Interview with Norway’s Ambassador Knut Vollebaek.
By Hugh S. Galford
Norway’s Ambassador Knut Vollebaek vividly remembers Sept. 11, 2001. Having received his credentials at the White House on March 1, he had returned from holiday in Norway on Sept. 10, bringing his wife with him for the first time. The following morning he watched the horrible drama unfold on a TV in his office. Calling his wife he asked her to turn on the television, as there had been a “terrible accident” in New York. A little later, when it became clear that this was no accident, it was his wife’s turn to call him. “Should I unpack the bags?” she asked. “Or do you think we’ll be going home?” He assured her that they would be staying for a while.
Sitting now in his smartly appointed office, Ambassador Vollebaek embodies Norwegian values: a quiet, independent point of view; a deep interest in the world; and a candid, energetic openness.
“September 11 was a watershed,” the Ambassador remarks, “the before-and-after differences are rather striking. It’s important for us as diplomats,” he says, “to transmit these changes back home. The psychological impact on the US is not perceived.”
Diplomats have a difficult time articulating just how deep that impact is: the US is historically a safe haven for so many, who find rights, freedom and peace here.
“People flee to the US; they flee from elsewhere.” Even for the Embassy, the US was unique. “Elsewhere, we have evacuation plans prepared, but not here in Washington.”
Part of the difficulty understanding the impact of Sept. 11 back home, Mr. Vollebaek says, is that across Europe, the influence of terrorism on the political process has been more prevalent. In addition, he says, “Europe suffered our 9-11 in 1991. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we all expected an end to conflict. But in 1991, we had the outbreak of the Balkan War: goodness did not prevail. This was a shock—we had assumed that Europe would suffer no more wars after WWII.”
Among the more important changes he’s noticed in the US, Mr. Vollebaek says, are “a more realistic and serious attitude to the world situation.”
He’s also noticed closer relations between people—both personal and international. “There has been much positive feedback for Norwegian involvement—in Afghanistan, at Taba, for supplying AWACs personnel. This feeling of solidarity is important.”
Although Norway is playing a role in the current “war,” the idea of Norway—and especially Oslo—as a place for peace is still strong. Oslo, the Ambassador says, “would like to be related to peace.” With regard to the Middle East peace process, the Ambassador adds, “People still aim at returning to Oslo—what happened there is still relevant.”
Mr. Vollebaek says that there were a number of reasons why Oslo was chosen as the venue for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One of the primary reasons, he says, was because of a personal relationship. In the 1990s, Terje Roed-Larsen (now the UN’s Middle East envoy) had started a research program on the social situation of the Palestinians. He was involved with both sides, exploring how one could end the conflict. His ties with Palestinians and Israelis allowed both parties to have a known friend with them.
Further, the Oslo negotiations were kept secret, allowing both sides to deal with sensitive issues out of the limelight. This helped them to build the trust needed to work with both the Norwegians and with each other. Norway, the Ambassador says, has a history of good relations with Israel. For Arafat, Norway was a good choice of intermediary because of those relations.
More widely, Norway has been involved in a number of peace-making projects around the world. Norway worked with Guatemalan groups between 1990 and 1996 to end that country’s civil war. More recently, Norwegian diplomats helped bring about a Tamil Tiger cease-fire in Sri Lanka.
As the Ambassador notes, Norway is a small country, a fact that works to its advantage: “No one is afraid of us.”
“Norway involves itself in the world,” the Ambassador says, “not because we’re naïve and believe war is not possible but because we realize that our own well-being relies on global stability. Even if there is a far-off war, we feel it at home because of the plight of refugees, the cost of rebuilding, and so on.”
The founding of Norway’s traditional values
Norway’s “rules of engagement” as peacemaker are simple: no hidden agendas, keep a low profile on proceedings, and allow the parties to build trust. According to the Ambassador, there are numerous sources of inspiration for Norway’s international involvement. Several are historical: in the 1850s, Mr. Vollebaek says, there was a strong missionary movement in the country (Norway had the most missionaries per capita at the time). These missionaries, he says, “wrote about the social conditions of the people they were among. Regular Norwegians were moved by these writings, and collected money for various projects. There was a fundamental consideration to help others.”
