Three military-political incidents took place at more or less the same time this week. Donald Trump announced that he wants to withdraw US forces from South Korea. At the same time, he increased the American presence in Northern Norway. Russia “responded” by sending 36 battleships to an exercise in the Barents Sea – without pre-warning Norway.
These incidents are not timewise coordinated in any way, nevertheless, they are a clear consequence of the current days. They reflect a new reality, both internationally as well as in our own High North.
This is a geographical area that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has referred to as a “Territory of Dialogue”.
We cling to the story
Or, as he put it from the lectern when opening his own Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk in March, 2017:
- It is important that the Arctic remains a space of constructive dialogue.
That phrase has been endlessly repeated in various for a by leaders of all the Arctic states.
We cling to the story about the peaceful North, where dialogue historically trumps confrontation between neighboring countries.
We should continue doing so, even though it has been a long time since international dialogue was more unpredictable and less rational than today.
That does not mean that there is an increased risk of war in the Arctic. Very few believe that. It just means that we have managed to maneuver ourselves into a situation where misunderstandings and lack of dialogue can create situations we never predicted – in the Arctic too.
I drove from Kirkenes to Murmansk as late as last week. Little did I know then that Russia at the very same time was preparing, or even commencing, its large military exercise along the same coast as I was driving.
Bridged with war history
The road from Kirkenes to Murmansk is bridged with war history. The Russian military force is visible from the road too, even though the items on display are symbolic rather than a show of real military power.
At Litsa River there are giant memorials to commemorate the battles during WW2 in what is referred to as the “Valley of Honor”, former “Death Valley”.
Just like me, the inhabitants of Seoul, South Korea were clearly ignorant of President Trump’s having apparently eliminated the joint South Korean and American military exercises during the negotiations with the brutal dictator Kim Jong-Un. I say apparently, because the President himself as well as his Foreign Minister and a series of advisors later have left a complete chaos surrounding the alleged agreements.
The American president signalized, just before going to Singapore, where he met with the North Korean dicatotor, that he was also ready for a summit with Vladimir Putin. The announcement came following his having stirred a row with all of NATO and most of the EU.
In light of the wild, wild west international game that Donald Trump has created, it does not appear unlikely that a meeting between Putin and Trump could end with Trump withdrawing American troops from Norway. It appears unlikely, of course, but for a President who neither speaks with his advisors nor his allies before making decisions, anything is possible.
Most of this is pure speculation. No one, to the best of my knowledge, are able to explain, lest say understand, the rationale of American foreign policy these days.
A place in hell
It is far easier to predict the reactions from the Russian side. Russians question whether Norwegian base policy, which does not permit foreign troops to be stationed on Norwegian soil, has c hanged. They also ascertain that there is no genuine political or military dialogue between Russia and Norway today. The Russian reaction also increasingly frequently mentions Norwegian Svalbard policy as a source of conflict between Norway and Russia.
The government denies that increased American military presence in Norway expresses changes in the base policy, however, others will argue that such an upscaling is moving from periodic training to permanent presence.
Our own Foreign Minister and Defense Minister stress, as is to be expected, that our own foreign and security policy is firm and predictable. That is a prerequisite for interaction between a small country in conflict with a large neighboring country.
However, if the Norwegian foreign and security policy remains firm, its firmness is affected and weakened when it rests on the mood swings of a tweeting president.
Because the internal wester dialogue is marred by hateful statements and strong suspicions. When the American Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo publicly states that there is a place in hell for Canada’s premier, it is hard to consider this an expression of good neighborly relations in the West.
Lest say a predictable international regime.
We have all the reasons in the world to wish each other a great weekend.
Though I am not sure it helps.
This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist
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