September 6, 2013

Obama in Stockholm

It took the Swedes more than 230 years of planning, but it finally happened: a sitting U.S. president visited Stockholm.

It took the Swedes more than 230 years of planning, but it finally happened: a sitting U.S. president visited Stockholm.

Even then, there was a bit of good luck involved. President Obama was to have a bilateral meeting with President Putin before the G20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, but with the case of Edward Snowden and other sources of friction spoiling the atmosphere, Obama cancelled the meeting and accepted the pending Swedish invitation for a visit.

What was a loss caused by the political chill between the United States and Russia, was a gain to the five Nordic countries. As the Obama-Putin meeting was put on ice, the Nordic heads of state and government – four prime ministers and one president – had a chance of going tête-à-tête with the leader of the one and only superpower in the world.

Without being privy to the dinner discussions last night, one is safe to suspect that the crisis in Syria cast its shadow over everything else. President Obama is obviously trying to canvass for the strongest possible support at home from Congress and abroad from like-minded nations for punitive military strikes against the Bashar al-Assad government for allegedly nerve-gassing their own citizens.

For President Obama, doing nothing would leave a bad precedent for the future dictators planning to perpetrate the same or other ignominious atrocities in their countries. For him, the credibility of the international community is on the line.

What President Obama seems to have secured in Stockholm is a unanimous support from the Nordic counties on strong and serious action in Syria. In the words of the official communique, the United States and the Nordic countries “strongly condemn any and all use of chemical weapons, and we are convinced a strong international reaction is required. Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable.”

For the Nordic countries, these words are strong. Quite obviously, when they accept the principle of strong international reaction, what they refer to is actions – diplomatic measures, freezing of economic assets, sanctions etc. – that have the full backing of the UN Security Council.

Nonetheless, President Obama can at the same time be quite satisfied with the wording. The communique, it is important to note, will not exclude the military measures President Obama has in his mind.

Overall, the contents of the communique offer a rich menu of cooperation between the United States and the five Nordic countries. It will cover common efforts in addressing security issues such as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, illicit international arms trade, and threats to cyber security.

It will include actions that support a global economic recovery, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently being negotiated between the United States and the European Union.

And it will emphasize the commitment of these six countries to take action on climate change, as well as to adopt measures protecting the fragile Arctic environment.

Most of these are “soft power” actions that the leaders of these particular countries could hardly disagree with. As much as any six countries, these countries share fundamental values including the commitment to democracy, human rights, and respect for the rule of law. It is not hard to imagine that President Obama had such points emphasized in his briefing books. He might even have gotten some ideas for his own social and medical care reforms by studying what has been done in the Nordic countries.

One item in the joint communique is intriguing. The United States and the Nordic countries have agreed to launch a U.S.-Nordic Security Dialogue. The countries will meet annually at the officials’ level for the purpose of discussing opportunities for collaboration on global and regional security issues, and seek ways for joint capacity building to promote stabilization in fragile states.

It has been widely feared that Northern Europe and its security issues have more or less fallen off the U.S. radar screen. With President Obama meeting the Nordic leaders yesterday and signing to an impressive set of joint measures, and with the three Baltic presidents meeting him in the White House just last week, that fear seems , like the news of Mark Twain’s death, be highly exaggerated.

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