At the end of the 19th century, this missionary movement was complemented by a strong unionist movement in Norway. While unionists and missionaries disagreed on many subjects, the labor movement projected a strong interest in international solidarity. The unionists “became a strong political movement—and an impetus on Parliament.” Today, the Ambassador says, Norway contributes nearly one percent of its GDP in development aid.
More recently, Mr. Vollebaek adds, King Harald V has played an important role in defining Norway’s international outlook. While the King has no political power, “he does wield an important moral power. It is interesting to listen to the King’s New Year’s speeches. Over the past years, he has given a social and moral message stressing sharing and responsibility. The King acts as a moral impetus to the people and the politicians.”
There are many advantages to being a small country, the Ambassador says. For one, the government is “more transparent.” It is “easier to govern, as we have been a very homogeneous society. There are certain high standards that must be kept. Addressing negative attitudes is a challenge, but the government tries to address them.”
One such “negative attitude” is the issue of refugees and their integration into Norwegian society. Norway welcomes refugees and, as the Ambassador says, “many refugees love it. But because of the language difference it is difficult for them to submerge themselves into society.” The social welfare of refugees is a municipal, rather than a national, responsibility. “There are government programs to help refugees, but if a refugee is accepted, it is the municipality’s responsibility to provide housing and services” though funding is from the national government.
Asked if he thought Muslim refugees have had a harder time in Norway since last September, the Ambassador says he is “not sure.” Many of the refugees Norway accepts, Middle Eastern or not,. Mr. Vollebaek says, “have problems adjusting—their culture and traditions are so different from ours.” Part of their problem adjusting, the Ambassador admits is that “we are not good enough about teaching them Norwegian. If you have no language skills, it is very easy to become isolated, and to be seen as—or to feel yourself—stupid.”
Norway’s women navigating to the top
While some refugees may have a difficult time fitting into Norway’s society, Norwegian women find themselves at the society’s center, having outpaced American women. Norway’s highly respected Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (1981, 1986-1989, and 1990-1996) made a great impact on her own country and influenced the world’s environmental conscience. Norwegian women have overcome many of the obstacles still facing their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
“Of course,” Mr. Vollebaek says with a smile, “if you were talking to a woman right now, you would hear about all the difficulties women have in Norway.” Nevertheless, women hold higher governmental positions—and more of them—than in most other countries. In the current Cabinet, eight of the 19 ministers are women, a percentage that has held fairly steady over the last three to five Cabinets. “It is politically impossible to appoint a Cabinet without women,” the Ambassador says. One-third of Norway’s parliamentarians are women. Half of the students at Oslo University are women, as are half of Norway’s Foreign Service trainees.
Women’s issues, the Ambassador says, “have become an important political issue.” Norwegian women, he notes, may take 48 weeks of maternity leave at 80 percent or more of their regular salary. (Norwegian men share the right of leave with the mother. Men may take the same 48 weeks’ leave, less the first three weeks, if the mother decides to return to work.) Mr. Vollebaek says that this generous policy “gives women more freedom—they can combine work and motherhood.” The Ambassador traces Norway’s progressive views on women’s issues to the Women’s Liberation movement and the events of 1968. He wonders if perhaps it goes back to WWII, during which women were of necessity “active participants—both in the community and in the resistance. During the 1950s,” he adds, “we had our reconstruction period. At that time, the Labour Party was in power, with a strong political program for women.”
Current challenges—to join or not to join!
