Tower Center Fellow Conducts Interviews in Norway

Tower Center Fellow Conducts Interviews in Norway with former prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik
SMU Tower Center Fellow LaiYee Leong met with former Prime Minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik for a project at the SMU Center for Presidential History.

Tower Center Fellow Dr. LaiYee Leong is conducting interviews in Oslo, Norway, as part of an oral history project for the SMU Center for Presidential History. The project focuses on transatlantic relations during the George W. Bush administration. This past month, she recorded conversations with Norway’s former prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and former defense minister Kristin Krohn Devold.

What was your biggest takeaway from your interviews?

Perhaps the main takeaway is that it is not easy being a small country caught up in big power politics! The post-Cold War international structure had not yet stabilized in the early 2000s. The US operated as the lone superpower but the EU was doing well and leaders there expressed a new confidence, notably in the opposition to the Iraq war. Some of the rhetoric that the Bush administration embraced rubbed Europeans the wrong way. It was a challenging time for smaller countries to ensure the tensions did not undermine shared security goals.

What role did the two individuals play in transatlantic relations in the early 2000s?

Norway had a profound interest in staying friendly with all parties. Norwegian leaders saw their role as continuing to engage the US and to demonstrate the importance of transatlantic alliances. Norway supported the war in Afghanistan from the start. And even though it opposed the invasion of Iraq, it later offered critical material support for reconstruction and played a big role in development aid. Norway was (and is) not an EU member, but as a NATO member, Norway worked to build common ground. It coordinated closely with other North Sea countries to reform its command structure and update its capabilities to align it with new strategic goals.

Did the interviews alter your perspective of the time period?

Scholars of US-European relations often characterize the early 2000s as a period of “transatlantic drift” after decades of close alignment. Secretary Rumsfeld famously referred to the emergence of an “old Europe” and a “new Europe.”

My conversations with Norwegian leaders show that those broad strokes do not capture the complexity of ties across the ocean. It is insightful to hear leaders talk about their interactions with US and European counterparts as well as their experiences of historical events. It makes one appreciate the role of personality in diplomatic relations and the importance of personal chemistry among world leaders. Ms. Krohn Devold, for example, offered specific recollections of how she learned to work well with Secretary Rumsfeld.