Throughout his unorthodox presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly criticized Washington’s European allies for failing to adequately contribute to NATO. Although the president-elect’s statements raised hackles in the United States and Europe, he did bring up important questions about whether the U.S.-established international order—with its global security guarantees—had disproportionally benefitted allies in Europe and Asia, all on the United States’ dime.
As a founding member of NATO, Norway is not one of those free riders Trump implicated. Norway has certainly benefitted from U.S. security guarantees and has, in the process, transformed itself from an impoverished nation, at the end of World War II, to one of the world’s richest today. But over the past few decades, Norway has prioritized its strategic relationship with Washington and now stands out as one of its most reliable allies.
For one, Norway has played a leadership role within NATO by providing stability and predictability to the North Atlantic, a vast region that also serves as a gateway for Russian nuclear submarines and warships capable of reaching the United Kingdom and continental Europe. Oslo has simultaneously established itself as a leader within NATO when it comes to burden-sharing; and yes, it also pays 50 percent of all costs related to U.S. tanks, armored vehicles, and other defense equipment stored in Norway as part of the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program–Norway agreement, which was reached in 2005.
Like Trump, Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide has repeatedly called for enhanced European burden-sharing in order to help Washington meet its commitment to preserve global peace and stability. At the same time, Norway successfully maintained throughout the Cold War a pragmatic relationship with its mighty Russian neighbor, with which it shares a 122-mile border. And in 2010, it even reached a demarcation agreement with Russia that seeks to strengthen neighborly relations and enhance predictability and stability in the area.
Neither does Norway take its relationship with Washington for granted, which explains its active roles within NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, Oslo demonstrated solidarity with the United States by dispatching one of its five Aegis frigates, KNM Fridtjof Nansen, to participate in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise—the world’s largest multinational maritime exercise—which took place in and around the Hawaiian Islands and off the coast of southern California. The decision at the time was to demonstrate support for President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, as Norway’s shipping industry also benefits from preserving the freedom of navigation and the stability of the greater Pacific Rim.
The incoming Trump administration, which includes retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense, has sent a clear message to Russian President Vladimir Putin: do not equate Trump’s campaign promise to pursue détente with weakness. This should reassure Trump’s allies since the United States will need NATO to pursue such a strategy. And for this, the Trump administration needs to reform NATO—identifying ways to build on NATO’s unprecedented strengths as the strongest military alliance in history and improve on its shortcomings. Norway can help on both fronts, providing Washington with much needed naval deterrence against Russia and to be a model of proper burden sharing.
To enhance its deterrence against Russia, Oslo is currently upgrading all of Norway’s armed forces. Part of that effort includes upgrading its entire submarine fleet and making it operational by 2025–2030. It also plans to purchase five P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircrafts designated for anti-submarine warfare.
As for Moscow, it has a newly upgraded class of nuclear-powered submarines that are highly sophisticated and increasingly difficult to detect. And its Northern Fleet, which is its largest, operates within Russian territorial waters in and around the Kola Peninsula right off the Norwegian border. Moscow’s new attack submarine is estimated to be the most dangerous threat to NATO, as it can travel vast distances—and at great speed—with little risk of being detected. For instance, during a conflict, the combination of three Russian nuclear submarines blocking the so-called GIUK gap (Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom) would not only put Norway behind enemy lines, and potentially prevent NATO from coming to its rescue, but would also make it harder for the U.S. Navy to come to Europe’s aid. Under such a scenario, Moscow could deploy a class of nuclear submarines further into the Atlantic, first to protect its fleet already operating within the GIUK gap, and second to sink any U.S. reinforcements coming to assist Europe. This is a scenario that NATO policy planners fear given Moscow’s decision to upgrade its various submarine fleets. These dynamics also explain why the United States chose in 2016 to reopen its military base on Keflavik, Iceland, from where it deploys a P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft as part of an effort to trail Russian submarines.
Norway’s upgraded naval capabilities clearly enhance its relevance for Washington, as Oslo is uniquely positioned to provide cutting-edge intelligence and enhanced situational awareness of Russia’s large Northern Fleet. With its struggling economy, Russia is believed to have invested its relatively limited resources toward upgrading its submarine fleet and is therefore not expected to be able to make significant expansions to its navy.
Furthermore, given that the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been since 1915, even if its overall capabilities have since dramatically improved, Russia’s investments in submarines could potentially reduce U.S. naval superiority. Since the Northern Fleet is based in the town of Severomorsk, in relatively close proximity to the Norwegian border, Oslo is uniquely positioned to provide Washington with the necessary situational awareness that it needs for defense planning. The incoming Trump administration could also benefit from enhanced Norwegian intelligence capabilities to better track Russian submarines. This could be of particular importance in helping inform its decision-making on how to rebuild the U.S. Navy and preserve its maritime superiority.
Although many European countries continue to struggle with budget deficits and have chosen to trim defense spending in order to pay for increasingly expensive social services at a time of sluggish economic growth, Norway enjoys one of Europe’s strongest economies. It has the resources and the political will to enhance its various military capabilities. Oslo’s military upgrades, including its participation in the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 program, combined with the upcoming acquisition of maritime surveillance aircrafts and its enhanced submarine capabilities, will inevitably benefit the incoming Trump administration and help it keep track of Russia’s behavior in the North Atlantic—including monitoring its nuclear submarines.
Prior to Jens Stoltenberg’s appointment as NATO secretary-general, he oversaw as Norwegian prime minister the negotiations that led to the landmark Norwegian-Russian demarcation agreement. His experience seems particularly relevant for the U.S. president-elect, who campaigned on rebuilding the U.S. military while pursuing détente with Moscow. Stoltenberg, of course, is highly regarded among Europe’s political leaders and could help Trump with the urgent need for comprehensive NATO reform. A strong personal relationship between Trump and Stoltenberg would not only reassure NATO allies, especially the Baltic states, but would also signal to Russia that the United States intends to pursue détente on its own terms: pragmatically and with strength.