Ambassador Marc Nathanson gets to the core of diplomacy

Representing with commitment, confronting the issues of today

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Photo: Lise Åserud / NTB
Marc Nathanson is the U.S. Ambassador to Norway. Here he is pictured at his Oslo office.

He built up a broadcasting empire with Falcon Cable and is a member of the Cable TV Hall of Fame. He is one of the most successful entrepreneurs and most prominent philanthropists in the Los Angeles world of arts and culture. Under President Bill Clinton, he served a three-year term on the board of governors of international broadcasting of the United States Information Agency, and he served as chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors during the Clinton and Bush administrations. More recently, he was the chair of Mapleton Investments, a California-based holding company. 

With a beautiful wife and eight beloved grandchildren, Marc B. Nathanson seems to have done it and have it all—but now he is serving his country as the U.S. ambassador to Norway. 

During his recent visit to Minnesota to celebrate the NOREX national guard exchange, he took the time to sit down with Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall about this new chapter in his life.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lori Ann Reinhall: Ambassador Nathanson, you came to Norway at a very critical point in our history with the invasion of Ukraine. Now, the whole NATO relationship is being strengthened with Sweden and Finland applying to become members. Can you comment on the importance of the alliance between Norway and the United States?

Marc Nathanson: First of all, one of the key points of the whole alliance is a military relationship going back to World War II with the Nazis invading Norway and the United States being such a wonderful ally of Norway. The United States brought the royal family to Washington, D.C., and when I met the king, he had very clear memories of living in the White House, chasing Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, around there until they moved into a home in Maryland.

So, that type of relationship really goes way back, and it’s very, very strong today. Obviously, both countries were founders of NATO, but now with Sweden and Finland hopefully joining, that will even strengthen some more. All Nordics will be part of NATO in a buffered zone to the Russian aggression and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

LAR: You mentioned the military alliances being so critical. Is there more work being done to strengthen the military presence in Norway?

MN: Norway is upgrading their military. The embassy team is working very closely with them. We have a large staff that includes military people working with the Norwegian defense department. And they’re very involved. I think it’s one of the closest relationships that the United States has anywhere in the world.

LAR: Well, it’s interesting you say that, because a few months ago when Sen. Amy Klobuchar was at the Norway House opening, she said that Norway is one of our very best friends in Europe. Would you say that this is true?

MN: I think it’s absolutely true, and I think, most people in the United States from the military who have dealt with Norway would say that, too—and I know the Norwegians would say that about the U.S. military.

LAR: You’ve come to Minneapolis to celebrate 50 years of the NOREX exchange between the Minnesota National Guard and the Norwegian Home Guard. Can you comment on the significance of NOREX?

MN: I think the significance, really, is that this is one of the oldest relationships between national guards in two countries. It’s been going on for many years and is very close. They have now decided to formalize it: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the Pentagon, the Biden administration, as well as the Department of Defense and the Norwegian military, not just the Home Guard in Norway.

I think that’s the difference here. It’s the whole military in Norway that is coming and entering into a formal partnership with Minnesota National Guard. They’re going to be in programs to exchange technology, and they’re working together on training. They’re going to come to Camp Riley here, as well as going to the Arctic in Norway. I think it’s very positive for NATO, Norway, and the United States.

LAR: How do the two groups compare in size?

MN:The Minnesota National Guard is about 13,000 with its various forces, and the Norwegian Home Guard is about 15,000, so they’re actually very similar in size. I’ve been told that the Norwegian armed forces are very much up to par and equal with American forces in technology. Of course, the United States is a much bigger country with much larger armed forces and so forth, but for its size, Norway is very sophisticated and has the latest technology.

LAR: Norway also manufactures a certain amount of ammunitions, correct?

MN: Oh, yes, Nammo and Kongsberg are both major manufacturers, and there are some others in Norway. Many of those are joint ventures with American manufacturers in the defense industry.

LAR: Would you say that the alliance with Norway is the strongest in the Nordic countries?

MN: I can say that it is very strong. Denmark and Iceland are also members, but Iceland doesn’t have a military. Sweden and Finland already have strong militaries in their own area, but their joining NATO will only make the Nordics stronger, and they’ll work very closely together. As a matter of fact, I was in a meeting in Sweden with the leaders of their defense department, and they are working with Norway on how to integrate their armed forces into NATO. Of course, Norway has experience, and Norway also has alliances with Sweden and Finland already in place, so their joining will solidify that.

