Interview done together with Truls Øhra
Thorbjørn Jagland’s new book Years of peace and unrest. Memoirs from a Political Life, Volume II, is the occasion for this longer conversation. Modern Times Review chooses here, unlike most Norwegian reviews – which are mostly about which Norwegian politicians are violated – to address the foreign policy act Jagland has done for over 20 years.
From his experiences as chair of the Storting’s Foreign Affairs Committee, President of the Storting, chair of the Socialist International’s Middle East Committee, chair of the Nobel Committee and Secretary General of the Council of Europe (2009–2019), Jagland tells of 20 dramatic years in world politics.
The book deals, for example, with the geo-politics behind Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya and humanitarian disasters caused by the invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Syria. Despite these experiences, NATO still invites its members to join a new military adventure in the South China Sea. Jagland rather believes that the money should be used to sort out the disasters that need repair. The experiences from the years in Strasbourg also brought him close to all the member states of the Council of Europe, which has helped to shape his views on a number of foreign policy issues.
Jagland has long seen, also since September 11, 2001, that the relationship between the «West» and Islam, the Christian world and the Muslim, between the Orient and the Occident «would become the central theme of international politics in the future». An interest that was seriously aroused in his first meeting with Yasir Arafat in 1978, when he was chairman of the Socialist International’s Middle East Committee.
He mentions in the book the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, who «more than anything else has given me insight into the region’s triumphs and defeats». The novel Leo Afrikaneren is about the geographer who traveled across the borders of all countries at a time «when there was tolerance between the religions». Jagland also mentions Maalouf’s book The Crusades seen from the side of the Arabs, where he describes the trauma it has created in the Arabs to have the feeling of being invaded constantly.
A central line of the book, based on Jagland’s experiences, is how unsuccessful this century’s military strategies and «deputy wars» in the Middle East have been.
The Nuremberg judgment after World War II defined advanced war as a war crime. This was included in the UN Charter. The Socialist International has insisted that international law be followed to the letter. When Jagland spoke at the congress in São Paulo in 2002, he said that the Middle East conflict divides the whole world. With the Israeli occupation that the world community cannot do anything about – he drew the parallel to the American action in Kuwait in 1991 to drive out the occupier Iraq. In other words, a double standard.
In Years of peace and unrest, Jagland criticizes NATO’s goal of a two percent military budget for each member state. He is critical of the military rearmament promoted by his former political colleague, now Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. We ask him why: «Because we do not need this arms race. The Palme Commission previously showed no imbalance militarily, and later Reagan and Gorbachev chose to dismantle all nuclear medium-range missiles in Europe.»
«But what you are talking about here is what General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower previously warned against, the military-industrial complex. Something very few talk about today. The problem is that we have become so dependent on military rearmament. We can not stop. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was an opportunity, but unfortunately, it did not work out that way. Today we, but also Russia and China, are so dependent on this complex that we are unable to stop.»
But is this more about business and competition, as the military industry and new technology provide many jobs? «China has acquired a role in the world economy, and the United States discovered that China’s influence in Africa and Europe became too great. This is a geopolitical game between the United States and China. The money should have been spent on building their own communities – as the United States has wasted so much money on the military that it has forgotten to invest in education, welfare, and its own infrastructure. It has made them weak. They know no other way to do it. The United States is now inviting NATO to pursue a strategy for Southeast Asia, which I find completely wrong.»
We briefly look at the climate crisis: «Green industrial investment is the biggest challenge we have. I know I’m going crazy when I see the world facing a deep crisis, and then we’re invited to spend more money on an arms race?»
Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen. The West is partly responsible – we have a crisis because of these wars.
But what has the money gone to in recent decades? «We are not the only ones responsible for the disasters in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, but the West is partly responsible – and we have a crisis because of these wars. For example, there are one and a half million refugees in Lebanon, which is becoming a failed state. There are also one and a half million refugees in Jordan, and today we see how Libyans are trying to flee via Belarus to Poland and the EU. And many have died in the Mediterranean.»
Yes, what responsibility does the West have for the crises that have followed the military actions, we ask: «We have a responsibility to resolve the crises, rather than new rearmament. In the two world wars, those involved took responsibility for the refugees afterward. An example is the Nansen Passport, which was given to half a million stateless people, a passport that was approved in 50 countries. Remember the around 400 so-called People’s Germans in Sudetenland who were relocated after the war.
But today, it is said that the consequences in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya are not our problem.»
