NORWAY: ‘You feel that you can fulfill your dreams’
In October, a new government took office in Norway. It will have some new areas it gives priority to, including the increasingly important high north, where huge new reserves of natural gas and oil are being exploited by Norway and Russia. The new inflow of petrodollars will only go to boost Norway’s already massive surplus from the high prices of hydrocarbons.
Norway’s ambassador to Washington, Knut Vollebaek, recently told Diplomatic Traffic about how his country is using its oil bonanza to benefit future generations, as well as some of the policies and practices, including the promotion of women to equal status with men, that have made Norway a leader in social equality and earned it the number one ranking on the UN’s Human Development Index for five years in a row. The ambassador also explained how Norway’s aid to poorer nations has a history in both missionary work and labor movement solidarity, and has earned trust and requests for mediation in many hot spots around the globe. Below are his comments on various issues.
The New Government
A new government took power in Oslo on October 17. The main focus for this new government is healthcare, unemployment, elderly care and child daycare. And then they have also indicated that there will be a tax increase for the wealthiest people, and they have underlined the high north as an area of great importance.
I think they would characterize themselves as a center-left government. From a foreign policy perspective, the main direction and basis for the foreign policy remain unchanged. New Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre called the US: “our most important ally, our partner in many situations, a country with which we have close economic and cultural ties.” This has been the case since the Second World War. The close relations to the United States, as well as the United Nations and NATO, will remain as important for Norway’s foreign policy. There will probably be some nuances of change in direction.
The Governing Coalition
There are three parties in the government. The Labor Party is the biggest. Then you have the Socialist Left as the second biggest, and the Center Party as the smallest. They had negotiations to form this government, and you can see from the platform that there are compromises, because it doesn’t fit into any party’s program. If you look at the foreign policy part of the platform, you can see that to develop a more cohesive high north policy is one of their main objectives, and then they also say they would like to pursue a more proactive European policy, and they would like to intensify Norway’s peace efforts, and promote global justice and socially sustainable globalization, and develop close relations to the United Nations and international law.
You have to see Norway’s Iraq policy in perspective. The previous government did not agree with the United States when it came to the invasion of Iraq. We do have some 10 officers in Iraq today, and what the new government has said is that they will not renew their presence there. But at the same time they have said they will continue to stand by NATO decisions on Iraq and the NATO training mission for Iraq. We will also continue to support the reconstruction and development issues in Iraq through bilateral and multilateral channels.
If you look at the reconstruction between 2003 and 2006, we have set aside about $85 million US dollars for non-military, humanitarian work in Iraq. We do train Iraqi officers in Norway, at a NATO installation in Stavanger, both for police and military officers. That will continue.
The government has said we would like to strengthen our presence in Afghanistan, because that remains a priority when it comes to our participation in international military operations, particularly in respect to our participation in the NATO-led ISAF. We have almost 400 military personnel in Afghanistan now, which is quite considerable when compared with the size of Norwegian armed forces in general, and the government has indicated that it would like to increase the ISAF participation to around 500. We have the leadership of one of the provincial reconstruction teams, in a place called Maymanah. Our engagement in Afghanistan is for the long-term, both in ISAF and for humanitarian assistance. For 2005, Norway’s assistance for Afghanistan amounts to $46 million, most of the money going to support people’s livelihood, as well as education and good governance.
There is greater understanding [among the population] of the involvement in Afghanistan, than in Iraq.
Development of the High North
The issues are related to the new development of natural resources, particularly oil and gas. This was a strategically important area during the cold war because you had the headquarters of the Soviet northern fleet in Murmansk, which is close to the Norwegian-Russian border. Then the focus or interest in the high north declined somewhat, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the fall of the Soviet Union and communism, but now, according to the United States geological survey, one fourth of the world’s remaining resources of oil and gas are located up there. I think the experts disagree on the amount, but it is at any rate it is important.
