Obama Sees Kindred Spirits in Nordic Leaders

Pragmatic, compassionate capitalists 'a model' for the president

President Barack Obama speaks at the Great Synagogue and Holocaust Memorial of Stockholm in Stockholm in 2013. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks at the Great Synagogue and Holocaust Memorial of Stockholm in Stockholm in 2013. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Posted May 13, 2016 at 5:00am

The five Nordic leaders who arrive in Washington on Friday for a state visit are viewed by President Barack Obama as a pragmatic group with an outsize influence on global affairs.  

Items on the agenda will include how to respond to an increasingly aggressive Russia, Arctic region policy, Middle East refugees, counterterrorism, and climate change. Experts say Russian President Vladimir Putin will be monitoring the goings-on closely.  

The White House grounds on Thursday were already decked out for the visit by the president of Finland and the prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. The flags of each country joined Old Glory on light posts on Pennsylvania Avenue and inside the executive complex.  

Obama believes the Nordic countries, with a total population of about 26 million, are skilled at “punching above their weight,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest  said Thursday, describing their influence in European and global affairs as “impactful.”  

“All of them are making a substantial contribution to what we have described as the cornerstone of American national security, and that is NATO,” Earnest said. “The president is looking forward to hosting them at the White House, repaying the hospitality that he enjoyed last year [in Europe]. And he’s looking forward to a pretty busy day on a variety of issues.”  

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What’s more, their approach to domestic affairs — which could be called compassionate capitalism — is a model that aligns closely with Obama’s preferences for running an advanced democratic society, experts said.  

“The Nordic countries are a bit misunderstood. They’ve tried hard to maintain capitalistic economies,” said Andras Simonyi , a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States and NATO . “So it’s important for President Obama and the U.S. to send the message that the Nordic countries aren’t some socialist utopia.”  

The Obama administration also sees Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland as “a good model” of “liberal democracies at a time when they are under attack from within and from Russia,” said Simonyi, now the managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University .  

Over his seven years in office, Obama has come to respect that Nordic officials “have shown resilience in maintaining their democratic institutions,” he said. The group includes Sauli Niinisto of Finland, Erna Solberg of Norway, Stefan Lofven of Sweden, Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark and Iceland’s Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson.  

Magnus Nordenman , director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council , said Obama believes “the Nords look good versus the rest of Europe.”  

“They have free-market systems but they also take care of the weaker members of society,” Nordenman said. “That’s a vision Obama has had for the U.S.”  

When turning to allies for assistance, the president has also come to see the Nordic countries as reliable and goal-oriented. That’s in contrast with some of America’s other European  friends, who often tend to debate and fall short of Washington’s hopes.  

“The Nordic countries tend to be very pragmatic,” Nordenman said. “They have a real get-things-done attitude that the president has relied on.”  

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The joint state visit is intended both as a show of his gratitude and an attempt to let the rest of the world, including Putin, know that the United States views the countries as power players in Europe.  

Putin “will be thinking he has to pay attention to the Nords because the U.S. thinks it’s such a damn valuable region,” Nordenman said.  

For its part, the White House has been low-key about the summit and state dinner.   

In a statement, Earnest pointed to U.S.-Nordic “close collaboration” on a list of issues, including counterterrorism, the environment, Arctic partnering, and the “refugee crisis” that has affected many of those countries.  

“This summit will deepen U.S.-Nordic cooperation while highlighting America’s continued commitment to European security, transatlantic trade, and the promotion of common democratic values,” Earnest said.  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.