Articles - December 2015

The Nordic Perspective: An Interview With Norway's Ambassador Kåre Aas

By Roland Flamini

When the Arctic Circle is your backyard, you tend to pay special attention to it, said Norway’s ambassador to Washington, Kåre R. Aas. Which is why, a decade ago, the Norwegians launched an annual international conference on the potential, development and problems of the Arctic. At first, the conference drew few outsiders, but these days it attracts hundreds of interested participants as the world caught up with Norwegian concerns about an area that is rapidly changing.

Because Norway opted not to join the European Union (or the European Economic Community, as it was then known) in two successive referendums, in 1972 and 1994, it emerged relatively unscathed from the 2008 financial crisis. But the recent dramatic drop in oil prices has taken some of the bloom from Norway’s economic rose and stepped up plans to diversify an economy which has been 40 percent dependent on its offshore oil and gas production. Norway, a member of NATO, was a front-line country in the Cold War. Faced with Vladimir Putin’s new aggressiveness, Norway imposes the ongoing international sanctions, but otherwise treads warily. This is understandable for a country with 400,000 border crossings along its 121-mile common land border with Russia, and common fishing areas in the Barents Sea. All of which Ambassador Aas spelled out in a recent in-depth interview in his Massachusetts Avenue embassy.

Diplomatic Connections: My first question is inevitably shaped by events that are going on in Europe. The European Union’s decision to establish minimum quotas of refugees has not been well received by a few of the 28 member states. How is Norway reacting to the refugee crisis?

Ambassador Aas: I think the answer to the crisis should really be global. All countries have to be involved in it, either by receiving refugees or by helping financially. Some months ago, the Norwegian government had already decided that Norway will be receiving 8,000 Syrians over the next two years. But that was prior to the huge wave of news coming from the Middle East and Africa. The Norwegian government is planning to increase its humanitarian support from 3.4 billion kroner ($400 million) this year to 4.3 billion ($ 512 million) next year. A large part of this is earmarked for Syria and its neighboring countries. We have also provided two vessels that are actively taking part in rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Already they have saved many lives. And we provide direct financial support to help Greece deal with the enormous challenges related to receiving thousands of refugees. However, I also think that there has to be a screening process put in place. We should grant refugee status to those in need and not coming for other purposes. But we have an open door and a humanitarian heart.

Diplomatic Connections: It won’t become a global issue by itself. How much effort are the Europeans, both as individual nations and as the European Union, putting into persuading other prosperous countries to accept it as a global problem and assume their share of responsibility?

Ambassador Aas: The crisis has to be solved in a broad context and with efforts from many nations. It’s more than just a European issue. It’s a question which has to be pursued because so far the discussion has been more or less limited to European countries. The discussion here in the United States has become more vocal than it was a couple of weeks ago, and the United Nations General Assembly could be a venue.

Diplomatic Connections: So it could end up as a Security Council resolution?

Ambassador Aas: Or an agreement among a group of nations, as long as the group is bigger than just Europeans. Some form of filter is necessary, even for economic reasons. And to know about the refugees. Some of these people are not coming from the Middle East and they’re not coming from Africa — they’re from Eastern Europe.

Diplomatic Connections: That flow has been going on for some time, however.

Ambassador Aas: It has increased tremendously now, I think.

Diplomatic Connections: It was Norway that brought the Israelis and the Palestinians together for secret talks in 1993, and it was in Oslo that the Middle East Peace Accord was first launched. It seems stalled now, but is Norway in any way still connected with the peace process?

Ambassador Aas: We are, yes, still involved. Norway is chairing what is called the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for assistance to the Palestinians (AHLC), which is a coordinating forum for the tripartite cooperation between Israel, Palestine and the donors. The purpose of that instrument is to provide economic and financial support for the Palestinians. We’ve been involved in that for 20 years.  

Diplomatic Connections: But does this actually create any fundamental change in the current situation?

Ambassador Aas: No. But we are talking to the parties all the time.

Diplomatic Connections: Øystein Olsen, the governor of the Norwegian Central Bank, the Norges Bank, said in New York some time ago that the Norwegian economy was leaving behind “15 golden years.” He was referring to the decline in the price of oil, Norway’s main export, and the negative impact it was having on the Norwegian economy. Firstly, to what extent is he right? And secondly, how is Norway confronting this problem?

Ambassador Aas: We are, of course, impacted by the fall of oil and gas prices. That’s a drop from $100 to $40 or $50 a barrel, and the consequence is that service industry doesn’t have the demand it once did, and there has been unemployment. It’s impacted the whole economy, but primarily the western part of the country and to some extent the north. Unemployment in Norway is now only around four percent, but it’s increasing, and the government wants to introduce new measures to reduce it.