Libya and Palestine
In Rome, in the ’70s (when Øhra lived there), Gaddafi was the church’s great hero because he supported the liberation movements in the world. He sold oil to poor countries in their own currency and gave the Libyan people a dignified life for free. And as Mandela has said, he had three brothers: «Gaddafi, Arafat, and Fidel.» Muammar Gaddafi also built water reservoirs to realize his green revolution – Norwegian companies were involved – the facilities were called the eighth wonder. Now 70 percent are irreparably destroyed. The pretext for the regime change was to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi’s ravages, but 70 percent of those killed in this war were civilians – they lost their lives in the name of freedom. We ask Jagland about the Norwegian government’s conduct in Libya:
«When it comes to the disaster in Afghanistan, a lot can be said. Was it wise to invade? I was personally responsible as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and President of the Storting. We participated when the UN authorized this. But I was shocked – with the experiences from Afghanistan and Iraq – that the Storting and the government were in favor of regime change in Libya.»
At that time, Jagland was a member of the Council of Europe. We continue the conversation with politics’ use of enemy images: «Yes, it is the drama of the media that is a pretext for attacking and doing what one wants. We also use collective sanctions to punish such ‘enemies’.»
USA and Stoltenberg
The book Years of peace and unrest describes Jagland’s commitment to the arms race. He has been intensely concerned with how Western countries have arrogantly created antagonisms between the West and Islam. For a long time before the NATO summit in Brussels this summer, Jens Stoltenberg had helped Trump explain that military spending had to go up in all NATO countries. As Jagland writes: «Then President Biden was helped to gain support for using NATO as a spearhead against China. Stoltenberg did so with the same infectious commitment he showed to bomb Libya, build gas power plants, make a lunar landing, vaccinate children and fight deforestation in the Amazon.»
Russia and Ukraine
We move with such enemy images towards Russia and Ukraine in the conversation. «The leaders who came to power after the revolution in Ukraine voted against the Russian military base in Crimea and Sevastopol. What would President Putin do then, without international guarantees for the naval base in the Black Sea? In addition to the new law which declared that Russian should no longer be used after two weeks? This was something I strongly warned against from Strasbourg. I am not saying that Russia had the right to military action. But we could have built better relations with Russia – because why should the military be the solution to everything?»
Yes, is not a rich Russia more peaceful than a poor one, as Jagland has raised this question? He emphasizes how strong the military-industrial complex is, unfortunately, today. The military’s role has become a vital part of society, its economy, and unstoppable technological development.
Sanctions and external enemies
Sanctions policy clearly shows discrimination, where, for example, Saudi Arabia escapes, even though they have spread radical Islam for 30 years – a country that now has a larger military budget than Russia. Is geopolitics more about keeping someone down and collaborating with others to maintain a world hegemony? For example, how is Afghanistan left in chaos?
Here Jagland answers us that he does not know if there is a «grand plan» behind it but that we must avoid new conflicts. Moreover, «as long as the conflict between Israel and Palestine is maintained in the Middle East, we will always have conflicts in the region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the conflict over all conflicts that divide the world in two.»
In the book, Jagland mentions his own experiences made on travels in the Middle East: «I had seen with my own eyes the tragic fate of the Palestinian refugees in the camps in Lebanon.» He also learned how the Arab countries used the Palestinians in their struggle to retain power: «It was good to have an external enemy against which aggression in the population could be directed. «Instead of questioning their authoritarian rule, which plunged these countries into ever worse social conditions, it was good to blame Israel and the Americans.» Although the Arabs spoke warmly about the Palestinians, they did little to help them according to Jagland. And if one people have been constantly sanctioned – by Israel – it is Palestine.
Turkey as a Muslim state
Jagland has long defended Turkey’s desire for EU membership, as it could make the EU a more important player in the Middle East. Based on the book’s three chapters on Turkey, we ask Jagland about the meetings he had with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man described as positive for reforms: «Well, this is another sad story about lost opportunities. As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey wanted – with the commitments it required – to become part of the European market and European values. But it went wrong, and the western Christian countries talked this down out of themselves as a Christian bloc. We in the Council of Europe were responsible for several reforms in Turkey to be incorporated into the EU – such as legally reformed standards. We established their constitutional court, where some citizens could file complaints. This court has made several good decisions to apply human rights, freedom of expression, and free media.»
According to Jagland, Turkey would implement the same standards of democracy and human rights as us, which he asks: «Is it wise to push such a country away?»
Erdoğan admitted things, and said he was willing to talk to Öcelan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader.
