As part of the partnership between SpaceWatch.Global and The Arctic Institute, we have been granted permission to publish selected articles and texts. We are pleased to present “What is the Point of Norway’s new Arctic Policy?” by Andreas Østhagen, originally published on 2 December 2020 on their website.
Norway’s new High North policy is a complex mix of initiatives and statements. The main rationale is still ensuring a developed northern region so that Norway can stand strong vis-à-vis the great powers in the north. In addition, the policy plays a role in domestic politics ahead of next year’s election.
Last Friday, in a week that began with Northern Norway taking its first premier division gold in football, the Norwegian government presented a new white paper on the High North to the Norwegian Parliament. Various ministers descended on the northern cities of Alta, Bodø, and Tromsø to present work that has been underway for several years: this is the first white paper since 2011.
Any Norwegian government must balance many different interests. The priorities of the ministries in Oslo are not necessarily the same as the wishes of Hammerfest municipality or Nordland county. Vladimir Putin is also paying attention. Many footballs need to be juggled.
If football were an indicator of the situation in the northernmost third of Norway, perhaps such a policy document would be superfluous. But Northern Norway has a number of challenges that require special attention. Not only that; what Norway is doing in the north is also of great importance for both its foreign and security policies and concerns.
Foreign Policy: Norway, the Great Power
The High North, or the Arctic, if you will, is a region influenced by Great Power politics (like everywhere else). Countries outside the region, such as China, France, and India, are looking north, wanting to use the Arctic as an arena for foreign policy influence and symbolic politics. In the Arctic, Norway is seated around the table with countries that are bigger and more powerful, such as Russia, the United States, and Canada. This gives Norway international leverage.
Historically a neglected part of Norway, a trip north is a must when foreign leaders visit Norway today. When Norwegian leaders visit US officials in Washington D.C., the Arctic is on the agenda. This was not the case a few decades ago. The Arctic has become the one part of the world where Norway has considerable clout. Clout in the form of a large population (in an Arctic context). Clout in the form of military presence. And clout in the form of having highly developed economies and societies north of the Arctic Circle.
At the same time, the Norwegian Arctic in 2020 is characterized by security concerns and tension. US leaders have used excessively strong rhetoric about the Arctic situation and warned against both China and Russia in the north. Norway has seen increased military exercise activity along its northern coast, driven by Russia as well as NATO allies. The Norwegian Armed Forces warns about this increased military activity and about China’s increasing espionage and intelligence activity in the High North.
The solution for Norway is to engage its allies, first and foremost the United States, to be active in the maritime domain along Northern Norway. This, in turn, provokes Russia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently took a hard line against Norway pursuing an “anti-Russian policy.” This came after a debate had escalated in Tromsø about whether American nuclear submarines should be allowed to dock outside the city. As those skeptical of too much US engagement warn, Russia is also Norway’s neighboring country, with which a constructive relationship is needed.
This is the complex situation in which a new white paper on the High North from the Norwegian government is set. Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide cannot change these dynamics or remove the threats on her own. Norwegian Minister of Defense Frank Bakke Jensen would probably prefer that he did not have to take a position on American nuclear submarines in Tromsø.
What the paper does, however, is to highlight these issues and underscore their complexity. The world is not black and white, not even in the High North. This is communicated in the white paper, which in this way is aimed as much at a foreign audience as a Norwegian one.
At the same time, the paper’s emphasis is not on the foreign and security policy challenges in the north. These are being discussed, but the most significant measures are not found there.
Regional Development: Picking Northern Fruits
The High North white paper is instead about further developing Northern Norway on a regional level, both because the connection between a strong region and foreign policy challenges is obvious and because Northern Norway is in a special position nationally.
Some things are indeed different in the north. The geographical distances between the communities are more vast than in the rest of the country, as exemplified by a crisis that erupted last year over limited access to emergency medical transport. Historically, Northern Norway has been the part of Norway with the lowest value creation per capita. The average is still below the national average, despite the fact that the region is currently experiencing rapid economic growth.
The biggest challenge, however, is the population decline in the north, which in turn will have long-term consequences for the regional economy. Small coastal communities in Northern Norway are still struggling to pivot from the last century’s economy and way of life. This is particularly evident in an ongoing debate over the wealth tax: A small municipality in the north—Bø, in Vesterålen—has drastically cut it to attract inhabitants. This has in turn caused a nationwide debate on the future of peripheral communities contributing to a surge in popularity for the Center party—an agrarian political party focused on decentralization.