LAR: With the war in Ukraine, Norway is already now doing a lot of work on a humanitarian level, taking in a large number of refugees. Can you comment on this?

MN: Norway has always been a leader in humanitarian aid, along with the United States. Again, we are very close allies. There are many humanitarian efforts in Africa and other places. It’s Norway and the United States working together. I think we can see many examples of this. And I think Norway, for being a fairly small population, 5.4 million or 5.5 million, really does a tremendous job in the humanitarian effort throughout the world, and I think we have to salute them. And when talking to Samantha Power, who is head of our humanitarian effort at the White House’s State Department, she has praised Norway over and over for being one of our best partners in this humanitarian aid. Yes, whether we’re talking about Syrian or Ukrainian refugees or other places in the world.

There are many other countries that have wealth from oil that are not exactly very good in the humanitarian area. So again, as an American, I have to salute the Norwegians for all that they do in the humanitarian effort.

LAR: Now that you’ve been the ambassador for several months, how would you describe communication and cooperation with your Norwegian colleagues?

MN: Well, one thing that you know, but I’m not sure everyone knows, is that while the Norwegians’ first language is Norwegian, they all speak a high level of English. So it’s very easy to communicate with all Norwegians, not just in Oslo but in rural areas as well. I would say there’s no problem in communications whatsoever. They’re very open. It is a country that’s very transparent. So I think we really enjoy that relationship. We have a very good working relationship with the ministers and some of the people who you have mentioned in many different areas.

LAR: Yes. And, I also think the media are very solid in Norway, with a high percentage of newspaper subscribers.

MN: Well. Yes. I was told that Norway has more newspapers per capita than any other country in Europe—yes, that is a fact.

LAR: It’s one of the few countries where the industry is growing, whereas newspapers face so much stress in this country. But with strong media and newspapers, we become better educated about what’s going on in the world.

MN: Well, I have spoken at a number of colleges, but particularly in high schools, mostly around the Oslo area, but also in Bergen and other places. I was impressed by how knowledgeable the students are about U.S. politics. I’m not sure if we did a quiz on American political events going on that the Norwegian high school students wouldn’t get a higher grade than the American high schools students. They’re very well educated on the whole issue of democracy, and this is something I’ve been very interested in for a long time. The Norwegians are very concerned about democracy, what’s going on with totalitarianism around the world‚ and I think that’s another common interest we have.

LAR: We’ve talked at length about the transatlantic alliance, but you have other items on your agenda as ambassador. Could you speak to some of them?

MN: Yes, some of my priorities besides the strong security relationship, which, of course, has been so colored by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, include a strong concern about COVID and how student exchanges have been affected. Both at the college and high school levels, they have gone way down. I’m talking about exchanges between Norway and the United States. The Oslo Embassy team wants to get those exchanges back on track to the pre-COVID level and encourage the Norwegians to promote them. We need to deal with the issues and concerns that parents and students have. That would be one of the priorities.

And not just educational exchanges—I think there should be more cultural exchanges, more exchanges related to research and medicine. With this very close friendship between Norway and the United States, we should do more and more of all types of exchanges—and it would be a priority of the embassy to help facilitate that.

LAR: How can we work on building up our image?

MN: I think we have to get public diplomats to use soft power, to talk about the good things in the United States. They need to talk about the great success of the immigrants, not just the current migrants but immigrants back in the 1880s, when many of the Norwegians started to come here from Minnesota and other places. The United States has been a great haven for people from other countries, and I think we should tell those success stories; you should emphasize the positive more. Unfortunately, on the news, people see shootings, gang violence, and other terrible things. They do occur, and we have to improve in those areas. But I do think there are many positive things in the United States, and we need to emphasize those. And right now, the Russians are spreading a lot of disinformation, propaganda that we have to counter.

LAR: There’s a great opportunity coming up with 200 years of Norwegian immigration and the sailing of the Restauration to be celebrated in 2025. And there is a relevancy to what’s happening in the world today, that people have to be welcomed to be successful in their new countries. But I have heard from many Norwegians that the young people in Norway today don’t relate to it as well as those of us who had grandparents who immigrated.

MN: Well, well, that’s true. There’s been some movies, The Emigrants, and so forth. But right now, the Norwegians, I think, are doing a very good job integrating Ukrainians who have come to Norway. They teach them Norwegian, get their kids into the schools, get jobs for the parents. They’re working very hard on that.

LAR: Some people say that soft diplomacy is not so important or effective in today’s world, but I would argue against that.

