Everyone needs friends — people, organizations and, yes, nations. So why is the U.S. so recklessly harming its relationship with its long-term ally, the Kingdom of Norway?
For almost two and a half years, there has been no U.S. ambassador to Norway. This is an insult to Norwegians and destructive to America’s self-interest.
It matters a lot — because I know from my service as ambassador to Norway that our 21st-century relationship is about much more than krumkake and rosemaling. Norway is one of the world’s largest energy exporters and works closely with the U.S. on economic and environmental issues in the Arctic. Norway plays a role in our relations with its neighbor, a newly assertive and troubling Russia. Norway and the U.S. frequently team up on critical peace-building efforts in the Middle East, Colombia and Sri Lanka. It is an active player in NATO and the U.N., and a generous giver to important international aid projects. And that is only a partial list of what’s at stake.
All of our diplomatic and military connections are weakened without an ambassador, whose role is not sipping champagne at posh diplomatic dinners. The ambassador is our nation’s chief connection to the Norwegian government and people, and is the American solely accountable for building the bilateral relationship. A key role is to listen to Norwegians and their concerns and show respect.
However inaccurate it may be, the absence of an ambassador to Norway sends the unfortunate message that we do not care all that much.
Blame for this situation is deep, wide and bipartisan. To replace its able prior ambassador Barry White, the Obama administration senselessly nominated businessman George Tsunis, who managed in his Senate hearing to demonstrate complete ignorance of Norway and directly insult about 20 percent of Norwegian voters plus half of its ministers. Tsunis lacked the grace to abandon his appointment despite overwhelming bipartisan opposition (including most of the Minnesota congressional delegation), and the administration lacked the courage to push him out.
After an entire year, Tsunis finally threw in the towel and the administration nominated a distinguished and well-qualified Minnesota attorney and community leader in Sam Heins. Now Senate Republicans are doing the damage, with some of them having held the Heins nomination from a floor vote to gain leverage in completely unrelated disputes with the administration.
There is a real danger that if Heins is not confirmed right now, there may well not be an ambassador for another year and a half, given the rhythms of a presidential election year and transition. Four years with no ambassador to Norway? This is really the best our nation can do?
On behalf of the American people, I want to apologize to the people of Norway and its government, and assure them that although our politicians are failing our ties right now, we do deeply value your friendship and recognize Norway as a valuable ally in a troubled world.
To Senate Republicans and the Obama administration: Get the Heins nomination moving immediately, before the upcoming recess. If really necessary, find some other post to hold hostage to your political machinations. The price of this hold is just too high. Our friends in Norway deserve better. Our important national interests deserve better, too.
Ben Whitney was the U.S. ambassador to Norway from 2005 to 2009.