Solberg won Obama’s ear

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg wrapped up an historic visit with Nordic colleagues at the White House this weekend, confident of the region’s growing importance in a turbulent world. US President Barack Obama was the perfect host for five countries that form a critical buffer zone between Russia and the rest of Europe and the US, and one foreign policy expert thinks Obama’s Nordic summit will bring the Nordic countries closer together as well.

Norway's prime minister, Erna Solberg, had a unique chance to send quite a bit of time talking with US President Barack Obama at his Nordic summit at the White House. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge

Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, had a unique chance to spend quite a bit of time talking with US President Barack Obama at his Nordic summit at the White House on Friday. The invitation itself showed that his administration is keen on nurturing cooperation among the five Nordic nations in a strategically important part of the world. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge

It had been 49 years since a Norwegian prime minister was invited to a state dinner at the White House, which climaxed a day that began with both friendly banter and serious discussions about national security, migration, economic cooperation, climate and development issues. Solberg herself was seated beside Obama at the festive dinner, and thus had the president’s ear for an extraordinarily long time. She told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that they talked “a bit more about common challenges regarding energy, climate and Arctic issues,” but she noted that “we didn’t only talk politics.” There was plenty of personal exchange as well and Solberg claimed it was “a very relaxed atmosphere, actually more relaxed than other such dinners I’ve attended.” She credited Obama for setting the good mood.

Questions arose quickly as to why Obama opted to spend so much time with Solberg and her fellow government leaders from Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI in Oslo, thinks there are several reasons why there’s great interest in the Nordic area in Washington at present.

Solberg also had Obama's attention during her speech after arriving at the White House on Friday. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge

Solberg also had Obama’s attention during her speech after arriving at the White House on Friday. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge

First and foremost is simply their geographic location close to Russia, with both Norway and Finland sharing borders as well. Amidst dissent and fragmentation within the European Union, the Nordic countries are viewed as a stable area that also should be able to contribute positively and more actively to European unity and leadership.

Obama himself said in one of his many remarks during the day and evening on Friday that the US and the Nordic countries “stand together in our concerns” over what he sees as Russia’s growing and aggressive military presence and posturing in the Arctic and Baltic region. They all agreed that economic sanctions against Russia must continue until Russia admits its intervention in Ukraine was wrong. It was one example of a united front on a key issue, with the Nordics backing Washington. Obama was in turn full of praise for the Nordic countries as steadfast and reliable allies in a strategically important geographic area.

Solberg was quick to follow up on that, claiming that Norway in particular has “a completely special” geographic placement. “Our coastline and proximity to Russia in the north has great strategic importance,” she told NRK. “This has become more important now that we have a Russia with stronger military power and more unpredictable policies.” Others point out that Norway and Russia have a long history of being good neighbours and there’s still gratitude in Norway over the Soviet liberation of Finnmark in 1944. If anyone can talk to Russian leaders, it’s often Norwegians.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (left) with her Nordic colleagues from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland and US President Barack Obama. One foreign policy expert, Ulf Sverdrup of NUPI in Oslo, thinks Obama decision to invite them all for a summit and state dinner at the White House can help propel a new "Nordic Renaissance" of cooperation amongst them. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (left) with her Nordic colleagues from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland and US President Barack Obama. One foreign policy expert, Ulf Sverdrup of NUPI in Oslo, thinks Obama’s decision to invite them all for a summit and state dinner at the White House can help propel a new “Nordic Renaissance” of cooperation amongst them. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge

In another area, Sverdrup wrote in a commentary about the summit in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that many also have watched with interest how the Nordic countries and not least Norway have succeeded in harvesting the gains of globalization while also making concerted efforts to assist those who lose out or are maginalized by it. “The Nordic countries top international rankings within global competitiveness, openness, innovation and the UN’s Human Development Index and more,” Sverdrup wrote. “It’s no coincidence that (US presidential hopeful) Bernie Sanders has the Nordic countries as his role model.”

Obama has also reportedly been fascinated by the Nordic countries, saying several years ago that Norway “punched way above its weight class.” He later said Denmark does too and that now all the Nordic nations do. In an interview with The Atlantic magazine, Obama reportedly has often sighed to his colleagues: “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would be easy.” On Friday he suggested that the Nordic area’s “small countries” should just be able to run world affairs for awhile, viewing them as modest and pragmatic problem-solvers with a firm commitment to helping other countries deal with poverty, disarmament, equality and peace.

Boosted spirits
The summit at the White House, which Norway followed up on Saturday with a gathering at its embassy in Washington, clearly boosted the spirits of all five government leaders involved and brought them closer together as well. They appeared, and even stated, that they were proud to be invited by the US President, collectively as well as individually. Solberg, who heads Norway’s Conservative Party, shared some good-natured exchanges with her counterpart in Sweden, Stefan Löfven of the Labour Party. Within Scandinavia they’re political opponents. In Washington, they were on the same team.

On their own, the Nordic countries are small by international standards. Sverdrup noted, though, that united they have considerable force, still with only 26 million inhabitants but collectively the world’s 12th largest economy. That’s not far behind Russia and India and ahead of South Korea and Spain. Only 0.3 percent of the world’s population lives in the Nordic region, but they represent nearly 2 percent of the world’s gross national product.

Norway’s oil and gas industry plays a major role in that, despite the current economic downturn because of lower oil prices. Norway’s wealth and decision to stash most of it away for future generations has commanded attention, now because of its role as one of the world’s major investors. Lots of countries court Norway because the country is rich.

New ‘Nordic renaissance’
Obama seemed keen to bring the countries together, perhaps to propel them towards more cooperation amongst themselves. There’s power in numbers, and the US needs power and force on its side as tensions with Russia rise and the Middle East remains violent and chaotic.

As Sverdrup pointed out, there are numerous institutional challenges. Some of the Nordics are members of the EU and NATO while others are not. That hinders tighter defense, security and economic cooperation among them but they’ve been trying to overcome that, with what Sverdrup called “intense internal consultations” and massive exchange of information.

“Maybe we’re on the verge of a new Nordic renaissance,” Sverdrup wrote, with the US’ support. Discussions are lively both in Finland and Sweden about joining NATO. Norway still seems unlikely to join the EU, although Solberg’s own party endorses it.

Norway will take over as leader of the the region’s mechanism for Nordic cooperation next year. Fresh from the near euphoria of the mutual admiration society meeting in Washington, they may form more of a real united front than ever before.

Solberg summed up the summit as a “great opportunity to discuss and develop our good cooperation with the USA.” As she left the state dinner where other guests included many top politicians, artists, and even retired talk show host David Letterman, Solberg told NRK it hadn’t only been a memory for life for her, but “a great evening for the Nordic area.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund