Out of the comfort zone? Norway and the transatlantic estrangement

Like most members of the Atlantic Alliance, Norway has been unsettled by the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Policymakers and commentators struggle to understand how Trump’s Washington works.

Most unsettling, perhaps, is the overall impression that in an ever more complex world and in an ever more challenging security environment, Norway’s most important ally fails to show leadership. Instead, Trump is unraveling the multilateral order on which countries like Norway rely.

To be sure there has been severe disagreement between European countries – Norway included – and the US in the past, e.g. over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, the way Trump currently isolates the United States from its allies on several important issues is unprecedented. On Iran, Jerusalem, trade and climate change Europe aligns with most of the international community in not only voicing its disagreement, but also publicly expressing concern over Trump’s decisions.

In order to safegueard its security interests, Norway has no choice but to continue investing in the bilateral security partnership with the United Sates and to lobby Washington for continued engagement in NATO. Like many allies, Norway therefore takes great comfort in seeing that in practical terms, and despite Trump’s earlier rhetoric, US policy towards NATO and European security has indeed remained steadfast. The US military commitment to Europe even increased through the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) from fiscal year (FY) 2018 to FY 2019. Under the leadership of James Mattis the Pentagon has taken an active role in shaping policy at NATO headquarters. The US readiness initiative seems likely to become a “deliverable,” a highlighted issue, at the July NATO summit.

Given Norway’s strategic outlook, which emphasizes situational awareness and control over the vast maritime areas in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, decision-makers in Oslo welcome the US emphasis on the maritime domain and the North Atlantic. They see the US announcement to host a new NATO command for the Atlantic and to reactivate the Second Fleet as a validation of their efforts to strengthen the Alliance’s maritime posture and its ability to meet high-end maritime challenges.

Bilateral ties between Norway and the US are on both sides described as exceptionally good. Norway’s acquisition of 52 F 35 Joint Strike Fighters, by far the biggest investment in the country’s defense, and the purchase of P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, are a partial explanation for this. Others include a reignited US interest in Russia, notably in Russian naval capabilities, that has further strengthened the close US-Norwegian intelligence cooperation.  While Norway traditionally has not allowed allied bases in peacetime, in 2016 it accepted an offer from the US Marine Corps (USMC) to establish a rotational presence of about 300 Marines as part of EDI, close to where the Corps has pre-positioned equipment since the early 1980s.

Norway is also a European country and cannot afford neglecting relations with “the Continent”. While not a member of the European Union, it is part of the Common Market through the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. EU member states are the country’s most important economic partners. With regard to foreign and security policy, Norway generally aligns with EU positions and sees many European countries as like-minded. True, Norway has traditionally eyed the Union’s ambitions to establish a common security and defense policy with suspicion, lest they weaken NATO or discriminate non-members. Norway pursues a strategy of seeking the closest possible relations with the EU in this field. Current strategy documents like the new Norwegian Europe strategy, the white paper on foreign and security policy of 2017, and the long-term defense plan published in 2016, all call for closer  engagement with the EU and deeper relations with strategic partners in Europe –  especially the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, but also France and Poland. Regional cooperation with the Nordic neighbours remains an important supplement.

The most imminent threat to Norway’s balancing between Atlantic security and close European cooperation comes from Trump’s linkage of foreign policy disagreements and trade. Trump’s unilateral actions, but also the reactions by European partners, may force Norway out of the comfort zone. The Norwegian government has already been caught by surprise with the lack of exemption from the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminium, much as the EU initially was. Which side will Norway choose if Trump makes trade or the Iran deal a question of “with us or against us”?

Norway has managed to maintain its reputation as a reliable and engaged NATO ally and as a good customer of American defense equipment. However, while Norway is among the countries that invest more than 20 % of the defence budget in new equipment, it lacks a credible plan to meet the 2 % of GDP criteria by 2024.  According to current plans the ratio might even  fall. As the US is pushing all allies to come up with such plans before the upcoming NATO summit, Norway might not be the primary target of Trump’s wrath. But considering that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is a former Norwegian prime minister, Norway’s deficiency may well draw Trump’s attention.

In the longer term, Oslo also has to be concerned about Trump’s disregard for European allies. On the one hand because disunity weakens the alliance’s single most important asset, solidarity.  On the other hand, because transatlantic disagreement will push the EU to closer defense cooperation. So far, the steps taken by the EU are not impressive, and its defense efforts are generally complementary to NATO. However, even limited steps towards closer integration can be problematic for a third country like Norway, including if it is excluded from defense-related research and capability development.

Norwegian policy makers might get away with their current strategy of keeping a low profile on sensitive issues until a new US administration with a more conventional policy style takes office. Oslo can try to take on difficult questions one by one, thereby helping to avoid that disagreements on international issues evolve into a major transatlantic crisis. There is, however, the possibility that Trump remains in office for another six years. Moreover, there is a growing feeling that Trump – notwithstanding his personality – is a symptom of a structural transatlantic estrangement. This is why decision-makers and experts need to do serious thinking on how to bring the relationship back on track or – at the very least – maintain core elements like NATO.

Such thinking might focus on areas where there is transatlantic agreement and where European countries can continue to work closely with the US. These include strengthening the West’s deterrence posture, confronting China over trade rules, investment and its hostile cyber activities and fighting terrorist groups like IS militarily in Iraq and Syria and through long-term prevention and stabilization efforts at home and abroad.

European allies should not be afraid to highlight principles and values, voice differences in opinion with the Trump administration and align with like-minded countries in order to support the rules-based international order and strengthen multilateralism. To avoid escalation, however, Europeans could seek pragmatic, technical solutions to dilute differences.

At the same time, European allies must continue to invest in the transatlantic relationship. Allies and partners can do more to strengthen the European pillar of the alliance without suggesting an unrealistic wish for independence from the US security guarantee. Due to its strong defense relations with both with the United States and the EU, Norway is well placed to help promote efforts for limited and inclusive strategic autonomy as a vehicle for better burden sharing.  Europe should try to convince Trump and his inner circle of the virtues of multilateralism. Equally important, however, is to maintain contacts with and support the groups and communities in the US which value transatlantic relations. This requires investment in constant dialogue through, amongst other things, exchange programs, scholarships, round table discussions, and exercises.

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