Anyone who has visited Turkey (Lie has been there five times) has even seen how badly the Kurds have been treated. For example, Kurdish teachers had to teach Kurdish children only in Turkish. We address the repression with Jagland: «As I write in the book, the Kurds were seen as ‘mountain Turks’ by the elite, but Erdoğan gave them certain rights, including the right to use their own language. I was personally involved in giving the Kurds rights. He once asked me to stand with him under a noisy air conditioner so we could not be intercepted, where he admitted things and said he was willing to talk to Öcelan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader. But then followed the war in and around Syria, and Turkey developed rather in a nationalist direction. We must understand that there is a ‘deep state’ in Turkish society – within the military and the courts, they controlled society.»
Again the devastating military-industrial complex? «Yes, the same old story of a devastating war, but also such conflict promotes nationalism everywhere. All parties, including Erdoğan, returned to the old nationalist line.»
But as the leader, Erdoğan has had a number of critical journalists and activists imprisoned as political prisoners. So, where was the democratic spirit Jagland found in him? «I do not defend what Erdoğan’s government or courts are doing, but I try to understand where this went wrong.»
When Jagland talks about the old elite as a state within the state or deep state, we dare to come forward with a question about the attempted military coup from a few years ago. Was this something Erdoğan himself was playing on, possibly deliberately allowing this to happen as the military no longer held the same position as before – to strengthen its position? A Norwegian documentary has shown suspicious aspects of the incident. Here Jagland shakes his head: «Such theories threaten democracy. «250 people were killed, and parliament was bombed – the leader of the nation could not have done that if he knew.”
Unfortunately, Erdoğan pulled the country in an undemocratic and authoritarian direction. As Jagland writes: «Was it future-oriented to stop Turkey’s access to Europe? The conflict that had built up between Islam and the West was probably the most dangerous of all conflicts. Most people who knew the Middle East knew that terrorism had its roots in a region that was characterized by a lack of democracy and human rights.»
China and the United States
As chair of the Nobel Committee, Jagland presented the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. Jagland reminds us in our conversation of what Liu finally said during the trial against him: «I have no enemies.» The Nobel Committee wanted to convey Liu’s message of refraining from creating enmity.
Jagland discusses what leaders have done throughout history when an ideological rationale for their government disappears – as nationalism fills the void. Precisely when NATO now acts so that the Chinese believe they have an enemy, China’s leaders will play the nationalist card – and internal opposition will be weakened.
Jagland has referred to the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who opened up for cooperation with China. In a speech, he said: «The risk is that a cold war is developing all over the world between China and the United States,» says Jagland.
Nuclear technology and artificial intelligence, of which the United States and China are leaders, have strengthened the doomsday threat: «We are now in a new era of artificial intelligence as part of the military effort, in which human decisions become less relevant. It is very dangerous; greater contact between the great powers is now urgent.»
One can not boycott close to one and a half billion people.
He answers the processes that underlie and govern such a military-industrial development: «There are political and economic interests behind it. People do not know how to stop it but are pressured to be a part of it. As with Libya, it just happened.»
At the same time, Jagland writes that he is not a supporter of unilateral disarmament and a strong supporter of NATO. But as he mentions, the US defense budget is as large as the total budget of the following ten countries on the list. The West has an overwhelming military advantage: «The United States has 800 bases and military bases in other countries. China has three. «Yes, what can China stand up to in US intelligence with a budget of up to 800 billion kroner, about half of China’s defense budget?
About China today, Jagland answers us: «Of course, I am largely against the authoritarian regime in China. But on the other hand, close to one and a half billion people cannot be boycotted. That would be completely wrong. We must get them involved, make them take responsibility, cooperate. By excluding them, we will, of course, have a new enemy and an arms race.»
We attempt a critical remark to Jagland’s emphasis on universal values: Some will be able to point out that both human rights and economic democracy, or Western values with the rights of the individual are precisely Western values and should not be imposed on others: «I do not accept that we push China Western values. It is rather a fact that China has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which means that they have accepted its fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and more. These are universal rights, where there are restrictions on what they can do to their own people. Something we have to keep clear for China.»
What about the new nuclear missiles that China is now developing, where one such missile with five nuclear warheads will be able to reach five American cities simultaneously and wipe out 230 million people? «Yes, this is a challenge that China cannot accept without risking countermeasures. But the United States could invite China to negotiations, such as in the 80s.»
