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Interview: Espen Barth Eide, Norway's Foreign Affairs Minister

Jul. 11, 2013 - 02:50PM   |  
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Espen Barth Eide
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After serving as Norway’s defense minister, Espen Barth Eide was named minister of foreign affairs Sept. 21. A leading figure in the ruling Labor party in the country’s three-party coalition, Eide had earlier served as state secretary in the MoD from 2005 to 2010.

As state secretary, Eide was in charge of the political process that led to Norway’s selection of the F-35 joint strike fighter as Norway’s new combat aircraft in 2008. The minister is openly supportive of NATO, in partnership with Norway, playing a stronger role and raising its understanding and situational awareness in the Arctic High North. Eide is also a robust advocate of improving cooperation and partnership among NATO, the US and Russia.

Q. What strategic defense or security role would Norway like NATO to play in the Arctic and Norway’s High North?

A. To begin with, NATO is not another entity. Norway is NATO and a member of NATO. The Norwegian part of NATO is taken care of by us. We never wanted foreign bases in Norway, and this has been a longstanding policy. What we would like to see from NATO is improved situational awareness and a better understanding of our region.

Firstly, we would like to help the alliance to refocus more on its core mission at home. Secondly, we want to use the Norwegian Armed Forces’ headquarters at Bodø as a pilot project to demonstrate how we can link NATO command structures to national command structures. Thirdly, we want NATO to regain a kind of territorial understanding of security. The post-9/11 paradigm was so strong in suggesting that the world is divided into a battle between good and evil in the early Bush administration that we really do need to rediscover geography and gain better insights in realpolitik.

Q. The Norwegian approach to how NATO can strengthen its role in the High North suggests a need for more and perhaps larger-scale military exercises. What more can be done to expand the range of exercises that take place?

A. Norway has superb areas to hold large-scale exercises. We already have the Cold Response exercises, but we want to use areas in Norway’s High North for air, sea and land combined exercises to train in areas which are much bigger than anywhere else in Europe. Now that NATO is reducing its operational role in Afghanistan, and there is really not another operation in sight, we need to keep our forces connected through international exercises, and we believe Norway offers a good base for that.

Q. What were the primary issues relating to the High North’s security and defense that Norway communicated to NATO during Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s visit to Bodø and Tromsø in May?

A. We are very happy with the outcome of the visit by Rasmussen to Bodø and Tromsø. The purpose of that visit was not to ask for a physical NATO presence in the High North. Our view is that NATO is there, as we ourselves are NATO and have a robust presence in the High North as NATO.

We wanted the visit to accomplish an enhanced situational understanding, both awareness and the way we cooperate in the High North. We also wanted to use the opportunity of the visit to demonstrate the capabilities of our main defense forces’ command headquarters in Bodø and how these facilities can be better linked-up to NATO. We achieved what we wanted from the visit.

Q. Norway has been visibly strengthening its policy of cooperation with Russia as a means to build trust and collaboration between the nations in the Arctic and the High North. Nevertheless, there are legislators in some Nordic countries, and particularly in Sweden, who observe Russia rearming in the High North and believe the Cold War has not gone away. Has it?

A. If there are tensions that are due, for example, to military exercises, then it’s wise to be open with each other and invite each other to these exercises. Yes, Russia is rearming and modernizing its armed forces. Then again so is Norway, and so is everybody else in other countries.

Q. Are you saying that Russia’s massive spending to rearm its military installations in the High North does not overly worry Norway because it does not pose a real and immediate threat to security in the region?

A. That Russia is strengthening its military is not something we are particularly alarmed about. Yes, the rearming is taking place close to our borders, but not because of our presence but simply because the Kola-Murmansk area is the most accessible harbor that they have. It is logical that they would locate some of their strategic capacity there. We also see some modernization that we actually welcome, like constructing better infrastructure along the North East Passage, most of which is north of Russia. These infrastructure projects include building harbors and heli-pads, which are essential for such vital functions as air and sea search and rescue.

Q. What do you see when you look at Russia today? And how different a neighbor is it to the country that bordered Norway in the Cold War era?

A. Russia in the mid-1990s was a lot more chaotic than it is today. It was a benign neighbor but it was never very clear where it was heading. It also struggled to find its identity after the Cold War.

Today, we are seeing a strengthening of the state in Russia, and it is much clearer where the country is going. It is clearly not going to become a Western European country, but it is a member of the European institutions. It is, in a sense, more predictable. What we started in 1993 with the Barents cooperation has prospered and developed into a great success.

Q. Norway has criticized the Russian government’s action to introduce the controversial law requiring non-government organizations [NGOs] engaged in political activity funded from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” Is this development evidence of a crackdown by the Kremlin on free speech and human rights?

A. When we look at today’s Russia, we see a big neighbor with whom we cooperate quite well on many issues of common concern. We also see a domestic environment in Russia where the space for a free media and NGOs is being narrowed.

I am actually more concerned, and spend more time worrying about, new NGO regulations in Russia than I do worrying about their military modernization and organization. Issues relating to NGOs could in the long run also affect our bilateral relations, since some of these bilateral relations are geared to foster people-to-people contacts. Unfortunately, there is increasing intimidation of people on the opposition side. This concerns us because we are a neighbor, and we are concerned about the fate of the Russian people. We are able to distinguish between what we agree and disagree on. These are points I do make when I meet my Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Q. The meeting of the Arctic Council in the Swedish Arctic town of Kiruna in May demonstrated the growing importance of this organization as a vehicle for cooperation and change. Can the Arctic Council also function as a tension-reducing platform for major Arctic nations, such as the US and Russia, to resolve potential future differences over how Arctic regions can be best managed and developed?

A. The Arctic is characterized by growing international cooperation. The council is the only circumpolar forum for political cooperation at government level and is thus a pivotal institution. The environmental changes taking place in the Arctic have a global impact, and Norway welcomes new permanent observer states in the Arctic Council.

In an Arctic context, stability and predictability are just as important as changes. I am glad that we not only agree on a fundamental legal framework in the Arctic, based on the Convention on the Law of the Seas, but also in terms of the broadening of cooperation between states. The new observers to the Arctic Council have, through their new status, committed themselves to this framework

Q. Do you believe that the existing level of cooperation between the Arctic nations, within or outside the chambers of the Arctic Council, will prove sufficient to quell fears and ease tensions over territorial ownership and the evolving commercialization of the Arctic area?

A. The region around the Pole is covered with ice and not accessible. It is also an area where the water is deep and there are few resources, unlike the waters further south in all directions.

We are seeing bigger and more prosperous fish stocks that need to be managed, and we are also seeing opportunities for oil and gas and mineral exploration. We need enhanced search-and-rescue capabilities. We need to be able to deal with potential situations, such as oil spills. We must also ensure that all of these institutional responses are formulated in time for the enhanced activities that we are forecasting.

Q. The UN’s General Assembly adopted a landmark Arms Trade Treaty regulating global trade in conventional arms in April. How effective can this treaty be in halting destabilizing arms flows to conflict regions?

A. We believe that the Arms Trade Treaty can help to create higher standards in the international arms trade. Provided that the treaty is effectively and comprehensively implemented, it will make the arms trade more responsible and reduce the illicit international trade in arms. It is encouraging that more than 70 states have signed the treaty so far. Many more will follow, and I do think it is realistic to expect 100 signatures by the end of this year.

By Gerard O’Dwyer in Helsinki.

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