Why the U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit Matters to the Next U.S. President
May 12, 2016
Clarifying his views on U.S. foreign policy in Jeff Goldberg’s “Obama doctrine” article, the president spoke at length about growing frustration with several European allies, perceived by the administration to be dragging their feet on defense spending, lacking political leadership, and not facing up to growing strategic responsibilities in Europe’s surrounding neighborhood. Emphasizing the need for clear-eyed pragmatism and technocratic governance, President Obama suggested that “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”
Although nothing could currently be described as “easy” within Europe’s northern corner, the comment underscores two key elements in what has come to define the growing and multifaceted cooperation between Washington and the Nordics: functionality and burden sharing, an increasingly scarce combination in Europe. Therefore, as leaders from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden gather in Washington this week for the first ever U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit, expectations on concrete deliverables are modest but should be seen through the prism of long-term potential for dealing with the many challenges that Europe will face in the coming years. Coordinating sanctions on Russia, building joint strategies for preventing the next generation of foreign fighters from joining the battlefield abroad, advancing negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and synchronizing international cooperation in the Arctic all constitute concrete opportunities for increased multilateral cooperation within this increasingly vital coalition.
This meeting will also be a litmus test for future transatlantic coherence at large, challenged by Euroscepticism and isolationism from within as well as by the divisive actions pursued by external actors along Europe’s eastern and southern neighborhood. Previously seen as Europe’s periphery, with some of its members chasing exceptions to the single market and collective defense, the Nordic region has recently become center stage for key challenges, if not provider of solutions. On issues ranging from addressing Europe’s refugee crisis and maintaining sanctions on Russia to advancing the agenda of transatlantic trade and climate agreements, the Nordics are playing a crucial role in maintaining unity within the European Union and will continue to push for collective solutions to collective problems together with Berlin. Despite policy differences, forging closer ties with the region will be essential for any administration seeking to engage with a severely fragmented European Union as some of Washington’s more traditional European allies gravitate away from forging pan-European policy initiatives in Brussels.
Security and Defense
With an opportunistic Kremlin continuing its foreign policy revanchism (with an increasingly stagnated economy and upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2016 and 2018, respectively), the strategic importance of the Baltic Sea region has increased dramatically as has the need for security cooperation among the NATO allies, including Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, and partners such as Sweden and Finland. Norway is already an invaluable ally in terms of maritime capabilities in the High North and with the United States reinstating some military capabilities on the Icelandic air base in Keflavik, previously seen as a crucial outpost for tracking the movements of Russian nuclear submarines departing from the Kola peninsula, NATO once again requires significant eyes and ears in Northern Europe and across the Atlantic.
Denmark was once one of the alliance’s most potent and capable members but has lately strayed away from its platinum member status. It is the only Nordic nation not to have ratcheted up its defense spending after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has lately displayed reluctance to participate in international operations. However, its newly released foreign policy strategy could perhaps be seen as a vector pointing towards reengagement on several fronts, emphasizing how it identifies itself as a small European nation but a significant “Arctic superpower”—aspiring to build up strategic capacity on Greenland and along the Faroe Islands. This underscores how invaluable the cooperation with the Nordics is as members of the Arctic Council and partners in scientific research, as well as in search and rescue capabilities.
Sweden and Finland are also becoming increasingly functional partners to NATO, despite the constraint of modest public support for membership in the alliance and ambivalence from other allies to let them ride free on membership privileges. Their capabilities and experience in monitoring Russian movements in and around the Arctic and Baltic Sea (and sometimes in their airspace) offer significant value to NATO as the alliance seeks to overcome anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges in the region. It was not a coincidence that the Finnish Air Force was the first to notice Russian air movements toward Syria last September. Members or not, both countries need to be involved in providing airspace capabilities and deployment (especially on the island of Gotland) for NATO to gain credible deterrence capabilities, a sobering message that was recently underscored during U.S. deputy secretary of defense Bob Work´s visit to Sweden.
All Nordic countries are also capable members of the global coalition to counter ISIL, with most of them previously participating in both NATO- and UN-led operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, and Mali. Norway is currently reviewing the possibility of sending 60 special forces to Jordan to serve as military advisers for Syrian opposition groups, in addition to the advisers they already have posted in northern Iraq alongside other Nordic special forces personnel, who have been training Kurdish peshmerga forces in that area for almost a year. Most of the Nordic countries are generous humanitarian assistance providers with extensive experience in building sustainable institutions, strengthening civil society, and implementing security sector reforms in fragile states. The latter should be understood as a particularly valuable competence in light of NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg’s comments in Washington a few months ago emphasizing NATO’s future role in working more toward state building and conflict prevention in North Africa and the Middle East.