LNG for the United States
And we have begun exploiting it, in an area called Snohvits (Snow White), near Hammerfest, and we will start exporting LNG (liquefied natural gas) to the United States starting in 2007. And on the Russian side you have one field in operation and a huge field called Shtokman, which will be in operation next year. This means that this is an area of great economic interest, both to Norway and Russia, and to the world in general, balancing resources from the Middle East. The activities have an impact on the arctic, which is a very vulnerable area, so we have to look at the impact on climate and the environment in general. Then it is also a question of security, because this will be an area for transportation of oil and gas to a larger extent than now. So one is of course concerned with oil spills and catastrophes like the Exxon Valdez [the tanker that went aground off Alaska, spilling most of its cargo into the sea and polluting the sea and beaches in the area].
So this has become in a new way a strategically very important area. Most of the resources seem to be on the Russian side of the border, but we are in talks with the Russians over the delineation of the border at sea. Once we have an agreement on the border, the possibilities for cooperation [with Russia] will be even larger, but even now, two Norwegian companies are on the shortlist for the development of Russia’s Shtokman field.
We foresee that the export of gas will be even more important to Norway in the future. Norway is the third largest exporter of oil, after Saudi Arabia and Russia, and also the third largest exporter of natural gas, after Russia and Canada. But we see that in time natural gas will become more important to us than oil.
The Petroleum Fund
The latest figure I have is that the Petroleum Fund for surplus revenues from oil and gas exports is close to $200 billion. [It is increasingly rapidly because of the high price of oil and gas.] After we had a huge inflation and overheating of the economy in the early 1980s, it was decided that some of the income from the oil exports should be set aside in a fund to avoid overheating and currency fluctuations. In order to avoid inflation back home, all the money is invested abroad, although a certain percentage can be used in the national budget, but that is decided by parliament.
The reason for this, in addition to not overheating the economy and causing inflation, is that it is looked upon as a kind of ethical obligation to future generations, that we should set aside some of the wealth for those who will come after us. And it is definitely important to see this in the light of the large number of people that we retire. We baby boomers have fewer children than our parents had, so there are more of us and fewer to work in order to pay for our pensions. But it is also fair to say that this is only a kind of buffer, it cannot provide the entire pensions, and of course the entire pension system is a challenge for us.
It is estimated that by the end of 2006 the Fund will have about $250 billion. Of course this sounds a lot. We are 4.5 million people, but if you do comparisons with the national income and the overall economy, we can’t live very long on this money. It is a wise economic policy and both the OECD and IMF have praised us for the way that we have handled this because otherwise we would have already seen an overheating of the economy. It is interesting to see that this fund, which is invested in both bonds and shares, is an important player in financial markets, which is why [the Norwegian government has] recently established some ethical guidelines for the investments. For example, there cannot be investments in companies that produce weapons that violate humanitarian principles, or in companies that violate human rights or corrupt the environment in different countries. So we have actually withdrawn funds from eight companies recently.
On Joining the European Union
We have had two referendums on joining the EU, in 1972 and 1994. Both times the people said ‘no’, not with a huge margin (52%-48%), but to explain it you have to see it in a more comprehensive way. It has to do with our history and psychology. Norway was in union with Sweden until 1905, We are celebrating our 100 years of independence this year. That is very important for us.
When the European Community changed into becoming the European Union that didn’t sound very good in Norway. Norwegians said we have been in a union and we don’t want that. Even though it was explained that this would be different, psychologically the notion was not very well received. Then we are a small country. We are far up north. Then we are very well off economically, which means there is no economic urge for the people to say that we need to join the European Union, to increase our economic output. Also the fact that we have rich natural resources, like oil and gas, like fisheries… we want to manage them ourselves. That has been an important part of it.
And then the political threat in our neighborhood has diminished with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and we have been and still are today a very strong NATO ally. We feel that our defense worries are taken care of by our NATO membership. So, all in all, most Norwegians would say: ‘Why should we join?’
