TAG PREMIUM BLOG: Biden and the High North

By Kate Hansen Bundt

Incoming U.S President Joe Biden has a lot on his plate. China is one of the big agenda items. A look at what China – and Russia – is up to in the High North is going to demand much more attention from NATO, with support from the new administration. 

“The President of the US does a lot to set the tone of global politics”, Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times on November 24.

And we might add that the US President’s rhetoric and themes are followed by politically-focused eyes around the world, 24/7. 

That goes for the small states tucked in the High North of Europe as well. That was so clear to observe when President Donald Trump suggested to buy Greenland from Denmark in 2019. 

When Denmark turned his offer down, Trump called off his state visit to this small state and long-time ally. Loyalty in NATO did not seem to have any value to Trump. Nor did the kind reminder that we do not sell and buy territory in the 21st Century change his mind. 

So you can appreciate that in Scandinavia, the election of Joe Biden was met with great relief. Although we do understand that Biden’s first priority must be to handle the pandemic and a rather complex domestic agenda, we all hope for a more decent tone in international relations. 

Biden will hopefully bring back what Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference,  recently labelled the three T’s: truth, trust, and transparency. In Oslo we would also welcome at least three other changes that will influence security in our neighbourhood. 

Firstly, we need the US back at the international table. 

The Nordics are all small states highly dependent on multilateral institutions and a rule-based international order. For small states, it is essential that the great powers recognize the importance of common rules, regulations and norms that regulate behavior and contribute to conflict resolution. 

That is why we need a US that again stands up for international law, reinforces its multilateral commitments in the UN, re-enters the Paris Climate accord, the WHO and other multilateral agreements that the Trump administration left. 

On the other hand, we should acknowledge that the last four years has brought geopolitical changes that have left us Nordics and other Europeans in need of reforming our old international structures. We would welcome a Biden administration that seeks reforms together with its democratic allies globally and in Europe. 

Secondly, we need a US that will regain its leadership in NATO.  And does the Alliance need it! 

Trump has damaged the transatlantic relationship by questioning the very existence of NATO and the US security guarantee. A Biden administration must rebuild trust and credibility. That does not mean that the difficult issues facing the Alliance will disappear overnight. But we need another tone among allies in order to get involved in a real strategic debate for a NATO fit for 2030. 

On their side, the Europeans must fulfill its Wales 2014 commitments on defense spending. The fact that the 2 %-goal ironically might be easier to deliver due to Covid-19 and the shrinking economy, should not lead us into the illusion that European allies could avoid taking on more responsibility not only on future NATOs costs, but also responsibility in a world increasingly marked by great power competition. 

With Britain leaving the EU, it will be crucial to avoid an institutional competition between the EU and NATO. We need a strengthened European pillar in NATO to take greater responsibility for Europe’s “near abroad”. A Biden administration will almost certainly pivot towards Asia and focus on China.

Thirdly, in the High North, above the Arctic circle,  Biden will meet both China’s icebreakers and Russia’s nuclear submarines in Norwegian waters, which is seven times larger than the Norwegian land territory. 

While the Chinese presence is still rather small it indicates that China wants a foot in all regions of importance.

Russia has of course legitimate interests in the region but over the past few years it has continued its military modernization and increased its military activity both on land and at sea in the High North. This affects Norway.

The asymmetric relation in size and military power between Norway and a Russia stretching over 11 time zones will always make Russia a defining factor for Norwegian security. The Kola peninsula, located just across the border from Norway, continues to be home to the Russian sea-based nuclear strategic deterrent. To protect this, Russia has re-established its “bastion defence”, an anti-access strategy that presents a strategic challenge to the vital sea lines between North America and Europe, and thereby threatens the defence of Norway.  

Norway has a long tradition of maintaining a dual-track policy towards Russia. It is based on NATO-membership and firm line-drawing on one side and on the other active dialogue and cooperation where we find common interest, such as on fishery management, the environment, Coast guard, search-and-rescue and not least on people-to-people cooperation.  This contributes to stability and the risk of unintentional misunderstanding. 

But Trump’s overall unpredictability, tough rhetoric and complex relationship with the Kremlin has made it more difficult for Norway to communicate to the Trump administration the delicate balance between deterrence and assurance towards a more forward leaning Russia. 

Indeed, the Trump administration’s increased unilateral military activity combined with an element of surprise and often no warning, have according to some critical voices in the North increased tension with Russia. 

What Norway and NATO needs is to establish a predictable “new normal”, in which collective defense, preparedness and the presence of US and NATO forces in the North, are perfectly normal. They are going to need Biden’s support.