Europe’s Refugee Crisis
With Europe closing its borders and struggling to coordinate short-term responses with Turkey, as well as harmonize long-term resettlement conditions at home, the lack of cooperation between the Nordic states has been as visible as anywhere else. News reports about Finnish right-wing groups forming vigilante style networks patrolling the streets, Denmark passing heavily criticized laws requiring asylum seekers to surrender assets, and Sweden as well as Finland imposing policed check points along its borders have raised eyebrows among international spectators of the crisis. Indeed, the Nordic countries are now facing a situation where xenophobic tensions are on the rise while state budgets are restrained, far-right parties are openly challenging the political agendas of centrist governments in all parliaments, and where the lack of ambitious integration policies will have severe consequences for the structure of its welfare models. The U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit will be an important forum for addressing some of these challenges but also highlight the lead that the Nordics have taken in receiving refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Eurostat’s analysis of the positive decisions on asylum applications in 2015 shows that among the 333,350 positive decisions that were issued, 53,700 of them took place within the Nordic countries. Norway and Denmark together issued about the same number of positive decisions as the United Kingdom despite constituting only a sixth of its population. Among the 8,155 individuals resettled by the European Union last year, about 70 percent where taken in by these five countries. Per capita, Norway and Sweden, and to a lesser extent Denmark and Finland, received more first-time asylum applicants than the majority of EU member states.
Having closed its borders for several months, a recent report by the Swedish Migration Agency estimated that about 500 individuals a week still arrive in Sweden seeking asylum, totaling 2,000 to 2,500 asylum seekers a month (which is the number of Syrian refugees accepted into the United States during a four-year period). Having taken in more refugees per capita than Germany last year, and over 40 percent of all unescorted minors seeking asylum in Europe, the ruling center-left coalition has assumed a leading role in promoting burden sharing in Brussels, while suffering harsh blows domestically due to stalled reforms and slashed budgets. However, Stockholm has shown the way when it comes to launching ambitious resettlement policies focusing on free and accessible education for refugee children, issuing work permits, and fast tracking the validation process of highly educated refugees while offering language training for each family. Despite trying to modify social benefits in tune with the lowest common denominator in Europe to stem the flow of arrivals, a reviewing commission recently forced the government to allow for family reunification since the UN Refugee Agency claims that this is crucial for a successful integration process.
But what happens once one is settled? Although impressive on the quantitative side of things, quality is what will truly determine the success or failure of this task. Finland is currently facing a tough recession, and Norway has felt the financial turbulence of a falling price on crude oil. Denmark passed a referendum last year rejecting the adoption of EU rules on cross-border policing, while Sweden is gathering its diplomatic center of mass to push for a permanent redistribution system of refugees together with Germany. The Nordic leaders will also have to convince Washington of their ability to deal with an increasingly alarming number of foreign fighters returning from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. Among the 6,500 Europeans assessed by Europol to have travelled abroad to join ISIL since 2011, at least 1,000 of them are from the Nordic countries. In a per capita ratio, Sweden and Denmark comes right after Belgium as the prime hot spots in Europe to produce foreign fighters, with Norway and Finland among the top 10. Although the EU counterterrorism chief, Gilles de Kerchove, has praised both Denmark and Sweden for generating efficient de-radicalization models that could serve as best practices within Europe, the U.S. intelligence community will need to work with counterparts in the region to ensure the necessary information sharing over the next couple of years.
Trade and Sanctions
Although skepticism has long lingered over the possibility for the United States and European Union to reach an agreement on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership before the Obama administration leaves office, the recently concluded 13th round of negotiations gave reason for some optimism. As Eurosceptic labor unions and antitrade forces on both sides of the Atlantic build a front against free trade and multilateralism, messages about the geopolitical benefits of the two largest economies establishing a framework for global trade and investment norms has been lost. The alternative to reaching an agreement is to cede the rule-making initiative to China and other developing economies in the next decade. The three EU Nordic countries have proven to be a potent voice in these negotiations, displaying among the highest labor standards in the world yet having their unions and blue collar voters openly support TTIP. This undercuts rhetoric from those who claim that the agreement would lower standards and jeopardize jobs, which is exactly what Washington and Berlin tried to convince their critics of during the president’s recent trip to Hanover.
Seen together, the five Nordic countries would be the world’s 12th-largest economy, and they are an increasingly important trading partner with the United States. Furthermore, its leaders’ reluctance to “trash talk” the idea of free trade in order to please domestic anger during the negotiations, a modus operandi displayed in many other EU member states, should be seen as a fruitful approach that Washington will benefit from. This is especially the case if the trade agreement, even if agreed on, is to survive a politically volatile ratification process in all domestic parliaments.
It is also worth noting that most of these countries are the ones making the fewest complaints within the European Council about maintaining sanctions on Russia, despite being among those most hurt in terms of lost trade opportunities or by Russian countersanctions. Finland, sharing Europe’s longest border with Russia and previously having Russia as its third-largest bilateral trading partner, is a telling example. Now, exports and imports between the two countries are almost completely frozen, while Finland simultaneously remains a strong voice in the European Council, advocating for a renewal of sanctions prior to the vote in July. Sweden maintains a similar position, despite the fact that a recently published report from the Swedish National Board of Trade suggests that export revenues to Russia fell by 33 percent between 2014 and 2015 and import revenues decreased by 30 percent during the same period.
The Way Forward
Overall, the Nordic region punches well above its weight in several key areas where Washington, whichever administration assumes office next year, will need to be involved in order to advance a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Given the rapidly shifting security architecture of the region, the current administration should use the summit as a platform to build further momentum on issues where there is notable convergence on the working level—such as humanitarian aid, foreign fighters, maintaining sanctions on Russia, and climate issues. In a larger context, this fruitful relationship should serve as a reminder of the way forward for the transatlantic relationship, as several influential European nations turn inward and are at risk of becoming more susceptible to populistic policies despite the need for collective solutions.
Carl Hvenmark Nilsson is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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