One of the main issues facing Norway is membership in the European Union. In two referenda in 1972 and 1994, Norwegians voted—by a slim margin—against joining the EU. Asked if he thought Norwegians would change their minds in another referendum, the Ambassador notes that Norway is a young country. “It was only in 1905 that we gained our independence from Sweden and our sovereignty—both of which are very important to us.” Furthermore, he adds, Norway is still largely a rural society. Taking the country’s southernmost point as its pivot, if Norway were turned end for end, it would extend south to Rome. “Many Norwegians—especially those in the north of the country—feel that it is hard to get to Oslo, much less Brussels.”
Norway is also quite well-off, and “there is no sense to change this.” While a poll taken the week before our interview showed more Norwegians in favor of joining than opposed, the Ambassador says it is “too early to say if there has been a fundamental change. The people don’t see their own situation changing, so there is no impetus to change our status vis-à-vis Europe.” Even the introduction of the Euro won’t have much of an effect on Norwegian policy, in the Ambassador’s view. While not a member of the EU, Norway is a member of the European Economic Area, and thus economically part of the EU (though without having to sign on to the Common Agricultural Policy or Fisheries Agreement). With this status, the economic consequences of the Euro are much less. What could have a greater impact on Norway is the EU’s planned expansion, as Norway already has free trade agreements with possible new member nations.
One of Norway’s neighbors is Russia. Norway shares a 200-km border with Russia in the far north of the country. Mr. Vollebaek says “Norway has tried to have good relations with the Soviet Union/Russia both during and after the Cold War. We have been involved in cooperating with Russia with regard to environmental issues, especially the clean-up of industrial and nuclear waste. We have worked actively with the Russian government, sharing our experiences and helping them to solve their problems.”
Norway has focused its activities in Russia’s northwest Murmansk area. Their offers of help have been met with “a lot of openness and willingness.” But it is not only the Russians who have benefited. Norwegians, too, “have been able to see some of the changes. Not only have our two governments worked together, but there has been a great interaction, people to people.”
Norway’s economy, despite the general economic decline of the last several years, is still strong. The largest sector of the economy is oil. Amazingly, Norway is the third largest exporter of oil in the world. With its reserves in the North Sea, and thanks to an energy program powered largely by hydroelectrics, Norway is able to export the vast majority of their production. A full 20 percent of Norway’s annual oil production is exported to the US, accounting for five percent of the US’s foreign oil imports. Furthermore, one-third of France’s consumption of natural gas is provided by Norway. The Ambassador says studies show that the country’s oil reserves will last another 50 years, and its natural gas reserves for 100.
A freshly beautiful landscape
The largest draw for tourists, in Mr. Vollebaek’s opinion, is Norway’s countryside. While Oslo in recent years has “developed an ambiance—there’s a lot of life in the city, which is something rather new,” there is “a lot of open space” in the countryside. The north, in particular, holds special attractions. Svalbard, at 79ºN, has 24-hour sun during the summer. Development there has been slow and careful, as the area has seen very few humans, and the Norwegian government is interested in protecting the flora and fauna there. Even during the winter, when there is about two hours of daylight, visitors have the chance to go dog-sledding and to watch reindeer.
Asked what he would most like to accomplish during his tenure in Washington, Mr. Vollebaek says, “I don’t think I can revolutionize or improve things—our two countries have such close ties already. I think my main job is to further develop them. There will be ample opportunity with the openness and close ties we share.”
The Ambassador’s personal ties to Washington are long-standing. Twenty-nine years ago he visited the city as a tourist when he, studying at the University of California, and his wife drove cross-country. Since then, he has been back both as a diplomat and as Norway’s Foreign Minister.
The one issue which stems from his international heritage and seems closest to the heart of Norway’s Ambassador to Washington, is to “give people world-round meaningful lives. If we lose meaning in our life, there are dangers. This is important in the long-term fight against terrorism. We must give hope through economic and social development. If there is no hope, it is easy for terrorism and ‘mischief.’ We can’t hinder the odd-man-out, but we can cut the following of that one lunatic.
“This also goes for rich societies: how do we create objectives, hopes and futures for children? We must have some control over our own lives, but we also have to make positive changes for the less fortunate.