Diplomatic Connections: What measures is the government taking in that direction?

Ambassador Aas: Oil and gas will continue to be important pillars in the Norwegian economy. Projections for oil and gas reserves are that they will last for another 50 years and there are huge areas on the Norwegian Continental Shelf still unexplored and with a high resource potential. But as I’ve been saying since I got here, more important is the fact that Norway’s economy has been going through a transition from energy dependence.

Diplomatic Connections: But oil is still 40 percent of your economy.

Ambassador Aas: Oh yes, it’s big. But, for example, integrating women into the labor market has generated more revenues than oil and gas. In the US, workforce participation rates are at around 62-63%, and it is in the 50s for women. In Norway, this rate is at 74%, and the difference between men and women is much smaller than in the US. The fact that we get a more people working, and paying taxes, is more important to the Norwegian economy than the oil and gas sector.

Diplomatic Connections: Because you increased the labor force?

Ambassador Aas: And we increased the productivity of the society, with increases in the labor force in services, in fisheries, in shipping — it diversifies the economy.

Diplomatic Connections: Has oil production been reduced in an attempt to maintain price levels?

Ambassador Aas: It has not been reduced because these are long-term export contracts. The oil and gas resources are managed in a long term perspective and the production from existing fields will continue. However, when it comes to investments in new field developments the industry is adapting to the oil price.     

Diplomatic Connections: Surely given the political implications of buying oil from Russia, Norwegian oil would be preferred by European countries?

Ambassador Aas: There is a flexible world market for oil and Norway export most of our production of 1.9 million barrels per day to the world-market. The market for gas is different: most of the gas produced in Norway is exported by pipelines to European countries. Norway is the second largest gas exporter to Europe – next to Russia. Norway is an efficient and reliable exporter of gas to Europe and is an important supplier to the European energy market.  

Diplomatic Connections: The Norwegians are very active in their frozen north. There was recently a conference on the Arctic.

Ambassador Aas: The Arctic Dialogue, held every year, in Bodø, in the High North. When Norway started the Arctic Dialogue, very few countries were interested. Now hundreds of people come to the conference. It’s one of the largest addressing Arctic issues. But more recently the Obama administration has also been focusing on the region. There was a conference in Alaska to raise awareness and to make the right decisions regarding the Arctic. Secretary Kerry attended, and President Obama was also there. In Norway, our message to other countries is that we have been able to balance the climate issue with economic and social growth. We have a national consensus on that, which is why we have been gradually moving into the northern parts of Norway since we started the oil and gas venture in the late 1960s.

Diplomatic Connections: Isn’t there also a security dimension as well? Doesn’t Norway, together with other Scandinavian countries, keep a watchful eye on Russian activity in the Arctic?

Ambassador Aas: What I will say about that is that Norway has been living with Russia for 1,000 years — and living peacefully with Russia for 1,000 years. But we are very critical of what [the Russians] have been doing by annexing the Crimea, and what they are doing in the eastern parts of Ukraine; we are imposing the same sanctions as the U.S. and everybody else. We have postponed our military cooperation with Russia, but what is also important is that we maintain good cooperation with Russia, for instance, on administering the fishing in the Barents Sea, where there was overfishing in the 1970s and 1980s. Now fishing is based on harvesting, mostly because we have a bi-lateral understanding with Russia. We also have an understanding on what I would call nuclear spill from old Soviet nuclear submarines — so that also is working. During the Cold War, the Norwegians living on their side of the border and the Soviets on the other side had this cross-bordering activity that amounted to some 10,000 border crossings every year — now it’s 400,000. So the people-to-people contact is an important element in our bi-lateral relations, and it works. All the northern countries, and Russia, Canada, and the United States, we have a common understanding to maintain the Arctic as a stable region.

Diplomatic Connections: But doesn’t the current situation with the Russians make Norwegians feel at all uneasy that, as some say here, another Cold War is starting up?

Ambassador Aas: With  the annexation of Crimea, a piece of land belonging to another European country, Russia has grossly violated international law and that is why sanctions will be continued. There is still some important international cooperation with Russia, such as on Iran.

Diplomatic Connections: When they see the financial and other problems that roil the European Union, do Norwegians ever have a sense of “there but for the grace of God, go we?” You’re a northern country, with northern values, a northern work ethic, a northern philosophy, a sense of frugality, and you disengaged very early on through a referendum from this union which is suffering, at least partly, because its southern members had a not entirely logical approach towards the business of running their economies.

