Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Challenges loom for Norway. Darkening shadow on a prosperous landscape

THERE is very little sunlight during Norwegian winters, and even in the capital of Oslo the sun might be visible only six hours on a clear day during December and January. Norwegians do not, however, suffer. The slightly more than 4 million Norwegians live extremely well, and may have one of the world's two or three highest living standards. But Norway's quiescence belies several longstanding domestic and foreign policy problems that grew more evident in 1987. None of these alone presents much of a threat, but together they connote troubled waters for this critical United States ally.

Norway continues to be ruled by the minority Labor Party government of Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Since the elections of May 9, 1986, she has remained dependent on shaky coalitions with minor parties on critical votes in the Storting (parliament).

About these ads

The defeat of Kare Willoch's rightist-center government in 1986 was due, in large part, to a political crisis precipitated by the drastic decline in oil prices of recent years. Norway's oil fields in the North Sea have become a huge export earner, and a necessary underpinning for the Norwegians' living standard. As oil prices fell, unemployment and cutbacks in social spending began to be apparent. The rise of unemployment to 1.5 percent is without precedent in the last several decades. Mrs. Brundtland has succeeded in reducing a trade deficit and stabilizing prices. Any unemployment, however, is a thorny issue.

Lurking in the political background, unfortunately, are some disturbing tendencies. In the last decade, immigration has become highly controversial. Arrivals from Asia, the Middle East, and Central America are creating for the first time a noticeable ethnic/racial minority in Norway. By the late 1980s, perhaps 3 percent of Norway's population is non-Norwegian - somewhat more in Oslo, Stavanger, and Bergen. Right-wingers have argued that Norway should close its doors entirely; some extremists have called for the expulsion of non-Norwegians.

The so-called Progress Party led by Carl Hagen has capitalized on anti-foreign sentiment; it shocked the major parties in September's local elections by gaining, in some cities such as Stavanger, a larger vote than expected - almost 20 percent. Nationally, Mr. Hagen's anti-immigration, antitax positions were supported by 10.4 percent of the electorate, versus 5.3 percent in 1983. The party's national appeal remains limited, but Norway's quietly middle-of-the-road political life is being unsettled.

There are wrinkles in Norwegian foreign affairs as well. Since World War II, Norway has been one of the staunchest of US allies and a firm NATO member, abandoning a neutralism overrun by German paratroops in 1940. In 1987, however, Norwegians found themselves being chastised by the US and investigated by the US Congress because of what has become known as the Kongsberg Affair. The Kongsberg Vapenfabrikk is Norway's principal state-owned arms and military technology company. It has produced F-16 engine parts and has a major contract for Penguin missiles. Kongsberg also, however, developed computer software which, when used to direct Japanese-made milling equipment (from Toshiba), is capable of producing extremely quiet submarine propellers.

Between 1981 and 1984, Kongsberg sold this software to the Soviet Union. The high precision obtainable via the Kongsberg-Toshiba combination has meant an important reduction in the ``signature'' of Soviet submarines, vastly complicating NATO efforts to locate and track them. In the American view, the sales were a gross violation of Cocom - the inter-allied agreement to control technology transfer to the USSR.

The Norwegians don't deny they were wrong, but point to the French, Italians, and Japanese as far bigger targets for US wrath, and emphasize their assignment of a state prosecutor to the case as a sign of their commitment to alliance norms.

Norwegian defense planners and the public alike were unsettled, as well, by the 1987 Canadian decision to withdraw Ottawa's longstanding commitment to reinforce Norway's ground forces with a Canadian brigade in a crisis. A Canadian white paper argued that Ottawa's expenditures for defense should rise, but be directed toward (among other things) the purchase of at least four nuclear-powered attack submarines to operate in Arctic waters - as opposed to letting the US Navy patrol at will in waters considered to be Canadian. In Oslo, the Canadian decision tips the balance very unfavorably. It is not that an infantry brigade would be decisive in turning back a Soviet invasion of Norway; rather the political and symbolic commitment of North American land forces was deemed essential.

About these ads

The Soviet threat is more ominous in Norway than elsewhere in NATO, save West Germany. Norway and the USSR have a common border in the far north, and the Kola Peninsula's massive concentration of sea, land, and air forces begins less than 100 miles from that border. The Soviet Northern Fleet, commanded by Adm. Ivan Kapitanets, alone has two-thirds of all the USSR's strategic submarines, for example.

Norway recognizes that, were conventional war to occur in Europe, it would have to try to prevent, through advanced warning and rapid mobilization, a Soviet advance down the entire length of Norway, or a Soviet naval breakout into the Norwegian Sea and beyond.

Norway must, then, retain an adequate deterrence while preparing to receive reinforcements.

At the same time, neither Norwegian public opinion nor either of the two largest parties has condoned the permanent stationing of foreign troops or the stockpiling of nuclear weapons on Norwegian soil. That these politically induced limitations on deterrence require even more solidarity in and support from NATO is clear; but it is precisely that kind of support and solidarity that Norwegians think has been dissipating. In such an environment, proposals floated by the USSR - such as cutting forces on the Kola Peninsula, as Soviet arms expert Oleg Grinevsky suggested in Stockholm in October - are being seen with more interest in Oslo.

Defense Minister Johan Jorgen Holst and Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg (replacing the highly respected Knut Frydenlund, who died last year) thus confront a changing environment in which Norwegian foreign and defense policies must be made and carried out. Domestically, the Brundtland government must be wary of reaction against a foreign presence, albeit a small one, in Norway's cities, and the potential linkage of immigration to the phenomenon of unemployment. None of these problems endanger Norway's prosperity or stability immediately; taken together, however, they have the clear potential to make Norwegians less able to ignore their cold and dark winter.

Daniel Nelson is professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. He recently lectured on Soviet and East European affairs at governmental, military, and academic institutions in Norway, on behalf of the US State Department.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.