Hedda Wants More Debate about Norwegian Foreign and Security Policy

The new Utsyn forum, directed by Hedda Langemyr, partners with the Fritt Ord foundation and the Bergen Foundation. (Photo: Hege Eilertsen)
- It is obvious that the tense situation between the USA and Russia also affects the Norwegian relationship to Russia quite significantly, says Hedda Langemyr. The former director of the Norwegian Peace Council wants a larger public debate about strategies and choices in Norwegian foreign and security policy.


- It is obvious that the tense situation between the USA and Russia also affects the Norwegian relationship to Russia quite significantly, says Hedda Langemyr. The former director of the Norwegian Peace Council wants a larger public debate about strategies and choices in Norwegian foreign and security policy.

Her days at the Norwegian Peace Council are over. Today, Hedda Langemyr is the vivid initiator and Manager of Utsyn – Norway’s new forum for foreign and security policy

The forum, which was launched last month, was established as a response to lacking public debate about major changes to the security policy situation in Europe as well as the rest of the world.

 

Fritt Ord winner on board

- Professionals from academia, the defense industry, journalism and civil society found common ground in their desire for a more professionally based and democratic debate about Norway’s security and foreign policy needs and priorities, says Langemyr, who stepped down from her position as Director of the Norwegian Peace Council last year.

Robert Mood, former officer and lieutenant general who today presides over the Norwegian Red Cross, is one of the supporters of the initiative.

In 2016, Mood received the Fritt Ord foundation’s Freedom of Expression Prize for “contributing actively and astutely to several important, critical debates on the Armed Forces' role in international operations and in Norwegian society.” In a video on Utsyn’s home page, he elaborates on why having a debate about foreign and security policy is so vital.

Hedda Langemyr shares his passion and hopes that the establishing of the forum can contribute to such a debate through both research articles, commentaries and analyses.


- The lines of communication must remain open

Many of HNN’s readers already know you from e.g. op-eds from you that we have published. What are your thoughts about the currently very tense relationship between the USA and Russia?

- It is an unpredictable and difficult situation that may escalate quickly. In Syria, Assad has fought the resistance with brutal military force, having the civilian population as collateral damage. Many would breathe a sigh of relief if Assad withdrew. There are also many who, for good reasons, are very frustrated at Russia’s blocking action alternatives in the UN Security Council. Yet it is hard to envision a situation in which the Assad regime can be toppled with military power. As long as Iran and Russia faithfully support the regime, the only thing that can force a regime change would be an invasion in the same scale as the Iraq war in 2003. That would require resources of a caliber the Trump administration is hardly likely to put in. Suffering would also be extreme. If there is to be any hope of limiting the damages, one has to realise that the Assad regime is likely to remain in position, and nothing goes to indicate that ‘punishment attacks’ from the USA will change the regime’s behavior towards its own population, Langemyr says, and continues:

- The most important thing is that the lines of communication between Russia and the USA remain open. We should insist that facts, not feelings, should be the foundation on which we base our policies and we should work to ensure that the OPCW and other actors who can contribute to the work to generate independent documentation and information are allowed to conduct their work.

 

- Should be discussed

Is there a risk that what might potentially happen will or may spill over to cooperation in the Arctic?

- I would not say that there is an immediate risk for that, however, we should in no way rule it out. People and institutions in the North are mostly aware of the necessity of conserving good cooperation relations across borders. This applies both when it comes to civilian, military, regional political and business cooperation. People in the North have cooperated well in facing joint challenges in the Arctic on both the Norwegian and the Russian side.

- It is, nevertheless, quite clear that the tense situation between the USA and Russia also significantly affects Norway’s relation to Russia. This is evident in both the sanctions, less military contact and a significant reduction of diplomatic contact. Less contact and reduced trust over time may affect the frames for cooperation, even in areas where we have traditionally cooperated well. At the same time, we should discuss how NATO’s and the USA’s increased presence in the North may create larger tensions in the High North if the conflict were to escalate.

