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Mike Pence heads into potential new Nordic storm with Iceland visit

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence greets leaders in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.

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By RAGNHILDUR SIGURDARDOTTIR | Bloomberg News | Published: September 4, 2019

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (Tribune News Service) — The storm over President Donald Trump’s ill-fated pitch to buy Greenland hasn’t yet faded completely, and already another Nordic nation is about to get some contentious attention from the U.S.

Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Iceland on Wednesday for a visit in which he plans to highlight the growing strategic importance of the Arctic, as well as “NATO’s efforts to counter Russian aggression” and “opportunities to expand mutual trade and investment,” the White House said as it announced the visit. Pence has this week visited Poland and Ireland, while Trump, having already canceled a state visit to Denmark over the Greenland affair, stayed at home to deal with Hurricane Dorian.

Tiny Iceland is now punching above its weight, at least judging by the dignity of U.S. officials stopping by. During a visit to Reykjavik in February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered American resources to counter the growing role of Russia and China and achieve a “a peaceful low tension environment” in the region.

Their interest goes hand in hand with an increase in U.S. military spending, with $91 million in investments planned or already under way. Much of the money will help expand facilities at Keflavik Airport, where a Cold War-era base once hosted as many as 5,000 U.S. troops.

The investments are expected to create about 300 jobs, a not insignificant amount in a country of just 350,000 inhabitants, and the locals say it may help mitigate the impact of an economic downturn triggered by troubles in the country’s main export industry, tourism.

Trouble is, not everyone in this socially progressive, environmentally conscious and pacifist island is embracing this kind of help.

After what experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies describe as a decade of policy stagnation, the Trump administration appears to be reengaging in the Arctic. Unlike under Barack Obama, it’s placing the emphasis on security and the exploitation of the region’s untapped natural resources, rather than on preserving its environment.

Sigurdur Hannesson, who heads the Federation of Icelandic Industries, says “the planned investments by the U.S. army and NATO are a welcomed counterbalance to the downturn.” The central bank’s new governor, Asgeir Jonsson, also expects the investments to have a “positive effect” on a country that badly needs new infrastructure.

Not everyone agrees.

Former and current members of Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir’s Left-Green Movement say the U.S. involvement is difficult to stomach for a party that has historically opposed Iceland’s membership of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Ogmundur Jonasson, a former Left Green cabinet minister, described the military buildup as a “terrible idea.” Using an argument that has long resonated among Europe’s far-left politicians, he said that higher defense spending is seen by the U.S. as an end in itself.

“So when they come and tell us they need to strengthen our defenses, we should be skeptical,” Jonasson said in an interview. “It has nothing to do with peace.”

Iceland has always had a difficult relationship with its trans-Atlantic partners. Its decision to join NATO, back in 1949, sparked a huge riot outside the parliament in Reykjavik. The country has no professional army, and its decision to send a contribution of 1 to Operation Desert Storm back in the day was the source of much mockery on U.S. television.

The defense agreement between Iceland and the U.S. dates back to 1951. The U.S. base at Keflavik was used by American and NATO forces during the Cold War until it was deactivated, in 2006. The renewed interest in the Arctic region, with even China claiming a stake, is due to thawing ice that’s opening up new trade routes and improving access to its natural resources.

“Overall we are seeing increased interest in the Arctic from everyone,” Jakobsdottir said in an interview at a recent Nordic summit that was attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We have had a clear policy of trying to maintain the arctic as a low tension region. A special emphasis needs to be placed on environmental issues in this region, which is very fragile.”

The environment isn’t the only potential source of disagreement that may creep up during the meeting between Pence, who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” and Jakobsdottir, a left-of-center feminist and LGBT advocate.

A meeting between the two is now set to go ahead, after Jakobsdottir initially indicated she would be unable to do so due to a prior engagement in Sweden on the same day.

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