Any meticulous gardener who has cast a critical eye on a neighbor's less well-tended patch can understand the urge to make orderly and set right that which is not. Over the past decade Norway, one of the world's most prosperous and tranquil nations, has forged a reputation as a skillful international mediator, able to eke out peace agreements where weightier foreign-policy players had failed. From Latin America to Southeast Asia, Norway has brought its diplomatic talents to bear. Even now, with its defining achievement the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accord in ruins, Norway perseveres, determined to bring order to the world's most unruly patches.
Though the optimism that accompanied Oslo is among the innumerable casualties of Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli firepower, Norwegian diplomats have high hopes for peace between the combatants in another intractable conflict Sri Lanka's 19-year civil war. In February the government and Tamil guerrillas signed a historic Norwegian-brokered agreement to lay down their arms. Days later, in a prelude to peace talks that are expected to begin within the next several weeks, a Norwegian-led team of monitors arrived in Sri Lanka to ensure that the cease-fire is honored. The monitors have said that despite a number of violations, the agreement is holding.
When it comes to promoting peace, Norway offers more than just talk. Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik used the United Nations summit on development in March as an occasion to scold other nations for their parsimony. "Rich countries must do better," he wrote in the International Herald Tribune, pointing out that Norway is one of only five countries that devote as much as the .7 % of GDP to international aid that the U.N. set as a target three decades ago. It's not often that the leader of a nation of 4.5 million people so publicly rebukes his more powerful counterparts. Bondevik may have been emboldened by his country's March presidency of the U.N. Security Council. More likely he was simply doing what Norwegian diplomats have done to great effect in their role as international peace facilitators: used their country's unassailable humanitarian record as an example. Norway ranks as the world's fifth-largest aid donor in absolute terms and is biggest on a per-capita basis. Charity alone, however, cannot explain the disproportionate influence the small Nordic nation has come to wield in big-league foreign policy.
Hilde Henriksen Waage, deputy director of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, cautions against romanticizing how Norway first came to be involved in peacemaking in promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and stresses that realpolitik played its part. In a report she produced for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, she says it was Yasser Arafat himself who in 1979 first proposed that Norway act as a "back channel" to the Israelis. After the Iranian Revolution, with Israel barred from access to Iran's oil, petroleum-producing Norway had been asked by the U.S. to provide oil for Israel. Before agreeing to do so Norway, which at the time had forces based in Lebanon, wanted to be sure the Palestinians would countenance the plan. Arafat agreed and asked that Norway use its ties to both Israel and the U.S. to act as an intermediary.
Norway was uniquely positioned to serve as a liaison to Israel. During the '70s and '80s, while the E.U. was fairly critical of the Jewish state's Palestinian policy, Norway's governing Labor Party forged close ties with its Israeli counterpart. The teachings of the Lutheran state church, says Waage, helped promote a general perception of Israel as a sort of "socialist and religious paradise." There is no doubt, she says, that Norway's involvement in the Middle East was skewed in Israel's favor. "When you facilitate peace between two parties, you are always doing so on the premises of the strong party," she says. "That was Israel."