 

Different descriptions of reality

Do you believe that the superpowers will continue to consider the Arctic Council an important back channel? Is the High North still a region of peace, or will the risk for a spillover increase now?

- I believe it would be naïve not to look at the High North in a wider geopolitical context. There is no doubt that the Arctic Council has had increased importance in a period when other contact points have been limited, however, I do not believe one should rely on those institutions voicing increased tension, more demonstration of military muscles and a harder battle for state security and natural resources in the High North. As we have reduced parts of our national defense in the North, we also see a stronger American presence, says Langemyr and elaborates:

- The relatively new rhetorical line from the political leadership is that Norway is NATO in the North. This is a signal that NATO stands together in the Arctic and is a part of a deterrence strategy against Russia. In the western discourse, NATO’s presence in the High North is a precondition for securing Norwegian and western interests. In Russian discourse, the increased western military presence is framed as a provocation and a threat to Russian security and interest in the region. If these two descriptions of reality continue to diverge further, it is likely to affect cooperation between Norway, Russia and other Arctic states in softer policy areas.

Also read: Norwegian MFA puts stranglehold on people-to-people cooperation with Russia 


Important relations – unwise cuts

It appears there will be major cutbacks in the funding of people-to-people cooperation for the next three years. What do you think about that?

- I am not sure how wise it is to reduce these budgets in a time where trust between countries is at a low starting point already. The Barents Secretariat and people-to-people collaboration has been an important cross-political initiative for the past 25 years in order to secure a working communication flow and cooperation across borders. Close people-to-people cooperation has also contributed to people, in particular in Northern Norway, having a more heterogeneous view of Russia. It is important to preserve some relations on different levels of society, regardless of the political attitude towards Russia at any given time. Our geographical location is not a thing that will pass; we are and will remain a neighbor of Russia. It may therefore be wise to carefully consider what long-term consequences a further reduction of contact between our two countries may have.

You are planning several upcoming events. When are you coming to Northern Norway?

- We are in Northern Norway now, in fact. Utsyn is following a PhD course in Kirkenes these days, about Arctic security policies. We are organizing an open meeting at Terminal B Thursday afternoon, the theme of which is deterrence vs reassurance after 2014. We have brought with us the former chief of the Northern Brigade, PRIO, the Barents Secretariat as well as a Russian researcher. Discussing the regional and local consequences of geopolitics is important. However, it is a lso important to build overall security policy competence in local and regional areas affected by geopolitical changes. If we are to build a solid, overall preparedness for the challenges that await, we depend on national and regional actors as well as different sectors exchanging perspectives and communicating closer.


- Must have debate about Norwegian strategies and choices

Why does Norway need a forum like Utsyn, and what do you consider the #1 priority for the forum?

- Power structures have changed and tensions have increased between the USA and Russia. NATO’s member countries are challenged in different ways; the growth of transnational terrorism, increasing nationalism and right-wing populism, challenges related to migration and a strong fear of Russia’s increasing military clout, in particular in some of the East European countries. We see technological and digital security challenges and several hybrid threats to which there are no simple military, civilian or sectorial answers.

- It is said that the long lines of Norwegian security policy remain the same. In a world with such large changes, however, it is natural to have a larger public debate about Norwegian strategies and choices in order to see and understand how we best can face these challenges. The forum is not based on party politics, nor is it controlled by any special interest or agenda. Rather, it is to contribute to elevating overarching issues and facilitate constructive public debate about Norwegian security and foreign policy. We want to facilitate political decisions’ being made based on the broadest knowledge available. The main task is to strengthen the factual and professionally based debate, collective reflections and analyses of Norwegian security policies. It also implies involving professional voices from outside Oslo to a far higher extent.

How have you been received?

- I think the response has mainly been positive. Many people have communicated that this is a long wanted and necessary initiative. There are also many who appreciate that the forum is rather broadly but together, and that it is not tied to any special interest or agenda, other than the promotion of an informed and knowledge-based debate, Langmyr says.






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