Interview with Rolf Tamnes


S ředitelem Norského institutu pro obranné studia o norské bezpečnostní politice, geopolitice Arktidy a Severoatlantické alianci. Rozhor je veden v anglickém jazyce.

Rolf Tamnes is the director of the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS – Institutt for Forsvarsstudier). His publications include works on the history of Norwegian defence and security policy after the end of the Cold War, and the strategic importance of the High North. Currently he is in charge of the research programme “The Geopolitics in the High North”.

Welcome to our interview, Mr. Tamnes.
Let’s start with a discussion about Norwegian defence and security policy. What crucial factors in your opinion have shaped this policy since the end of the Cold War?

The most obvious factor is the dissolution of the Soviet empire which means that there is no threat in a conventional sense any longer. Another important factor is the dramatic changes and major challenges in the international environment: turmoil in many parts of the world, in the Balkans and later in Afghanistan to take two prominent examples, something which has had impact on both the defence and security policy of Norway.

Another Scandinavian NATO-member state, Denmark, adapted very fast to a new security environment in the post-Cold War era and reformed its military to primary expeditionary forces. Norway’s armed forces did not start a similar reform until the early 21st century and are still more territorial oriented. Does this reflect different geopolitical circumstances? Are there any other reasons?

Although Russia is not regarded as a threat any longer, it is still a great power and has a major impact on Norwegian strategic thinking and planning. So, there is an element of continuity here which shapes our security policy. That is the main reason we can observe differences between Norway and Denmark from 1990 onwards. Norway continued to pay much attention to the security situation in the North. In addition to the Russia factor we have also the ocean management dimension – fisheries as well as oil and natural gas – which has security and defence implications as well. This is reflected in procurement programs – how much money Norway spends on maritime capabilities compared to Denmark: new frigates, new coast-guard ships, upgrading of our patrol aircraft and so on.

What is your personal opinion on Russia today?

Russia is still a great power militarily. It spends very much money on defence and is about to modernize its forces. In addition there is the fundamental question: where does Russia go? Defence planning must have a 30 years perspective, which is the time horizon when it comes to investments into new aircraft, for example. An in such a long-term perspective one has to take into consideration the possibility that Russia will not move in a democratic direction, to put it that way.

Norway plans to purchase the F-35 combat aircraft. Is F-35 the right choice for Norway? Wouldn’t it be better and perhaps cheaper to buy the Swedish Gripen for instance?

Gripen is not cheaper, on the contrary. But even more important, F-35 is the next, the fifth, generation of combat aircraft, which is not the case with Gripen. If you go for the latest in technology and the one with highest quality, there is no doubt that F-35 is the future. Some will argue that F-35 might be cancelled, but that is highly unlikely, since the aircraft will be one of the pillars of the future US Air Forces. Whether or not Canada will buy F-35 is rather insignificant since a great number of other countries will go for the aircraft, most importantly many Asian nations. In the case of Norway, one should also keep in mind the transatlantic dimension of the trade. This might not have been the most important reason behind the Norwegian decision, but is no doubt a very significant aspect of the trade since it tends to emphasize and maintain Norway’s close relationship with the United States.

Let’s move our attention to the High North. Your institution is currently running a research program on the geopolitics in the High North.

Yes, that is correct. The program is composed of a number of so-called work packages, but basically we try to grasp the fundamental strategic picture in the Arctic. Since my institute is a small institute in a small country (although our foreign minister would not agree with that), one key idea when we set up this program was to go abroad and establish cooperation with major institutes in some major countries. We looked towards the USA, Germany and Russia and ended up with three main partners in these states. The idea is simple: geopolitics is about power, and we wanted to include institutes in nations that play an important role in shaping the developments in the High North.

How would you summarize the priorities of Norway in the High North?

