U.K. leaving the EU was against the free movement of people, which Norway accepts as part of the European Economic Area. Noting Norway’s high population of Eastern Europeans, she said, “We are happy that they are there and they are contributing, which is not the debate in Britain.” Solberg also argued that the U.K., being a larger country, would have a harder time accepting dispute resolution between its own rules and the EU’s by an independent board.

The Norwegian prime minister also stressed Brexit’s uncertain impact on the Norwegian economy, which counts the U.K. as a large trading partner and London as a hub for Norwegian business. “Britain has to start to negotiate with all the countries of the world” on trade, previously handled by the EU, she noted. “You don’t know how high on that list Norway will be, even if we are close. … Hopefully, they will reach an agreement between EU and Britain that makes it easier because that will be the cornerstone for all other agreements on market access. But this, it’s a big experiment.”

The United States and Europe

Solberg concluded her speech by noting that when Roosevelt looked to Norway in 1942, he saw a country under occupation. Today, however, he would see a “prosperous and stable democracy” and an ally “that still looks to the U.S.—in gratitude, but also in hope and expectation” of continued U.S. protection of a world order and values that have proven “to be the best way to ensure security, prosperity, and freedom for people on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.”

2018 and beyond will reveal whether a changing United States continues to meet those hopes and expectations.