Washington will soon have that Nord-easy feeling when the five Nordic leaders—the Prime Ministers of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway and the President of Iceland—travel to Washington at the invitation of President Obama for a joint meeting on May 13 followed by a state lunch and dinner.
On September 4, 2013, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Sweden on his way to St. Petersburg, Russia to attend a G-20 hosted by President Vladimir Putin. The Stockholm stopover was due to the cancellation of the president’s bilateral meeting with President Putin prior to the G-20, which freed some time not only to visit with his Swedish counterpart but also with Nordic leaders who were invited to join a dinner with President Obama. This week, the president is graciously returning the favor.
Three years ago, things were certainly not easy for President Obama. A week prior to his Stockholm visit, President Obama had just made his surprising decision not to militarily respond to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons—the now infamous crossing of an American redline. Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt agreed with the President’s decision though, stating that, “I do not think we should advocate a military solution to a conflict that I think needs to be resolved by political and diplomatic efforts…I do not know how a designed military response will really make a difference. Military responses do not always lead to the exact consistency we have considered, it often leads to a deepening of other types of problems. From the Swedish point, I think it is important to point to the UN system’s importance.” Easy (for Sweden).
Three years later, there was an abrupt military response to the Syrian crisis, but it came from Russia on the side of the Assad regime. Russia’s military intervention firmly shifted the momentum and allowed the Syrian government to reclaim territory that it was in danger of losing. However, it also deepened other problems, such as spurring a massive increase in the number of refugees fleeing the conflict toward Europe, specifically Sweden which received 190,000 migrants and refugees last year. Moreover, the devastating consequences of the five-year Syrian civil war and wider regional conflict have forced President Obama to reluctantly increase U.S. military involvement in the region. As Europe struggles to cope with its greatest migration crisis since WWII, Denmark and Sweden have re-introduced border checks marking a setback for the free movement of goods and people in Europe. Not easy.
Three years ago, President Obama’s abandoned bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin—which in part was due to the Kremlin’s role in blocking the UN’s ability to address the Syrian conflict—foreshadowed greater difficulties that lie ahead between the United States, Europe, and Russia. Six months after Russia hosted the G-20 meeting, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine. The Nordic states now confront a dramatically changed security environment where Russia increases submarine activity in the North Atlantic to levels unseen since the Cold War, conducts snap military exercises, violates regional air and maritime space, flies dangerously close to U.S. forces, remilitarizes the Arctic, issues threats to Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, and casually discusses deploying nuclear weapons in the Nordic region. The five Nordic countries and the United States are grappling with how best to meet this new security challenge, with three of the Nordics (Norway, Denmark, and Iceland) members of NATO, and two close partners, Finland and Sweden, that are outside alliance structures. Most definitely not easy.
What is also not easy is bringing five nations together for one large meeting at the White House. Normally, these five leaders should each have a separate meeting with President Obama to discuss bilateral, regional, and global issues of concern. If it is correct that the President has a fondness for the “pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats” in Scandinavia, it is perplexing that he has not had a single bilateral meeting with any of his Nordic counterparts besides Sweden. This new and unusual format will either provide an opportunity to encourage a new regional framework for discussion or highlight a lack of regional cohesion as these countries struggle to agree on migration and an assertive and militarily aggressive Russia. But the format clearly sells short the important but distinct bilateral relationships with these capable, like-minded partners.
But if an endeavor is worthwhile, it is not, and never should be, easy. The Nordic region is certainly worthwhile as a dynamic economic region of 27 million people, with a GDP of over $1.7 trillion—making it the twelfth largest economy in the world. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden collectively accounting for $105 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the United States, creating more than 263,000 U.S. jobs. Despite the economic success, this region was traumatized by the global economic crisis—particularly Iceland—as its economies are only now approaching the levels they achieved in 2008, while they continue to adjust to the rapidly changing dynamics of globalization and the impact of sanctions against Russia.
Most importantly, these five countries actively seek a strong relationship with the United States. All make important contributions to a range of international challenges: from generously providing the people of Afghanistan with developmental aid and security, assisting in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, participating in naval exercises in Asia, to enhancing scientific research and search and rescue capabilities in the Arctic because they believe in the proposition that democracies, and especially the transatlantic community, have a vital role to play in addressing global challenges. Moreover, the five Nordic countries have made valuable contributions which strengthen the United States—through immigration, trade, culture, and mutual security. The presence of the Nordic leaders today is an important reminder that America’s allies and American leadership require Washington’s investment and attention in an increasingly complex and unstable world. Now that should be Nord-easy.
Heather Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.