MN: I agree 100%. With the money we spend on public diplomacy, we can do a better job of communicating with people around the world about the values of freedom and democracy. I think it would be very important for bringing peace to many parts of world, and I think that’s soft power.

LAR: What has impressed you the most about everyday life in Norway? And have there been any surprises?

MN: Well, the first time I ever visited Norway was 1966. So, there have been a lot of changes since I was a college student there, but as you know, the people and the scenery were as fabulous in 1966 as they are today.

But there were a lot of surprises that I found when we moved there. We’ve been there about seven months now. First of all—it may sound silly—the food is wonderful. And I don’t know why we wouldn’t think the food would be wonderful, but you don’t hear a lot about Norwegian cuisine or restaurants. We hear a little bit about Denmark, and obviously France and other places, but in Norway, the food that we’ve found at restaurants and in homes is really very fresh—and very sophisticated, too.

There are lots of other things; the lack of homelessness, for one. You cannot help mention it, because it’s so bad in our cities, Los Angeles, Portland, [Ore.], and elsewhere. And you don’t see that at all in Norway. There is crime, but there’s very little compared with the United States. When we have our grandchildren—we have eight grandchildren from ages 6 to 21—come to visit us in Norway, we take them to the playground, and the Norwegian families leave their kids on the playground and go for a hike. I don’t know in which U.S. city parents would do that, so it’s very refreshing that they are able to do that.

And I must say, for me living in Los Angeles but traveling around the world, I’ve never seen more courteous drivers in my life. They don’t honk their horns. Norwegian people, in general, are very kind, very courteous—and I wish we could all have those lessons in our big urban areas.

LAR: And then there is the wonderful art scene. I know that you and your wife, Jane, are big supporters of the arts back home in Los Angeles. What do you think of the new National Museum, the Munch Museum, and all that is happening in Oslo?

MN: We’ve urged anyone, friends of ours in the art world and so forth, to come to Norway. There are all kinds of things to see. Kistefos Museum, which is outside of Oslo, about an hour and 20 minutes, is the finest outdoor sculpture museum I’ve seen anywhere in the world, equal to those in Japan. And it’s fabulous to see. I’ve never seen anyone— unless it’s raining—who has been disappointed. And of course, you have the new National Museum and the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.

In Norway, you have so many things to see if you’re interested in art, and I don’t know if everybody in the world understands this. I don’t think the Norwegians—this is my criticism—are doing a great job in promoting tourism to Norway. You look at little Iceland: they do a great job. Norway has so much to offer and so many beautiful areas, so much to see; I would encourage every American to visit. One of the things we want to do is promote Norwegians coming to the United States and Americans going to Norway.

LAR: And, perhaps more art exchanges? Edvard Munch has long dominated the view of Norwegian international art image for so long. Finally they got an exhibit of Nikolai Astrup in the United States a couple of years ago. And there’s so many other great Norwegian artists to explore.

MN: I think we will bring out more and more art. My wife, Jane, was an art major in college when I met her in my freshman year at the University of Denver. And, by the way, there were many Norwegian students there in those days, at the University of Denver and the University of Colorado, many Norwegian skiers were there on scholarships, for example.

As I said, Jane was an art major. When we moved to Norway, we decided not to bring our art from Los Angeles but to buy local Norwegian artists who were doing themes about the United States, about Hollywood, for example. So, she’s put that together and we’ve put this art in the embassy residence. We’ll probably take it back home because we like it so much.

LAR: Do you have some favorite places to go to in Oslo other than the art museums?

MN: Well, there are so many places to go to. One of my favorite sites, because it’s more representative of Norwegian artists, is the Queen Sonja Art Stable. The fact that the royal family has done that helps promote the art scene in Norway, and that’s really a very positive thing that has happened—and not just there but throughout the community.

But there are many things we like to do in Oslo. Not just the restaurants and art museums. There’s a lot to see on boat cruises and car rides. We try to walk in Frogner Park every day if there’s time, weather permitting, because it’s a beautiful park. It’s one of the best laid out parks and was also designed, as you know, for all the sculpture.

LAR: You also mentioned developing more exchange in the area of science and research. What do you think we could offer in addition to university exchanges?

MN: Well, I think just to have dialogues about sharing the latest technology, because the Norwegians are very advanced and have very strong opinions, as do the scientists and doctors in the United States. And I find getting them together and talking about how they feel about a particular type of medicine or a particular new movement only improves the future, for example, the development of this or that drug or that medicine or fighting that disease.

