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April 24, 2012

Europe's Northern Flank: Brendan Simms ponders Norway's security dilemmas

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - explains why the security of Norway is vital to the security of Europe, indeed to the security of the West.

The media are awash with discussions of the emerging power of Russia and China, and the relative decline of the occident. This is usually regarded as a matter for the big players, such as the United States or the European Union. Even in little Norway, however, the national security establishment is increasingly exercised by what the perceived shift of power from west to east of the past decade portends for them.

The most immediate threat to the country today is geographically remote but economically and politically close: China. A few years ago, the Nobel Institute infuriated Beijing by awarding the dissident Lu Xiabao the Peace Prize. This is not in fact in the gift of the Oslo government, but given that the nominating committee is largely made up of parliamentarians, some of them very senior figures, it is hardly surprising that China has held the whole country responsible for the humiliation.

Since then, Norwegian diplomats and politicians have been completely frozen out by China; bilateral relations have ground to a complete halt. More seriously, Norwegian commerce has been systematically discriminated against. Their salmon ships find themselves mysteriously held up by customs, until the cargo has rotted and must be destroyed. To a small country which is not a member of the European Union, and which feels vulnerable in the global market place, this treatment is nothing short than bullying.

Just across the border, in huge, remote and largely unpopulated north-eastern Finnmark Province, Norway faces a threat of a different type: a Russia which has been become ever more assertive ever since the rise of Vladimir Putin just over a decade ago. The local Russian superiority in infantry and armoured vehicles is massive. Here Norway's public and prominent commitment to total nuclear disarmament - as its planners well know - runs contrary to her deepest security interests. Only NATO's atomic weapons can compensate for local tactical inferiority.

Taken together, the resource and security threat from the two eastern powers is considerable. In particular, Oslo fears joint Sino-Russian energy projects in the Far North, driven by Moscow's territorial claims, and Beijing's growing energy needs. To be sure, Norway is a member of NATO and as such is covered by the collective security guarantee, but what does that actually mean today? In the Cold War Americans knew they might have to die on the Rhine or in the Far North: do they know that they may have to do so in the Baltic, and more importantly would they do so?

Oslo was jolted out of its complacency by the Georgian crisis of 2008. First, because it suddenly realized that it might be in the firing line if the Americans had decided to escalate, provoking a still stronger Russian response. Secondly, because it exploded Norwegian assumptions that helping the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan - as both they and the Georgians had - would earn them bonus points to be expended on their own defence; indeed, the Georgians were not able to recall their men overseas in time to make any difference a home.

Moreover, what is the position in the resource-rich northern archipelago of Svalbard-Spitzbergen, which is claimed by Norway but is not automatically covered by article five, and which is where the Russians might push the envelope first? There is now more doubt than at anytime since the founding of NATO in 1949, and where there is uncertainty there is insecurity.

The story is not all doom and gloom. Norway has a capable airforce with new jets and an astonishingly large - for its size - submarine force of six vessels. Moreover, the end of the Cold War has allowed an unprecedented level of Scandinavian defence cooperation between Norway, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Naval and Air dominance in the Baltic is assured, at least for now. However, Norwegian planners worry that the resulting emphasis on manoeuvre and flexibility, at the expense of less glamorous infantry, artillery and tank formations, reduce the army's ability to hold ground and thus deter attack.

Against this background, Norwegians are taking a fresh look at their security. Some call for a new bilateral security treaty with the United States outside of NATO in which their needs are explicitly listed and met - a bad sign for the standing of the alliance, and probably not achievable. Others argue that only membership of the European Union will give Norway the economic weight to deter Chinese discrimination - a hard sell in a country where public opinion shifted decisively against Brussels with the Eurocrisis.

Others still, objecting to the securitisation of relations with Russia, are examining cross-border relations between Russia and China in the Far East as a model for possible cooperation between the Finnmark city of Kirkenes and Murmansk. It has to be said, though, that the experience of effectively visa free travel in the Far East in the 1990s was not a happy one and was soon brought to an end by Moscow due to fear of Chinese infiltration; something similar may happen between tiny Kirkenes and massive Murmansk.

All this should not be a matter of indifference for the rest of Europe. A Russo-Norwegian confrontation in the Far North would be a huge international crisis. Besides Norway is the Union's fifth largest trading partner, after the United States, China, Russia and Switzerland. Moreover, most of this is oil, so that the prospect of securing a new and growing energy supply within the Union through Norwegian membership is not to be sniffed at. This means that the west too needs to start thinking more systematically about a part of Old Europe, where - to adapt Sarah Palin's immortal phrase, one can see Russia from one's window, and China through one's bank account.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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