Ambassador Aas: We are a non-EU member, and our relationship with the European Union is that we are part of the internal market through the European Economic Area agreement, and we have a strong partnership with the EU on all issues, international, regional and also economic. We have an agreement with the European Union whereby Norway is contributing quite substantially to support some of the member countries, including Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. We are also a part of the so-called PSC+9 group in Brussels, which is comprised of EU Member States and the NATO countries which are not members of the EU. Through this mechanism, Norway can endorse the EU’s foreign policy statements and other decisions, such as the restrictive measures against Russia. We have provided 60 million Norwegian kroner to support refugee efforts in Serbia and Macedonia. Furthermore, Norway participates in EU Missions such as Kosovo, Djibouti/Somalia, Palestine and Ukraine.We are doing a lot, I would say, in working with the European Union.

Diplomatic Connections: Norway’s voluntary support of those countries is not the same as obligatory support. Some EU countries have made a chronic habit of getting it wrong, which is the source of exasperation to some northern European member states.

Ambassador Aas: What is lacking in Norway’s ties with the European Union by not being a member is the political dimension, but we’ve been having regular political consultations with the EU for the past 20 years. The agreement that we have with the European Union as part of the internal market is a long-term accord.

Diplomatic Connections: But you’re still outside it. You can’t be saying that that’s the same as being inside and carrying its burdens.

Ambassador Aas: No. It’s different.

Diplomatic Connections: And are there regrets that two referendums went the way they did?

Ambassador Aas: That was a decision by the people, and the government respected it.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize Norway’s bi-lateral relations with the United States?

Ambassador Aas: Excellent. The United States is our strongest partner and ally. We cooperate in all sectors, including a strong military and defense cooperation. Norway is acquiring the new F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter. The U.S. is a strong trading partner and we are working with the U.S. on energy, defense and security policy, and several global issues: climate change, health, education, gender issues, human rights, the Middle East, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia. There’s a lot of interaction with the administration, and my goal is to strengthen this cooperation even further. One new dimension to this, on which I see greater cooperation between our two countries is the Arctic, and as part of the Arctic issue, of course, climate.

Diplomatic Connections: What quick piece of advice would you give to a newly arrived ambassador on how to function in Washington?

Ambassador Aas: We are all trying to gain the attention of, and get access to, members of the administration. Based on my experience the access is not easy, but it’s never impossible to get a meeting with interlocutors you want to engage. The interaction we have with Congress is excellent, and with civil society and think tanks. What you need to do in this city is really to establish personal relations, and that makes it easier. It’s also important to get out of D.C. Because Norway has such a strong interest in the Arctic, I’ve been to Alaska four times. My job is also to maintain relations with Norwegian-Americans.

Diplomatic Connections: Are there many?

Ambassador Aas: In Minnesota alone there are 800,000 Norwegian-Americans and more in North Dakota. They have a history. Their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers came here in the beginning of the 19th century. It’s important to engage with them and to keep in touch with them.

Diplomatic Connections: How much time do you spend on the road?

Ambassador Aas: In order to have an understanding of what the United States represents I travel outside of DC to meet with groups and leaders from around the country. But it is difficult because my job here is to present Norwegian priorities, ideas and proposals, and we also have a huge amount of cabinet ministers coming to Washington. It takes a lot of time to prepare for these meetings, which have to be as substantive as possible.

Diplomatic Connections: Which brings me to a question about the Norwegian monarchy, which seems to be extremely popular, and yet here is a country that sees itself as egalitarian. Who is being clever here?

Ambassador Aas: Both. The Norwegian king and the royal family since sovereign independence in 1905 [the dissolution of the union of Sweden and Norway and the accession of the Norwegian king Haakon VII] have been very close to the people. They have understood the sentiments of the people, and they have been acting in accordance with egalitarian ideas. That’s why the king and his family have a strong position in Norwegian society. This closeness is vital in order for the monarchy to succeed. It’s a constitutional monarchy, but the cabinet meets at the royal palace once a week where they present their decisions to the king, who has no veto powers.

But the king [Harald V] is very active in promoting Norwegian business. When he was here in May, the whole purpose was firstly yet another demonstration of the strong ties between the two countries, and secondly he wanted to be in touch with the community. More importantly he also came as an advocate of the government’s environmental priorities, with a special focus on the Arctic. So he went to the state of Washington and stayed there for three or four days, and then four days in Alaska. He really managed to raise awareness.

Diplomatic Connections:  Outside your residence on Massachusetts Avenue is a female statue with one arm raised as though in the act of hailing a taxi. Whose statue is it?

Ambassador Aas:  The statue is of Crown Princess Martha who lived in Pooks Hill, MD with her children (one of whom is our current king) during the Second World War. She became good friends with President Roosevelt and often visited the White House, at which time she also met Winston Churchill, then the British prime minister, and dined with the two of them on occasion. So in a way Martha is waving at her good friend Churchill [whose statue is outside the British Embassy across the street].

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