Days before the geopolitical debates at this week's United Nations General Assembly in New York, Norway House in Minneapolis hosted a discussion about the essential, even existential, issue of democracy by two staunch defenders of it: Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
The thoughtful, thorough Sunday panel spanned international and domestic dynamics as well as the strong bond between Minnesota and Norway. Moderated by University of Minnesota Duluth diplomat-in-residence Thomas Hanson, the conversation took place while an axis of authoritarians imperiled democracies in places like Ukraine, South Korea, Israel, Taiwan and as "a fresh wave of hard-right populism is stalking Europe," according to the Economist, which reported on a "rising hard-right" polling 20% or higher in 15 of 27 European Union nations.
Compared to more mainstream European parties, support for Ukraine among some of the hard-right is tenuous (just as it is among many hard-right Republicans in the U.S.) — a sharp departure from the transatlantic solidarity seen after Russia's full-scale invasion last year.
Undergirding that unity was the focus of President Joe Biden's address to the U.N. on Tuesday. "Russia believes that the world will grow weary and allow it to brutalize Ukraine without consequence," Biden said.
Fortunately, under his leadership, Støre's Norway has not yet shown that weariness, and the prime minister's roots in the Labour Party do not reflect the rising right-wing the Economist chronicled. In fact, the opposite, as he recalled recent events like the U.S.S. Gerald Ford aircraft carrier docking in Oslo, which he said was a "signal that this is an alliance not only built on words, but also on deeds and military presence."
That includes the Minnesota National Guard and Norwegian Home Guard reciprocal troop exchange known as NOREX — the Department of Defense's longest such exchange. Støre, set to visit Camp Ripley the following day, said that "It is necessary, dear friends, to keep that alliance strong, to keep it relevant, and to keep the political relationship between democracies vibrant, because out there, we are not only fighting to preserve freedom in countries where it is being completely rolled over by military might, as in Ukraine. … But this is also a fight about the principles of the rule of law and the rule-based order."
Klobuchar, decrying the "unrelenting inhuman barbarism" of Russia's invasion, lauded Ukraine's "citizens-turned-heroes." Crediting their resilience, she also noted "the resilience of NATO, waking up from the slumber that set in not just during the pandemic but for the years before it. I don't think [Russian President] Vladimir Putin ever expected the resolve that we would see from countries like Norway, from countries like Germany, and certainly the United States and President Biden."
Zelenskyy, Klobuchar recalled, said "three simple words" after the invasion: "We are here."
Klobuchar added: "That is what Norway — with its incredible investment in technology and training, its ability to bring in refugees, its ability with its energy diversity and all of its prowess is able to bring to this fight — said from the very beginning – 'We are here.' That is what our country and so many around-the-world democracies have said: 'We are here.'"
That ethos is essential to address so many other challenges, especially climate change — an issue that the Economist identified as one of the far right's "new topics to drum up fury about."
Both Klobuchar and Støre were willing to talk about the issue, just as they have been eager to lead on it in Washington and Oslo. But before they could, anti-fossil fuel protesters interrupted the Sunday event. After order was restored, Støre focused on another kind of interruption — an economic one that could sap support from the public and accordingly derail democracies' efforts to decarbonize.
"We are at a critical point; we need to phase out fossil fuels, and we need to do it at some speed," Støre said. "But we cannot do it if we cannot replace it with energy that runs industries and households and economies. Because if we do that people will lose their jobs, and they will turn against this transition.
"It is as simple and complex as that."
Simplicity and complexity comprise several other modern-day dilemmas for democracies. Including, in Norway's case, welcoming Nordic neighbors to NATO while still working with Russia, when necessary, like on the Arctic Council. Pointing to a map projected on-screen ("I love maps," said Norway's former foreign minister; "can you imagine?"), Støre said that Finland's ascension to the alliance and Sweden's bid to join NATO "has significant implications for how we plan, how we train, how we exercise, as allies."
"You will find families from around this great state from all Scandinavian countries," Støre said. "So now we are coming together also in that alliance, which I believe is of great significance."
And the alliance is realigned more toward its original purpose. "It's basically about what we call 'bring NATO home,'" Støre said. "There was a time a few years ago when NATO midcareer officers knew more about the mountains in Afghanistan than the fjords of Norway and the geography of Europe. And I think we are balancing that in the sense that we are updating our command structure, our regional plans, and how we plan our national contributions into that structure."
Russian aggression necessitated this, of course. "We must not stop thinking about what the European security order will look like in the future; there is no way you can take a pair of scissors and cut Russia out of that map."
And yet, Støre later added, just as Ukraine and other NATO nations have a right to live in security, Russia also "has the right to live and be a secure place. But everything that is going on is hampering our efforts to do climate-change negotiations, to do antipoverty work for the rest of the world, which we need to do to strike equitable deals with the Global South. You know, war is the killer of this.
"So, we have to make the necessary effort military-wise and diplomatically wise to get this war ended on terms in which we can look in the eyes and get on with an enormous agenda, which is global."
Despite the many daunting challenges, democracies are still best positioned to tackle this enormous agenda. But first, they must stand stalwart against attempts to erase a democracy.
In an interview following the panel discussion, Støre rhetorically asked: "What happens to a world where a raw military attacks, simply to wipe a country of 40 million people off the map? If that is tolerated, we are descending into something very dangerous.
"And I have seen since February of 2022 that democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have stood together on this, and I will make every effort I can to make this the case in the future."
So should all who value democracy. They, too, should say "we are here."