What Do We Talk about When We Talk about War?
The public debate on foreign and security policy is facing new challenges following Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. The strength of our democracy depends on our ability to move beyond emotions and moral outrage, to discuss openly, argue logically, and grapple with uncomfortable questions.
How can we ensure stability in Europe and the world beyond? How do we deal with the food crisis, the gas crisis, the climate crises and the horrors of war?
Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine is dramatic, also for Norway. For three decades, following the end of the Cold War, the public debate on security has been preoccupied with far-away conflicts rather than threats to Norway. The security policy is complicated, characterized simultaneously by enduring path dependencies and great unpredictability. Political choices may have dramatic consequences for the common citizen. This is exactly why a broad political discourse is so important.
Do we pass the test?
The Russian war on Ukraine is also a stress test of Norway’s public discourse. Do we pass the test?
Shortly after the outbreak of full-scale war, the sentiments of Norway’s public debate shifted towards a strong demand for condemning Russia’s actions, towards solidarity with the Ukrainians, towards sending arms to Ukraine, and towards falling in line with our NATO partners. This is a narrative which the vast majority of the public and political leaders stand fully behind. Yet, under such a paradigm, there is still considerable variety in how one perceives the strategic role of NATO, and what one believes Norway should do.
Hence, there is a need to ask whether this variety of perspectives is reflected in our public discourse. Norway’s public discourse, since the onset of the war, has been characterized by ideologization, strong emotions, and claims of holding the moral high ground. We see a discourse where individuals are targets of attack, mutual accusations hover, and the media coverage is characterized by the logic of the moment and the logic of emotions. This results in a fragmented, at times confusing, image of what is happening in Ukraine. In this type of landscape, it is difficult to find one’s bearings, and it is even more difficult to ensure wise and long-term perspectives, but this is exactly what is needed in a crisis. To be able to do that, we need to rid ourselves of the ideological blindfolds and seriously discuss what solutions are best suited. Both now and in the long term. That applies across several political domains, within domestic and foreign policy alike.
A few examples:
How we talk about NATO membership
It is both legitimate and important that political parties are challenged on their position regarding Norway’s membership in NATO. But, given that 95 percent of the population supports NATO membership, is a heated debate for and against NATO really necessary? There should be room for raising questions regarding NATO’s role in the world as well as Norway’s role within NATO. Not least because NATO constitutes the foundation for Norway’s security and defense policy. The same should apply to the debate on NATO expansion. Even if there is wide support for Finland and Sweden joining NATO, there is a need for an open debate on both advantages and disadvantages to Norway. It has long been a Norwegian vision to strengthen its defense cooperation with Finland and Sweden, and with all the Nordic countries in NATO, Norway’s role in the far North will be less lonely. Yet, canFinland and Sweden’s membership in NATO increase tensions in The Baltic Sea, which will be surrounded by NATO member states, except for Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave? Ultimately, the virtual silence regarding those dilemmas from the two largest parties in Norway – the Conservatives and Labor – does raise the question of whether they want a broad debate on security and foreign policy.
How we talk about NATO
Also, the way in which leading politicians talk about NATO is problematic. Why, for example, would one claim that NATO is a community of values, gathering the worlds democratic countries? This is a type of rhetoric that corresponds poorly to reality. In Hungary, Victor Orbán has dismantled democrac, piece by piece. And in Turkey, quite a wild card within NATO, democracy has long been on the decline. NATO has good reasons to keep Hungary, Poland and Turkey within its fold, but that has to do with pragmatic security policy rather than shared values. The credibility of the alliance is strengthened, not undermined, if we recognize these facts.
How we talk about Putin
A different mantra is that because it was President Putin that started the war, he is also the only one who can bring it to an end. The first part of that statement is obviously correct. But how should we understand the latter? The problem with such absolutes is that we short-circuit the conversation about political, diplomatic and military strategies. For Ukraine, and for the rest of Europe, which will live with Russia in its near neighborhood, we need to reflect on the consequences of this mode of thinking. Does it contribute to escalating the war, or does it bring us closer to its end?
How we talk about the EU
With the war in Europe, there is a need for a new Norwegian debate on membership in the EU. The war has energized defense cooperation within the EU, and may finally make the EU a real security actor. There is also the uncertainty about how the US will see its obligations to NATO. Norway’s political elite seems traumatized by the majority of votes against the EU in the referendums of both 1972 and 1994. But in the current situation, there is a new and different rationale for discussing EU membership. A number of reasons for being skeptical remain valid. But there are no good reasons for placing a lid on the debate, yet that seem to be what we are doing.
How we talk about what the war will mean for us
Last, but not least: It may very well be that this war will last long. If so, it will affect Europe and its neighbouring areas where they are most vulnerable. Even though unity in Europe is now stronger than in a long time, it remains likely that an enduring refugee crisis and price hikes on food and on energy will produce political grievances. The yellow vest protests were triggered by high fuel costs, the Arab Spring was set on fire by rapid increases in the prices of flour. What does that mean for Europe and for Norway? How should we act now to ameliorate the risks and to be better prepared?
We need a more generous and open debate climate
We depend on a more generous and open debate climate to be able to respond to the enormous challenges we now face. We should cultivate a debate where knowledge and arguments are held in high regard, rather than claims that this is a battle between good and evil, or that Ukraine is fighting our war. Such slogans pull the debate into a cognitive blind alley in which it becomes difficult to sees hope and opportunities – and even peace.
Norway’s democracy is now being tested. There is a lot about this war that is beyond our control, but we can all contribute to an open debate. That is pivotal for Norway’s ability to handle the crisis, and it will ultimately strengthen the Norwegian democracy.
- Ingrid Vik is Special Advisor for UTSYN – Forum for utenriks- og sikkerhetspolitikk
- Kristian Berg Harpviken is Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and a resource person at UTSYN.
- This is an English language version of an op-ed that was published in Aftenposten in Norwegian on 7 June 2022 as ‘Russlands krig mot Ukraina er en stresstest av det norske ordskiftet’
- The op-ed was taken as the point of departure by Andreas Slettholm, political commentator in Aftenposten, in his article ‘Det skal være vanskelig å ha rare meninger’ [Holding strange opinions ought to be demanding’. ]. Vik and Harpviken wrote a rejoinder to Slettholm, ‘Er vi bekymret for at «rare meninger» ikke får plass i ordskiftet? ’ [Are we worried that ‘strange opinions’ get no room in the public discourse? No.].
- Translation from Norwegian by the authors