Last week saw an extraordinary event in Washington; a rare sight, the smiling leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and a smiling Obama. This state visit of the Nordics was in diplomatic parlance, a scoop. It was not a party really, but the outside spectator could have mistaken it for one. The Nordic leaders spent most of last Friday at the White House: first for a long conversation with the President, then, in what counts for a really big deal, a state dinner in the evening. The discussions were serious and covered the most urgent issues facing the transatlantic community. But the latter must have been a fun, to the liking of the Obamas, because the President suggested that Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke be invited to next years’ White House Correspondents Dinner, as a performer.
As I had the opportunity to tell one of the foreign ministers, the way to judge the importance of this summit is to watch how many leaders in Europe have been biting their nails and asking “why not me.” Envy is a terrific way to measure success. The reasons for the visit are obvious. The Nordic countries have worked hard to make this happen. Invitations as we know don’t just happen. It was a demonstration of the close ties and America’s respect for the five countries, which while quite different, are an entity nonetheless.
This event was also a statement about the appreciation for the rock-solid democratic foundations, and the ability of the Nordics to find a balance between market forces and taking care of people. And it is also about their stabilizing and constructive role in international politics, for the United States and European relationship, at a time when the pillars of this relationship and the international security architecture as a whole, are under attack. It is surely also a message to Poland, Hungary, Austria and others that regardless of the crisis facing all of us, the U.S. will continue to value democracy, free speech, the separation of power and checks and balances over authoritarian rule.
But then, when all the back patting is done and all the congratulatory notes have reached Copenhagen, Helsinki, Reykjavik, Oslo and Stockholm, the leaders need to draw some lessons and understand that there is a sense of urgency to follow up on the summit. The Nordic countries individually and as a group must use the attention and their limited, but very important influence to the fullest in order to protect the transatlantic relationship, which is being challenged both in Europe and in the United States. There might come a time, and this time could come soon, when it will rest upon the Europeans, to hold the attention of the U.S. The Nordics have an indispensable role. They must be the spokesmen in Europe for increased cooperation in both security and defense, in economics, trade and business, in science, education and research, in social innovation. They must continue to hold hands with the U.S. to work on climate, the Arctic and energy, showing the way for others.
The Nordic countries must also keep working on their image in the United States. There is still too much misunderstanding about their societies; illusions about the nature of their political and social system. They must repeatedly tell Americans that they are democracies, with market economies, which have found very different roads to social well-being.They must continue to make clear that they are “Capitalism with a Heart”. It is easier said than done, when we have moved on to the two hour news cycle and Americans are paralyzed by the brutal election campaign. But it is doable: there is a keen interest in America to get the next phase of development right, and the Nordics are a great source of inspiration.
They know exactly what is on the agenda, Obama and the Nordic leaders have agreed on an impressive list of issues they will focus on in their future cooperation. This is great, and they must start implementing the items immediately. To the list of things to do I would however add two, just to make clear that the Washington think tank world is focused on this as well.
One, they must be the leaders in Europe in the fight against anti-American sentiment, which has been the infectious disease hitting way too many countries. It seems to spare no one, including countries which owe their freedom (like all of Europe?) and democracy, the peaceful development of their economies and their security to the United States. The Nordics must tell Europe not to take this relationship for granted. The plague of anti-Americanism is spreading and in the long run will never hurt the United States as much as it will Europe and its ability to deal with its enormous challenges.
They must also push as hard as possible to forge even more personal relationships between Nordics and Americans on all levels, from all walks of life, politicians, scholars, business leaders, artists and the people in every country who define and make us what we are. Because if and when the ties that bind us together as family begin to fray, these personal relationships will keep us together.
Skål, skál, cheers and kippis sille to that!