Toasting the Men from the North

President Obama hosted the heads of government from the five Nordic nations, which are valued American allies and where citizens by and large trust their governments.

President Obama hosted the heads of government from the five Nordic nations, which are valued American allies and where citizens by and large trust their governments.

When you mention Scandinavia, you think of saunas, Volvos and Scarlett Johansson. You don’t picture some of the most steadfast U.S. Allies on the planet.

For geographically-challenged Americans, the Nordic nations include Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.

Contemporary Viking ancestors are less inclined to conquest as they enjoy a lifestyle, public services and political stability that are the envy of most of the world’s people. One of the most desired destinations for refugees from the war-torn Middle East is Sweden. Bernie Sanders has lionized Nordic universal health coverage. Surveys show Scandinavians are some of the happiest people outside of Bhutan.

All of which contributed to the unusual sight last week of a White House state dinner for five national leaders. In a welcoming ceremony earlier in the day, President Obama praised the five Nordic nations for “punching above their weight.”

“I really do believe the world would be more secure and more prosperous if we just had more partners like our Nordic countries,” Obama said. "There have been times where I’ve said, ‘Why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while, and they could clean things up.’”

The President added on a more serious note, "Sometimes we have a tendency to take our best friends for granted, and it’s important that we not do so."

There is a striking amount of common cause between the Nordic nations and the United States. We share a suspicion of Russian intentions, especially in Ukraine, and concern over climate change and its effects on the Arctic. We agree on the need to combat terrorism and sustainably manage fisheries.

Given diplomatic hierarchy, it is unlikely the prime minister from any single Nordic nation would be feted with a state dinner. However, Obama keenly saw an opportunity to recognize reliable partners as a group. The only thing awkward about the situation was the quick-stepping of the color guard to change flags when each country’s prime minister rolled into the White House portico. 

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement over why the Nordic nations enjoy the prosperity they do. Some say it is because they loosen the reins of government on the free market; others claim it is because government controls the eccentricities and abuses of the free market. It could be both.

But one startling fact is the relatively high level of trust Scandinavians have in their government. The trust isn’t blind. Scandinavians demand transparency. Official records are viewed as public records that anyone can review. Politicians must meet public expectations in the way they behave. They can’t slip off their bikes into official limos.

One analyst said Scandinavians have figured out how to combine right-wing pragmatism and left-wing idealism into a tough-minded, constantly evolving government model. They don’t view government as an obstacle, but as an instrument. Modesty is considered a virtue, but it is born out of necessity. The population of Nordic nations is small, which amplifies citizen engagement.

A former Swedish prime minister compared Nordic economies to honey-laden bumblebees. They have heavy bodies, tiny wings and yet still manage to pollinate plants and produce honey.

Naturally at the state dinner for Nordic officials, the White House was decked out with wooden farm tables and ice sculptures. The men from the north were served braised beef short ribs from Nebraska.