And does Jagland think President Biden will want this? «I doubt it. If you look at what they say and do, I’m afraid that they see China as an opportunity to create a new enemy so that they can maintain the arms race.»
We ask if Jagland is open to self-criticism, as a couple of reviews in Norway denied: «Yes, of course, I am. Afghanistan, for example. I, like many others, should have spent more time understanding what Afghanistan is. We only spent a few weeks before we invaded.»
That is, to be able to have historical empathy for development over the centuries.
How about your ten years in Strasbourg? «Yes, there is a lot to learn about what Europe is and is not. I have struggled to understand Russia and Turkey but have not come far enough there. We could have done things differently had we understood the forces there better. It is historical developments in these countries that should be taken into account better, that is, to be able to have historical empathy for development over the centuries.»
Jagland reminds us that we come from a country with peaceful neighbours, which possibly characterizes our weakened understanding of the conflict. «Remember that neither Russia nor Turkey has Sweden as a neighbour. Having Syria or Saudi Arabia as neighbours is not easy.»
We end this long conversation with Jagland, which reminds any major party that «[t] he situation of the minorities is a barometer of the degree of freedom and security for all» – which also applies to the great powers. When the rights of minorities in all their forms are threatened, it is a danger signal for society.
Treaties, weapons, and the EU
«Social democracy means fighting for solidarity», as Jagland writes in the book.
In the conversation with Jagland, we enter into treaties. For example, the non-proliferation agreement was important.
International law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Charter represent a restriction of national autonomy. For example, the UN Charter’s article that war of aggression is forbidden.
In our conversation, Jagland mentions the Congress of Peace in 1815 in Vienna based on the Napoleonic Wars: «In Vienna, slavery was not morally accepted. They had to ban it. The same thing happened with chemical weapons that were totally banned. I think the same thing must happen with nuclear weapons. It is as totally unacceptable as accepting slavery or the use of chemical weapons.»
With ICAN – which received the Peace Prize for its work for an international ban on nuclear weapons – he calls for a response from the European Social Democrats and ratification of the UN Ban Treaty. In his anti-militarist line, he quotes Barack Obama’s words from Oslo City Hall about the United States’ commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which said: «I want the United States to live up to this commitment.»
We are adding a possible treaty on biological weapons, as several laboratories worldwide are researching this – including the US-backed Chinese laboratory in Wuhan. How to stop this? ‘We have to stop it. There was a treaty about it, but it was broken. First and foremost, this is a moral issue.»
According to Jagland, the EU has pursued a more nuanced policy with China than the United States. When the EU under Donald Trump was punished and humiliated to submit to American interests, the EU’s will for independence was strengthened. Therefore, to increase European sovereignty, he believes that the EU must free itself from US sanctions – such as when Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear agreement with Iran and forced Europeans to reintroduce sanctions. A move in this direction is that the EU is now working on plans to limit the use of the dollar in favor of the euro – for example, by converting gas and hydrogen into its currency.
It is not only in Poland and Hungary that you have nationalism – we have it in Norway too…
But a significant problem for the EU’s opportunity for reform, as they are not a federation like the United States, is the established veto – where, for example, Poland or Hungary can block reforms. However, it must be said that the EU can use financial means of pressure. Jagland, who has worked within this system for a long time, comments on us here: «We must have a balance. Europe will never be the United States, where a government in Brussels can rule over all federal states in the union. Nationalism has always been a strong force in Europe, for better or worse. If we go too far towards a country, we can get a setback. I strongly believe that the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which go hand in hand, must see that there is a red line, that one must not go too far. It is not only in Poland and Hungary that you have nationalism – we have it in Norway too…»
Is Norway too nationalistic, as the last election showed that it did not show solidarity with Europe’s green line, exactly what the MDGs stood for? «We have our own nationalism, where we use our own arguments to behave the way we do. But here, there are some abroad who do not understand us. Like Norway’s utilization of gas, we are not so much in line with world opinion and what other countries think of us.»
Does the majority in Norway stand for greed, short-sightedness, and lack of morals? «The majority have always had difficulty looking far into the future, especially when the situation is stable. That requires politicians who can spur.»
We ask him to name a few things EU membership would give us that we do not have through the EEA? «We import thousands of decisions from Brussels without influence. I also believe that the EU needs a partner for the High North, especially as Russia is our neighbour – to create a constructive dialogue. We should also be part of what the EU will do in the future regarding the United States.”
Interview done with Truls Øhra
This article first appeared in Norwegian via Ny Tid.