Arne O. Holm says It is Doubtful Whether Having American Submarines at Bay in Tromsø Increases Security in the High North

Tromsø. Photo: Harry Jaschhof on Unsplash

There are good reasons for asking questions about the potential wisdom in making Northern Norway’s largest city, Tromsø, a permanent port for American submarines. (Photo: Harry Jaschof, Unsplash)

Commentary: On a cold and wet March day in 2019, the municipal council in Tromsø made a political decision that was to create international waves. “The municipal council does not welcome port calls from reactor-fueled vessels [in Tromsø]”, the decision said. It was approved with 25 to 17 votes.

Today, 18 months later, the American nuclear submarines are on the shores of Northern Norway’s largest city. They have moved below the surface for a  long time. But now, with their preparing to dock at bay in Tromsø, North Norwegian land areas are drawn further into big power rivalry between the USA and Russia.

Is this the price we have to pay?

The decision made by Tromsø municipality council in 2019 is very likely to be repealed, nor does it appear to have been bureaucratically sustainable. However, arguing that this is the price we have to pay to be able to defend ourselves with assistance from NATO and the  USA is a far too lightweight argument to justify increased American presence in the North.

The issue can, in fact, be tested quite through the opposite. Will increased American military presence in Northern Norway actually increase, rather than reduce, the risk of war.

Norwegian security policy in the High North has been built on low tension and reassurance.

We are moving with fast steps towards deterrence as our most important tool.

Deterrence is gradually becoming more important than reassurance

Balancing deterrence and reassurance in the High North has always been tricky, and it has been put to a serious test following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.

Backed by NATO, our security policy’s expressed goal has been to shield us from military conflicts, in particular out of regard to the North Norwegian population and the vast resources located off our coast.

The relationship with the USA

The conflict related to a port for American nuclear submarines in Tromsø is not primarily a question of NATO’s role in defending the Arctic. It has more to do with our bilateral relationship with the USA and through that, also our relationship with Russia. The USA is currently reshuffling its forces in Europe, whatever NATO may think.

“America first” is the guiding principle, and in this case not an isolated worry about what military intentions Russia may have in relation to Norway.

In this scenario, there is a direct competition between the regard to the local population in the High North and the USA’s self-interest in its big power rivalry with Russia.

Through docking submarines in Tromsø, the USA is reinforcing its military capacity towards the core of the northern Russian defense, which is located just a few miles east of the border between Norway and Russia.

Every time we “hire” or are pushed into stronger American presence on North Norwegian soil, we undermine our role as a stabilizing nation between the East and the West.

We increase the risk of being directly involved in a potential big power conflict and we reduce security for our population.

Norway is flagging out its own security policy

The major issues

Just as serious is the fact that international expansion in the Arctic overshadows other genuine and brutal challenges people of the Arctic face.

This is primarily about climate changes, which seen from the USA today is completely subordinate to a military world order. To us who live here, the climate is nevertheless the biggest threat.

The military demagogy also overshadows challenges such as demography, health and education in the Arctic.

And thus we, in sum, weaken the civilian, stabilizing defense provided by a robust population through decades, while we increase the risk of a military conflict with our eyes open. It is no longer only about a so-called spillover effect from conflicts elsewhere in the world.

The military armament in the Arctic is a threat in and of itself.

18 months later, the decision of Tromsø municipal council contributes to opening our eyes to this fact. The municipality is now forced to repeal its decision, which would not have survived either way, and to applaud on behalf of the nation when American nuclear submarines dock at bay in Northern Norway’s largest city.

Norway has once again chosen to flag out parts of its own security policy.

Not to NATO, but to a big power that puts itself first and last.

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This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.