April 5, 2017 | By ​Kjell Engelbrekt

Preserving Their Cool: The Nordic Countries Feel out the New Administration

As the Trump administration is taking shape and governments around the world are recalibrating their relations to the United States, few of America’s allies and partners sense the dramatic reversals from the Obama administration more than the Nordic countries, traditional proponents of free trade and extensive social programs.

Throughout his presidency Barack Obama repeatedly made reference to the successes of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden when it comes to how their societies and political systems are organized and governed. (In recent years the Nordic countries have managed to keep economic growth at a 2-4 percent and unemployment levels – through proactive labor market policies and public sector investments – closer to 5 than 10 percent. And even during the 2008-2009 economic recession they were able to sustain their cradle-to-grave welfare systems with universal coverage.) Trump and his closest advisors, in sharp contrast, have either ignored this subset of European states or spoken disdainfully about their high taxes, liberal trade policies, and generosity toward immigrants and religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Predictably, for small countries that owe much of their prosperity to export-driven business sectors the new administration’s views on trade are of particular concern. Trump’s ‘America first’ approach may mean that the investments of Nordic companies in the United States are not reciprocated back home at the level that the former have been accustomed to in the past. Many commentators have already concluded that economic exchange with European Union member states will not expand and deepen along the lines of the vision of the Obama administration, which was negotiating the massive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that Trump seems poised to discard. More broadly, Nordic governments believe the skepticism of the new administration toward international trade in general could significantly dampen global economic growth, especially if US and other corporations reduce their respective commitments overseas and thereby reinforce protectionist tendencies in other countries.

Similarly, immigration has clearly been a point of contention. Early on of course there was the “Sweden incident,” when President Trump, in an apparent effort to cite evidence in support of the administration’s travel ban, took a swipe at Sweden’s refugee policy at a Florida rally in late February, and the government in Stockholm felt it had to respond. The initial confusion, stemming from Trump mistakenly evoking the image of a fresh terrorist incident in Sweden, was promptly cleared up as the president (in a tweet) acknowledged he had taken his cue from a documentary filmmaker being interviewed on Fox News. Yet following the resulting firestorm and a request for clarification from the Swedish government, Trump nevertheless insisted that the problems of Swedish society were real and that policymakers in Stockholm were in denial of the terrorist threat posed by the influx of refugees.

Given the new president’s immigration rhetoric, the content of the critical exchange was not particularly surprising. Yet novel was the apparent desire of a US president to publicly criticize and embarrass the government of a country that regards itself a very close partner in order to score a political point at home. Some commentators have already come out to say Sweden is merely a prop in a more far-reaching agenda, at times openly expressed on the part of Trump’s closest political advisors, to undermine the European Union as a cohesive trading bloc and refashion European politics in the process.

Meanwhile, the small Nordic countries are also visibly preoccupied with what they perceive as a weakening of transatlantic solidarity precisely at a time of growing external threats. Whereas the influx of immigrants has subsided since 2015, there are serious foreign and security policy concerns associated with the military buildup and expanding ambitions of the Russian Federation. Located in a part of Europe that besides the Black Sea region is the most exposed to Russian power projection toward the West, Norway, Sweden and Finland especially have directly or indirectly relied on a robust, consistent NATO presence in the Baltic Sea region since the end of the Second World War. With Russia consolidating its strategic position in northern Europe through the stationing of missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave and adding new assets along the borders of the Baltic states, the military asymmetries in the area are growing at the expense of NATO and nonaligned Nordic countries.

Yet despite these warning signs, the region has been taking a “Nordic cool” approach to the new administration, patiently awaiting the full agenda of president Trump to take shape. In this context NATO’s secretary-general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, is the premier example. The son of a staunch advocate of transatlantic cooperation in his capacity as minister of defense and foreign affairs in the 1980s and early 90s, Stoltenberg has since last November worked tirelessly to ease the tensions in a NATO that fears abandonment by America and is presently scrambling to adjust to compensate for the lack of direction from Washington. Stoltenberg has had repeated contacts with Trump and his team and says he has received assurances that the United States remains committed to the alliance, most recently from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The secretary-general will personally be visiting president Trump in mid-April, ahead of the May NATO summit in Brussels, which incidentally will be Trump’s first visit abroad as president.

Stoltenberg also seems to share a couple of the US president’s political priorities: social reform and counterterrorism. As a former head of a government that both succeeded and fell short in terms of passing major social reform bills in Norway, he is acutely aware of the complex interplay of legislative and party politics that just dealt the new administration its first setback in Congress. But during his leadership he also experienced the worst terrorist attack on Norwegian soil – perpetrated by the homegrown fascist Anders Breivik in 2011 – which entailed both a bomb directed at the prime minister’s office downtown Oslo and the coldblooded, subsequent killing of 77 mostly teenagers at a camp of young political activists outside the capital.

Other leading Nordic political leaders, such as Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, are taking a similarly pragmatic approach. Niinistö has emphasized that he is prepared to work closely with the new team in Washington on a range of issues, not least on foreign and security policy in northern Europe. While both Finland and Sweden remain outside NATO, Finland certainly has no objections to Europeans assuming more responsibility for their own defense and security arrangements. According to Niinistö, the ramping up of defense expenditures to the 2 percent mark agreed by NATO member states in Warsaw in 2016 would be “so simple.” Currently at 1.3 percent, Finnish decision-makers acknowledge the growing asymmetry to Russia’s advantage in recent years and appear prepared to seek to match NATO expenditure levels in the coming years. Sweden is following suit.

In the meantime, in the Nordic countries – as elsewhere – Trump’s ascendency to power is receiving much more attention than any previous US power transition in history. People are intrigued, astounded, appalled, and enthralled but also entertained by Trump’s abrasive style and the unorthodox substance of several emerging policy initiatives. So far the “cool,” pragmatic attitude persists because of their depth of US-Nordic relations and generations of Danes, Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes having placed faith in transatlantic institutions spanning business, politics, popular culture, and arts.

In other words, if the health care debacle in late March paves the way for a return to more settled, conventional policy-making in Washington, relations may very well revert right back to a state of relative predictability and mutual ease. However, since Nordic societies have more in common with American states situated on the western and eastern seaboards than with those where Trump scored most of his victories, this equanimity is not limitless. Were the new administration to continue and more systematically reverse established patterns on trade, travel and security, domestic constituencies will likely demand that Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki start pushing back and readjusting their policies, reigning in pro-American proclivities and striking new friendships in the vicinity as well as further afield. 

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