Nordic prime ministers from Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden
Magnus Fröderberg/

Cracks are appearing in the Nordic Region’s perception of itself as a humanitarian pioneer

In August 2021, the Taliban took over power in Afghanistan. The international community withdrew from the war-torn country, leaving it in the depths of poverty. Women have lost their rights and the economy is on the brink of collapse.

In January 2022, Norway was the only western country to invite a high-ranking delegation of the Taliban leadership to political talks in Oslo.

This is one of several examples of Norway’s commitment to international peace negotiations and conflict resolution.

“The visit from the Taliban leadership was an extension of Norway’s role and understanding of itself as a key contributor in terms of peace negotiations. For many years, peace negotiations have played a significant role in Norway’s foreign policy,” says Kjersti Lohne, professor at the Department of Criminology and Forensic Sociology at the University of Oslo.

We met her to talk about the recently published book “Nordic Criminal Justice in a Global Context – Practices and Promotion of Exceptionalism”, which she co-authored. The book is part of a series published by UIO:Nordic and Reimagining the Nordics in an Evolving World (ReNEW), which receives funding from NordForsk through the Nordic University Hubs initiative. The book has also received funding by way of NOS-HS Workshop Grants.

In the book, researchers address in particular the branding of Nordic justice policy.

The Nordic Region is a role model in international justice policy

In an international context, the Nordic countries are seen as having a very humane criminal policy and case law. “In the US and the UK in particular, a picture is painted of Nordic criminal policy as exceptionally humane compared to other countries. Among other things, it’s often pointed out that we have a low proportion of inmates who end up in prison again after the end of their sentence, that we don’t have the death penalty, and that the prisoners live in dignified conditions,” explains Kjersti. She adds that the Nordic countries benefit greatly from their good reputation.

“The Nordic countries use their position as pioneers of justice policy to actively brand the Nordic Region as a role model. The book also touches on how this is connected to welfare state models and foreign policy. Norway prides itself on its active role in international peace negotiations, while Sweden has become a frontrunner in terms of gender equality. All these are humane, liberal values.”

Portrait of Kjersti Lohne
Kjersti Lohne, professor ved Institutt for kriminologi og rettssosiologi på Universitetet i Oslo. Foto: Universitetet i Oslo.

The branding effect and self-interest is significant

The Nordic countries also have a vested interest in positioning themselves as role models in international justice policy,” Kjersti points out. You position yourself to build your reputation. This international commitment is also about showing the rest of the world what we stand for and what values our countries are built on. So, it’s about building both status and identity, not least when it comes to security policy. This can also be seen in relation to the current war in Ukraine.

“There’s no doubt that the Nordic countries believe what’s happening in Ukraine is terrible, and that we should provide weapons and expertise to help both the Ukrainian people, and to help secure geopolitical order. To a large extent, we ourselves have an interest in securing the international order of law.”

She also refers to the fact that the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has spoken about the moral and the security policy aspect of the western countries’ involvement in Ukraine, and how the two are closely linked. “We must help Ukraine because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s important for our own security. It’s the duality that also exists in relation to the international order of law in general,” explains Kjersti.

In the book, the researchers also write that Norway’s involvement in international arenas can in part be explained by the country being a major exporter of oil and gas, which has not only made it wealthy, but may also point to a form of global social obligation. Another explanation can be found in the fact that Norway, as one of only two Nordic countries outside the EU, has more to gain by engaging with other multilateral organisations than some of the other Nordic countries.

The war in Ukraine has shaken Norway’s understanding of itself

“In Norway, there traditionally hasn’t been much debate about the governments’ foreign policy, but that’s starting to happen now,” explains Kjersti. One example was when the war broke out and there were discussions on whether to sell weapons to Ukraine.

“Generally speaking, Norway’s foreign policy has been relatively stable for many years. Now we can see that cracks are starting to appear, both in discussions as to whether to give weapons to Ukraine, as well as in discussions about electricity prices, given how they are linked to the war in Ukraine. Should we show solidarity with Ukraine or secure our own country? Another example is the discussions on oil. Should we fight for the environment or continue extracting oil? Foreign policy is taking on a more prominent role now, and the big question is what will happen to Nordic values. Do we stick firm on identifying ourselves as champions of humanitarian, moral values, or will security trump the moral aspect?” she asks and elaborates:

“I think that this is an interesting development, because since the Second World War and especially after the Cold War, the western liberal world order has been led by the US and Europe. In the Nordic Region, we’ve benefited from that because we’re part of that order and we’ve been able to export our goods and values to the rest of the world. That order is starting to crumble, or has at least been weakened and finds itself in crisis. Ukraine is a good example of that, as is China’s more prominent role, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and the fact that there are countries withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC). It’ll be exciting to see what role the Nordic Region will play in the new world order.”


Marianne Knudsen. Photo: NordForsk

Marianne Knudsen

Senior Communications Adviser