When we did not join in 1994, we developed what is called the European Economic Area, with Iceland and Liechtenstein. For all practical purposes, we are part of the single market in the economic area. Switzerland did not join the EEA, although it is the fourth member of EFTA, the European Free Trade Association [established in 1960]. The polls fluctuated. Lately they showed there was a little bit of an increase in support for EU membership, but it is still not very significant [an increase]. And the platform of this government is that we should not apply for EU membership in this election period (2005-2009).
At the same time, the government has said we should lead a very active policy both in respect to the European Union and to Europe in general. They have said they would like a very open debate, both in parliament and the public, about our relations, cooperation, consequences of the EEA, etc, so I can foresee that they will be a very active European policy, but without a change in respect to membership.
Personally, I believe Norwegian membership will depend a lot on outside situations, the economic and political situations surrounding us. There has to be a change in those parameters. People would have to feel there is a need for change. (The Socialist Left party is against NATO and EU membership.)
The new government will pursue the clear policy of conflict resolution, which we have had over the years. If you look at our role today in conflict resolution, you have to go back in history, to the mid-19th Century, when we started our missionary work. Norway was until after the Second World War the largest per capita country providing missionaries. And although we were isolated, small and rural, we had people in Africa and Asia and they wrote back to these small valleys and told about the natives in their countries, and that they didn’t have schools, healthcare, and had a lot of problems. So there was an awareness of the world among ordinary people in very rural communities.
At the end of the 19th Century we got a very strong, radical labor movement, with the industrialization in the cities. They were very opposed to the low church missionary groups, when it comes to internal political matters. They wanted separation of church and state, they were a secular movement. But they agreed to international solidarity and the urge to do something for poor people. So over the years we had a very strong, common, moral obligation to do something for people outside that were poorer than us, that didn’t have all the resources we had. Trade Unions were strong through the 50s.
After the Second World War we started our government assistance program. It started in India in 1952 with a fisheries project, and it is grown until now we see almost one percent of GDP going to development assistance. In this work, we discovered the political and social need to look at consequences of the situations in these countries, because a lot of our economic aid disappeared, because of wars. We built schools, hospitals, water wells, but suddenly they were destroyed because of some kind of war. Then we became aware of this and because of our close cooperation with some countries, both on the government level and NGOs, we were known to care about people.
Looking at Sri Lanka, it didn’t start with the government, but with NGOs, being there many, many years. Save the Children was the main organization, but also Norwegian Church Aid, In Guatemala you had the Norwegian Church Aid. You had the earthquake in 1976, and started a long-term project, so all of a sudden they got to know these strange Norwegians. In Sudan you had Norwegian Peoples Aid, and you had Norwegian Church Aid. So you had all these kinds of people getting involved.
And when these people looked at Norway they realized it was a funny little country but was not dangerous, no threat to them. We built trust through these long-term activities. When people saw that we were serious, that we did some good work, and thought maybe we could help them in their political conflict. We said that if we were going to do anything, both sides in the conflict would have to approach us. That is what we have seen in Sri Lanka, in Guatemala (the guerrillas and the government), in Haiti, in the Middle East, where both the Israelis and Palestinians saw us as an interesting partner in facilitating talks, and we have seen the same in Sudan (both the government in Khartoum and the SPLM). And we have been to some extent involved in the Philippines, especially on Mindanao.
Through our economic cooperation, through our development aid, we became known and we became trustworthy, and they wanted to try us out, so to say. Since we have done some useful work in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Guatemala, other countries have come forward and said, ‘maybe we could try you because we see that you do some good work’.
In Norway, there has been a majority of the electorate and a majority in parliament in favor of this. So different governments have had to follow the same line, even though they described this international work differently in their platforms. I think it is a little more difficult today, though. As we get richer we get stingier. It is not always the richest people who are the most generous. If you look at Norway in the 20th Century, it was a very poor country but people gave, and were actively involved, be it in the trade union movement or the churches’ missionary movements. They gave more of their income, percentage wise, than they do today.