As always, Norway is trying to balance. During the Cold War, we called it “deterrence” versus “reassurance”. Deterrence was based on national and allied forces. At the same time it was important to reassure the Soviet Union that Norway would not build up an offensive capacity that could be a prime cause for the conflict in the North.
While we are using different terms today, this is still very much the fundamental reasoning. We have deepened the cooperation with Russia and building bridges bilaterally in order to incorporate Russia into a broader corporative framework. At the same time, however, it is a very important goal from a Norwegian perspective to maintain a credible NATO guarantee. You may have noticed Norway’s so-called “Core Area Initiative”, which was launched back in 2008. It reflected Norwegian uneasiness about developments in NATO, partly because it paid so much attention to out-of-area operations at the expense of in-area operations. The traditional arrangements within NATO – command structure, training and exercising, plans for assistance – these eroded after 1990. So, Norway emphasizes the need for re-establishing practical measures that can give credibility to Article 5. Many of these ideas have been followed up in NATO’s new strategic concept, and we are about to reintroduce so-called regional responsibility for the command structure, reinforcement plans and so on, but not in any sense the size we had during the Cold War; there is no need for that.

The interest of the Norwegian government in the High North fluctuated after 1990. Increased commitment to the region is apparent again since 2005 with new centre-left government. How would you explain this?

In essence you are right that the new government in 2005 made the High North one of its highest priorities. There were two main reasons for that. Firstly, the growing international awareness about the changes in the Arctic – the climate changes and the prospect of considerable petroleum resources. That was the broader international picture. Secondly, the centre and left parties saw this as a very good subject in the election campaign, since the High North is very popular in the public, in Norway as well as in Russia and Canada. The High North is part of the Norwegian saga or mythology – with Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen and Svalbard islands.

Some authors believe that Arctic could be an arena of future conflicts. What is your opinion?

That is the part of the public debate, especially in newspapers. However, the scholars participating in the Geopolitics in the High North programme, and indeed most serious scholars, are inclined to deemphasize the potential for conflict, at least for military conflicts. There are few disagreements about boundaries that might lead to deep conflicts. And if you agree on the boundaries, and the countries involved will probably do so in a few years, then you also decide who owns the resources, and the conflict potential will disappear. The only major conflict potential would be, in my opinion, the role the region could play in the broader or global confrontation – as was the case during the Cold war as well, when tension between the blocs was reflected in the High North. Today, one cannot exclude neither the possibility of a harsher climate between Russia and the western countries nor the possibility of a confrontation between China and the west in the long-term perspective which would also be reflected in the Arctic.
In addition, there are some local questions, particularly disagreements with Russia about the status of the Svalbard Archipelago. Russia is inclined to strive for a bilateral regime of governance for Svalbard between the two countries which is not acceptable for Norway. There are other questions in the north as well, for example between Canada and the USA about some passages, but neither of them will go to war because of these questions.

How do you evaluate Russia’s Arctic policy? In some sense it is very assertive and ambitious.

Two most active nations in the Arctic are Russia and Norway. They are very different in size, but there is a similarity in sense that they have a much stronger military presence in the Arctic than any other nation. However, the major Arctic power is undoubtedly Russia. It also has a huge continental shelf in the Arctic, irrespective of what will be the outcome of the deliberations concerning the extension of its shelf. Moreover, half of the coast line towards the Arctic Ocean is Russian, which gives it a huge potential for shaping the development of the region. But we should also keep in mind that its vast coastline makes the country extremely vulnerable. All together, Arctic is very important for Russia – for economic, military and broader geopolitical reasons. In a situation when Russia has been forced to withdraw from areas along its perimeter to the south and west, the north might be seen as compensation. The only factor that confines Russia for implementing its ambitions is the economic factor. You need enormous investments to build infrastructure, develop oil and gas fields and extract the resources.

The last area I want to talk about is NATO. In January this year, in his visit to Washington your defence minister expressed concerns about the defence ability of the Alliance, which is in his words is “atrophying”. Do you share this anxiety?

The economic situation in Europe and in the USA is very challenging to NATO. The members are not ready to give priority to the defence sector, especially not in the southern Europe.
On the other hand, some countries maintain a relatively stable level of expenses – Turkey or Norway for instance. One should hope that the nations will be able to solve these economic problems and re-establish the foundation for a reasonably credible defence budgets. Moreover, the countries need to cooperate more closely. The idea of so-called smart defence is to think defence in other ways – much more cooperation with limited resources and capabilities. Extensive cooperation might lead to integration which in turn might challenge national sovereignty, but it is hard to envisage alternative to more extensive cooperation, not necessarily within the broad NATO framework, it can be at regional or sub-regional level. Your country is in that mode of thinking as well, and in the case of Norway, besides bilateral cooperation with the USA, further cooperation in Northern Europe is on the agenda – with Sweden and other Nordic countries and within the framework of the so-called Northern Group. This kind of cooperation is not an alternative to NATO, but an arena for establishing functional or practical cooperation, about submarines, aircraft, international operations etc. We might see a clearer division of labour. For instance, Norway is maintaining MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) fleet of Orion planes which the UK abandoned as a part of its defence review. Such decisions might pave the ground for further cooperation about surveillance.