Not all places in the north can take part in the growth of the fishing industry or be like Lofoten and make a living from tourism. Even the latter example is not entirely positive: more and more voices are critical of tourism as an economic solution for northern communities. Moreover, a key concern is how Sami culture, language, and self-government will not merely be safeguarded but highlighted and made visible in Norway.
At the same time, Northern Norway has some strengths that differ from the rest of the country. There is much low-hanging fruit that can be picked in the north. The fishing industry is Norway’s future (and historical) economic pillar. The majority of fishing activity takes place in the north, and it looks set to further expand.
Norway’s dawning ambitions in space, satellite, and data technology are linked to what is happening in the north on Andøya and Svalbard. Norway is a world leader in research on oceans, climate, and politics in the north, led by its two Arctic universities: Nord University and UiT: The Arctic University of Norway.
The High North policy is about seeing these things in context and conceiving how and why a competence environment in oil spill response or the Sami language strengthens both Norway as a country and Norway’s position in the Arctic (and the world).
Residents of cities in the south of Norway benefit from the fact that people-to-people cooperation with Russia functions well. Companies in the south benefit from the development of new forms of fish farming along the Finnmark coast. And an Italian in Naples benefits from reduced tensions between NATO and Russia in the north.
Domestic Politics: Into an Election Year
In addition to the international and regional dimensions, the High North policy also concerns domestic politics. With less than one year until the parliamentary election in Norway, a new white paper on the High North must also be read in the political context.
It was the red-green coalition government that in 2005 raised the High North on the national agenda in Norway. Jonas Gahr Støre is still revered as the father of the High North policy, despite the fact that the Labor Party that he leads is struggling nationwide. Earlier this autumn, the Labor Party even presented its own alternative High North report, in which they now refer to the region as “our most important project for peace.”
The current Solberg government has been criticized for letting the air out of the High North balloon when it took office in 2013. It should, however, be mentioned that forces out of its control contributed to this: both oil prices and relations with Russia crash-landed in 2014, months after the new government had moved in.
The 2020 High North paper is this government’s attempt to create its own northern path by placing more emphasis on business and value creation than previous Norwegian white papers and strategy documents. Perhaps this is not so strange, as the political dynamics in the Arctic are more tense than in a long time. At the same time, one would think that this is precisely why foreign and security policy measures are also needed.
The problem is that there are few votes to gain from a white paper on the High North. It is, however, easy to criticize it. Many northern Norwegian mayors, business leaders, and researchers have far-reaching wishes and demands. What about mechanisms to stimulate business? What about tax policy in the north? What about support for new research centers? What about dialogue with Russia? The questions are many, and the white paper does not give many answers.
In sum, Norway’s current Arctic policy white paper boils down to a desire by the current government—especially prime minister Erna Solberg and foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide—to show action in the north. Symbolic and real. Sprinkled with domestic political positioning.
The 2020-white paper marks a turn from foreign and security issues in the north towards regional development in Northern Norway. Albeit a welcome shift for those living in the north—which constitute almost 10% of Norway’s population—it does little to address the increasingly tense security situation in the north.
As Norway is uniquely positioned between the East and the West in the Arctic, finding ways to address this situation and related concerns should still be a priority. In any case, the High North will continue to be the part of Norway where local politics meets the world, and regional measures may have foreign policy consequences. That is why Norway has a separate policy for the Arctic.
You can find Norway’s new High North white paper in Norwegian here: https://www.regjeringen.no/no/dokumenter/meld.-st.-9-20202021/id2787429/
The original can be find here –https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/point-norway-new-arctic-policy/ – Rights reserved – this publication is reproduced with permission from The Arctic Institute.
Andreas Østhagen, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at The Arctic Institute and a Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, Norway. He is further an affiliated fellow at the High North Centerat Nord University Business School and teaches at Bjørknes University College, Oslo.
Andreas has previously worked for the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) in Oslo (2014-2017), and the North Norway European Office in Brussels (2010-2014). He has also had shorter work-stints at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC (2011), the Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation in Toronto, Canada (2013), and the Bren School of Environmental Science at University of California Santa Barbara (2019).
Andreas holds a PhD in international relations from the University of British Columbia (UBC), focused on ocean politics and disputes. He also holds a Master of Science (MSc) from the London School of Economics in European and international affairs, and a Bachelor’s degree in political economy from the University of Bergen (UiB) and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).