The Role of Women
For a long time we have had 19 members of the government, ten men and nine women: as close as possible to 50-50. Today if you had 15 men and four women, it would be political death. You couldn’t present a government like that. It has become a symbol for the equality in society. Even though there is no rule about this, for publicly-held corporations there is a rule that at least 40 percent of the board must be women. Since the government has decided this, it would be strange if it did not follow a similar policy. (Statistics show that the companies with this legally mandated proportion of women are doing well.)
But it started in the early 1970s, when women were actively recruited to replace men on the ballot. That changed the attitude. And then we have had legislative action that requires certain percentages of women on institutional boards. Then we got the world’s first national gender equality ombudsperson, who is appointed by parliament, and is outside the government, but is a watchdog who follows legislation to see if there is any discrimination against women.
Then we have 12 months maternity leave. And in order for the mother to get this leave, the father has to take four weeks of paternity leave. This creates an atmosphere of equality. You involve the father in the upbringing of the child, to a larger extent to what you would have had earlier, and in some other societies. There are a lot of actions and decisions taken by the government that move this equality forward. We have had affirmative action. It is not that we are all nice and kind people. There have been significant decisions and legislation for us to fulfill this. For the 2005-2009 parliament, 64 out of 169 representatives elected were women. This works out to 37.87 percent. Parties need to have women high on their lists to be taken seriously, but there is no rule about the percentage of women in parliament.
The Best Place to Live
For five consecutive years, the UN’s Human Development Index has designated Norway the best country to live in. The index is based on literacy rates, education levels and GDP per capita. The other Nordic countries and Canada come very close. Canada was on top for a long time. All these countries have some things in common. You have space (they are not densely populated). You have a fairly good educational system, which is available to everyone. Education is free in Norway, including at the university level. So you have a highly educated population in general. We have a solid national healthcare system, which is also free. We have a productive workforce. We have a comprehensive safety net. We have maternity leave for one year. We have a lot of programs that take care of the person in society. You feel that you can fulfill your dreams.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have problems. We have a number of problems, including drug and social problems. But overall you will find a fairly, sound and healthy overall situation in our society. Being a small country with transparency helps. We are close to European Union labor standards. You might be lazy if you are too secure, but we produce better if we are secure, instead of being nervous all the time. We have the protestant work ethic. We walk around with a bad conscience all the time.
Curriculum Vitae of Knut Vollebaek, Ambassador of Norway to the United States
Knut Vollebaek is Ambassador of Norway to the United States since March 1, 2001.
Ambassador Vollebaek was born on February 11, 1946 in Oslo, Norway. He is married to Ellen Sofie Aadland Vollebaek. They have one son.
Joined the Norwegian Foreign Service 1973. Served at Norwegian Embassies in India, Spain and Zimbabwe. Norway’s Ambassador to the Central American States with residence in Costa Rica, 1991-93
Director of UN Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1986-89, Director General, Department of Bilateral Cooperation, 1993-94 and Assistant Secretary General (Development), 1994-97
Norwegian Delegate to the UN General Assemblies 1982-83 and 1986-88
Norwegian Delegate to ILO
Member of the Board of Norway’s UNESCO Committee.
Minister of Foreign Affairs, October 1997 – March 2000
Chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 1999
Chairman of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council 1997-98
Chairman of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, 1999-2000
Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, October 1989 - November 1990.
Deputy Co-Chairman of the UN in the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia (UN/EU), 1993
Rapporteur to the Anti-Apartheid Committee of ILO, Geneva, 1988 and 89
Organizer of the SARRED Conference (Southern Africa Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons Conference) 1988
Governor, Inter-American Development Bank, Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank, 1994-97
Norway’s Representative to the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), 1991-93.
M.Sc. in Economics from the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration, Bergen, 1972
Studies in Political Science at the University of Oslo, 1966-67 and postgraduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 1972-73
Studies in French language and culture at l’Institut Catholique de Paris, 1965-66
Studies in Spanish language and culture at Universidad Complutense, Madrid, 1969.
Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, St. Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, 2 May 2003
Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, Concordia College, Minnesota, USA, 4 May 2003