There are millions who admire the Nordic countries. There are, however, a lot fewer who actually know and understand them as well. Among them is now a new cheerleader. His name is Barack Obama and he happens to be the president of the United States. This week, he is hosting the president of Finland and the prime ministers of Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden for a summit meeting at the White House. The list of issues on the agenda is long, as the world has gotten more complicated, even since the announcement of the summit a month ago. No doubt, there will be lively discussions on topics as wide apart as the challenges an ever-more aggressive Russia presents to the region, the issues of climate and energy, and the refugee crisis. The latter has gained prominence lately in intra-Nordic relations, as even these countries, who have probably the world’s best track record on cooperation, have been at odds with each on other how to handle it.
There are a great number of reasons why the president is now putting these countries center-stage. They are among the best-performing in almost all surveys: whether regarding innovation, creativity, social welfare or education, you name it, they are at the top of the lists. Even on the global happiness list, they are right there at the top. They are also the least corrupt. They are some of the most tolerant and display an enviable resilience in the face of challenges to our democratic way of life. They are also among the most responsible when it comes to contribution to international security. They are all champions of human rights and equality, and they put up a good fight for the climate and the environment, even if at times they are themselves conflicted by the pressures the economy presents and their ideals of preserving the planet.
However, even this admiration will not cut it. The president has his hands full for the remainder of his tenure and every meeting he has at the White House sends a message about the importance of a given relationship for the United States. Invitations to the White House have been rare in recent years. In most cases, invitations were related to major crises. In the case of the Nordic countries, however, they are part of the solution, not the problem. In this very difficult international environment, full of tensions and hot crises — some of them a result of complacency, some unexpected — the Nordic countries have made a difference through their contribution to the international community in addressing and actively taking part in problem-solving. Their pragmatic approach helps. But perhaps the president’s interest is partly due to his worry about Europe’s democratic back-sliding and the attacks on democratic values seen on the continent.
At the Center for have been forcefully pushing back on some of the misperceptions surrounding the Nordic model among some politicians and experts in the United States — that the Nordic countries are some kind of a “socialist utopia.” We have been stressing their similarities and differences, the combination of which is part of their attraction. We underline that they are liberal democracies, with strong market economies, but which have, if you will, “tamed” capitalism, to their benefit. They have “capitalism with a heart.” Their economic models, at times very diverse, have produced some of the most competitive industries and the smartest approaches to natural resources. They allow for innovation and creativity to drive much of their economic growth. But they do not give up on the ideals of a socially sensitive and supportive society.
As the tensions in and around the transatlantic community are growing, the Nordic countries are displaying a sense of responsibility for not only themselves as nations, but beyond. Their commonality of values, and diversity of identities and cultures, position them well to be leaders in a messy world. The U.S. president has a unique ability to validate countries, friend or foe alike. When he choses to present relatively small countries as the example to follow, he is saying that they are the stem cells of our liberal democratic societies and there is a reason why they punch above their weight in the world. They are important to the recovery of our democracies from a bad spell of division, from the cancer of corruption and greed, from the devastating nationalism and complacency that have blinded us from seeing both the threats and the solutions.
The Nordic leaders in Washington will have a unique opportunity to reinforce their position as some of the most important U.S. allies and partners, as countries solidly embedded into the transatlantic community and the values of democracy and freedom. This is their window of opportunity. Unfortunately, windows have this strange ability to be either kept open or closed — or at times, slammed. How the Nordic countries choose to keep it open will depend upon the president of Finland and the prime ministers of Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. This meeting should be seen as a milestone, but perhaps even more as a beginning of an ambitious journey.