The alliance with the USA has been always very important for Norway. What might be the impact of the reorientation of American foreign policy towards the Pacific in your view? Has the USA lost interest in Europe? Do you perceive it as a problem or we should not be worried about that?

Yes, we will face changes and challenges. At the same time, I think the United States will be interested in maintaining the alliance with Europe for many reasons, most importantly in order to influence developments in Europe and Eurasia. Should the USA withdraw from Europe completely, it would lose some of the instruments for influencing the region and maintaining stability there. In addition, although the USA has not always been very pleased with the European commitment to international operations, in most crises the most credible contributions have come from Europe. The USA may disagree with European countries in some points, but the transatlantic cooperation is the most solid and robust one in the world, because the countries share fundamental interests as well as ideas and values. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta presented this message and connection in an excellent way at the Munich security conference in February this year. They underlined how US cooperation with Europe is an important part of its new grand design of managing the Asia dimension. Of course, US forces allocated to Europe will be modest in the future, but one should not make too much out of that.

Norway is a quite active member of NATO and participated for instance in the Libya campaign. Also Norway strongly supports counter-terrorism. Can these contributions be seen as an attempt to sustain American interest in the Alliance and persuade Washington about the merits of maintaining the transatlantic partnership?

Yes, no doubt. In fact, I would say that main reason why Norway is in Afghanistan and participated in Libya because of Article 5 and the ambition to maintain the transatlantic defence and security cooperation.

It is not a secret that Swedish and Finnish elites would like to join the NATO but that public is against it. How do you see the prospect of Swedish and Finnish membership in the NATO? What could change the perception of the public?

These are good questions, and honestly I do not know. But I assume that Finland might go for membership before Sweden does so. The political system and culture in Finland makes it easier for them to make such major decisions and opt for membership. A sort of crisis or the perception of a crisis might trigger a decision in both countries, as was the case in the early 1990s, when they both decided to apply for the membership in the EU. But it is more complicated in Sweden because its policy is less based on Realpolitik than in Finland.
The alternative to such a crisis scenario might be gradual development – the two countries will continue to come closer to NATO, and at some point they might conclude that, let us take the last step, that it will be beneficial to become member states. Both countries are moving in that direction – their cooperation with NATO is almost as they were members. But we need to emphasize “almost”: NATO is first and foremost about military assistance in a crisis and war. If Norway appeals to Sweden for a help, will Sweden take the phone? They might, but there is no commitment. So, from a Norwegian perspective, you cannot count with them in defence planning.

How do you see the future of NATO, especially with regard to a constantly widening gap between contributions and capabilities of the USA and Europe?

It is hard to know. The cooperation has become much looser as you know. I would guess that NATO will remain a key framework for cooperation. In future crises, the coalition of willing concept will probably be the normal way to do things. At the same time, the nations involved can draw on a very professional command structure, they can benefit from common exercises and training, and also from NATO’s mechanisms for consultation and cooperation. After the Libya campaign, many have pointed to the problems and mistakes, but I suppose we will hardly come closer to an ideal situation. War is complicated in any circumstances, and, even more important, what is the alternative to NATO? European cooperation? Regional or sub-regional cooperation? Yes, as part of the package, but hardly as an alternative.

What are the main challenges for Norwegian defence and security policy in the future?

Norway is a small country, but we have a relatively high defence budget. We have introduced a number of new maritime capabilities, and we are about to purchase new aircraft. In some years from now we will decide on the question of buying new submarines. These are huge investments for a small country. So, the question is whether the defence structure is sustainable in a longer-term perspective. Some countries have done away with structure elements – submarines in Denmark and patrol aircraft in Britain, to illustrate my point. Will Norway have to make similar tough decisions in the future? Yes, I think so, but it will be painful.

Thank you for the interview and your time.

Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies:

The Geopolitics in the High North Programme:

Rozhovor zpracoval Juraj Nosál, student bezpečnostních a strategických studií FSS MU.

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