WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrats may argue over whether places like Denmark and Norway are model societies. President Barack Obama is sure.
Apparently well beyond concerns about being branded a socialist, Obama on Friday celebrated the five Nordic nations as examples of reliability, equality, generosity, responsibility, even personal happiness.
As he welcomed the Nordic leaders to the White House, he owned up to thinking perhaps the small havens of social liberalism should take the reins every now and then.
He joked: “Why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while?”
The remark in some ways encapsulated a White House summit with the leaders of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. The discussions covered a slate of issues weighing heavily on the region – including concerns about Russian aggression, managing refugee flows in Europe and fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – but little disagreement among nations that largely see eye-to-eye.
From the State Dining Room, Obama said the leaders spoke about augmenting special operations forces fighting IS in the Middle East. He also hailed Denmark for almost doubling its troop commitment toward the multinational forces assisting Afghanistan.
Three of the five nations are NATO members, including Denmark and Norway, which each have contributed nearly as many troops on the ground in Iraq as Germany. Sweden and Finland are neutral but are participating in the U.S.-led campaign against IS and are, as Obama asserted, helping ensure that sanctions on nearby Russia stay in place until it stops occupying and destabilizing parts of Ukraine.
The White House cast the rare multilateral summit as something of a diplomatic walk in the park compared to recent, more contentious sit-downs in the Middle East, or even in Europe. Where Obama often is tasked with nudging reluctant partners to contribute more to international partnerships, the Nordic leaders, he said, are willing partners who “punch above their weight.”
After the meeting, Obama joked there was perhaps “probably too much agreement” to make for much excitement.
Obama praised the region’s “enormously generous” efforts to alleviate the migrant crisis plaguing Europe, even as it has severely tested the limits of traditional refugee havens Denmark and Sweden.
Sweden, a nation of almost 10 million people, tightened its borders after receiving 160,000 asylum requests last year alone. In the U.S., that would equate to some 5 million prospective immigrants, many from war-ravaged Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. is struggling to meet a target of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this year.
“It is important for the world to carry this burden alongside them,” Obama said.
Friday’s meetings and state dinner come during a U.S. political season in which the Nordic countries have made surprising cameos.
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have publicly debated whether Denmark, Sweden and Norway should be models for U.S. policy on worker’s rights and paid family leave. Clinton notably dismissed the notion in a debate last year, declaring, “We are not Denmark.”
Yet despite their deep-rooted socialist traditions, four of the five Nordic countries are currently run by center-right governments, and Obama noted their commitment to free trade and free markets.
On the Republicans side, standard-bearer Donald Trump has suggested the U.S. should untangle itself from the sort of international partnerships Obama and Nordic allies readily embrace.
Obama’s position Friday was unequivocal.
“The world would be more secure and more prosperous if we just had more partners like our Nordic partners,” he said, standing alongside President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and Prime Ministers Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson of Iceland; Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark; Stefan Lofven of Sweden; and Erna Solberg of Norway.
Making light with his five guests, Obama referenced a series of Nordic clichés. He noted how Americans of Nordic descent took with them their woolly sweaters and the lye-cured fish Lutefisk, while children across the United States read Hans Christian Andersen’s tales and Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking,” summarizing Nordic-U.S. interaction from the explorations of Leif Erikson to the pop music of Abba.
True to form, the Nordics agreed to share the role of speaker throughout the day of festivities.
Following Obama opening remarks in the White House’s Grand Foyer, Finland’s Niinisto called his region as a whole a “superpower.” It would amount to the 12th biggest economy, and one that leads on pressing problems like climate change, which he called “the most existential threat in the world today.”
As the only woman leader present, Norway’s Solberg thanked first lady Michelle Obama for improving access to girls’ education, an objective she said they shared “as women, as mothers and leaders.”