By Michael Busch
Most variations of international-relations realism include some notion of states sacrificing ethical considerations at the altar of national interest. It's never been completely clear, of course, whether this is a descriptive claim, or a prescriptive one — whether, in other words, the idea is that states should behave this way, or that they in fact do.
Those pondering this question ought to consider the case of Norway. In a brief but revealing cable included in the WikiLeaks "CableGate" trove and published last week by the Norwegian paper Aftenposten, U.S. embassy officials report that the Nordic nation opted to divest its sovereign wealth holdings from companies violating "humanitarian principles" and "fundamental ethical norms."
If you are thinking that major global corporations aren't exactly quaking in their boots at the prospect of divestiture by Norway, think again. Built on the healthy revenues of Norway's thriving oil sector, the country's sovereign fund invests its considerable wealth in over 7,000 corporations worldwide. In fact, the fund is the largest single investor in Europe.
To judge from the WikiLeaked cable, the combination of Norway's financial heft with its rigorous ethical standards concerned American diplomats who feared it would disproportionately affect U.S. corporations — specifically, America's highly profitable and politically influential arms manufacturers.
The cable notes that according to the ethical guidelines governing Norway's sovereign wealth fund, the country is not to invest in companies who handle "weapons that through their normal use may violate fundamental humanitarian principles," which Norway's minister of finance "identified as weapons such [as] cluster munitions or nuclear weapons." According to the cable, "it is as a result of this screening that Norway divested from several American arms manufacturing companies."
American companies are hardly alone in earning the disapproval of Norway's ethical watchdogs. According to the same cable, the Norwegian Ethics Council, the agency tasked with reviewing the behavior of companies, "has determined that if companies build large gas pipelines in Burma they will likely be involved with the Burmese Armed Forces and thus probably undermine human rights…The companies at risk include Total, Daewoo and PetroChina."
Norway also severed ties with a global behemoth of a different kind: Walmart. Norway washed its hands of Sam Walton and friends after determining that the company is guilty of "serious violations of fundamental ethical norms." In Walmart's case, it's not clear if the company ever tried to address Norway's concerns; according to the cable, the Norwegians simply might have thought the effort "would be fruitless."
In point of fact, Norway did reach out to Walmart, asking for the company's response to allegations that the world's largest company, in the words of the U.S. cable, "consistently and systematically employs minors in contravention of international rules, that working conditions at many of its suppliers are dangerous or health-hazardous, that workers are pressured into working overtime without compensations, [and] that the company systematically discriminates against women in pay."
Norway's central bank reported that Walmart never responded.
Michael Busch teaches international relations at the City College of New York and is Research Associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.