So, I think scientific exchanges are very important. I think any of theses exchanges and cooperative partnerships are all positive. And it’s much easier for us to do it in Norway, because of common language. The Norwegians are able to fund the Norwegian part of it, and the Americans are able to fund the American part of it, so you have very equal types of exchanges.

I’ve spoken at some of the universities, and I’ve met some of the university leaders in Norway, and I want to do more of that.

An interesting thing is that when I went to graduate school and got my master’s degree in political science at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Knut Vollebæk [former Norwegian ambassador to the United States and foreign minister of Norway] was also there. He is a year or two younger than I am, so we didn’t know each other, but we think I might have been his teaching assistant. We know we shared many professors.

LAR: Yes, so many important Norwegian business leaders and politicians have studied in the United States. 

MN: Yes, a huge percentage have studied in the United States. And many studied in London, of course. The current Norwegian prime minister studied in France. I think study abroad is very important for the Norwegian state; I’ve said this when I’ve spoken to students, I’ve encouraged them to study somewhere in another country, because I think it broadens their view. They see that the students in other places are very similar to them in many ways but also different in some ways. And they need to understand that if they’re going to exist in a global economy. And learning a second language is enriching and opens up the world to them.

LAR: Have you had the opportunity to learn some Norwegian?

MN: I’m meaning to take courses, but I haven’t had the time. But I believe I want to. My wife is much better than I am, but she also speaks German in addition to English, and it is easier when you speak multiple languages.

LAR: I also want to talk about the role the U.S. Embassy plays in supporting Americans who are living abroad in Norway.

MN: Well, one of the prime, if not most important jobs of the American Embassy is to protect all the American citizens who are under our jurisdiction. In the real world, about 70% of our calls, as well as visitations, come from people who have a visa or passport renewal problem or a Social Security issue. So, we need to solve these things. We need to help those Americans who are living in Norway deal with those issues. Most people don’t realize that many Norwegians who worked in the United States and moved back to Norway have Social Security, and there are issues with benefits and everything.

And there are all kinds of consular issues; passports, renewals, visas, lost passports for tourists. We have to deal with those issues, too. And like in every country throughout the world, Americans might get into trouble. They may be arrested, and we have to deal with that, make sure that they’re represented and treated fairly, and so forth. Obviously, we have to follow local laws, but this is all part of the embassy work.

LAR: So you would say it’s very important to register at the U.S. Embassy if you’re an American living in Norway?

MN: Absolutely. And you know what? If you’re going on a hike and you get lost (because there’s some beautiful areas to hike or bike ride or boat or sail in Norway), it’s important that we are aware that people are out there.

LAR: Watching the news and social media, I know you’ve traveled about Norway quite a bit. Do you have any exciting destinations coming up when you return?

MN: Well, there was one thing I was planning do this week, but I couldn’t, because I had to go back to Los Angeles. I wanted to go up to Tromsø, because here in the United States, we’re very interested in the Arctic—not only for all the potential of minerals, oil and gas, and tourism, but also because it borders Russia. This is of a particular interest to us, and I want to actually go there and visit and meet with the people and the civic leaders. I would also like to meet the Sámi. And there have been interesting articles in your publication, by the way.

Photo: The Norwegian American
For Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall, it was both an honor and a thrill to interview U.S. Ambassador to Norway Marc Nathanson. In the course of their conversation, she learned that Ambassador Nathanson is not only a very knowledgable but also a warm, friendly, and caring person, who is deeply committed to serving his country.

LAR: Thank you. And you could see the northern lights in Tromsø as well. It’s interesting that you mentioned the Arctic region, because it’s very critical in terms of security and commerce.

MN: Very; it’s very strategic ….

LAR: But I understand that the United States doesn’t have enough icebreakers.

MN: No, we don’t at all, and the U.S. senators from Alaska are very concerned about this; it is an issue.

LAR: Yes, and then there are the rights of Indigenous people. You mentioned the Sámi, who have their own parliament in Norway. And the reindeer herds go from Norway to Sweden into Russia and back. How’s that working out these days?

MN: Well, I haven’t heard of any issues there, but you know it’s a concern.

LAR: So, is there anything else that you’re going to put on your agenda or anything that you would like to say to our readers?

MN: I think the most important thing to say to your readers is that I’m so impressed by Norway. For a small northern European country, it is way above its weight. It is really a star athlete as far as I’m concerned, and I’m not just talking about the winter Olympics. I’m talking about in all areas of humanitarian aid, military aid, business, and art—and I’m not sure we always give up the credit for that. I think more people need to come and visit Norway and to see for themselves.

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.