Next week President Obama will do a stopover in Stockholm en route to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. Although seemingly hastily arranged after the President declined a meeting with his Russian counterpart amidst the U.S.-Russian debacle over the Snowden affair (with perhaps already Syria in mind) Obama's visit to Sweden is not accidental. In fact, a presidential visit had been planned for quite some time, and is indicative of the historically close US-Swedish relations.
So, the question then begs, why anyone in Washington should pay attention to this meeting other than as a convenient, last-minute courtesy call in a friendly but "peripheral" northern European state?
Swedish-American ties are indeed strong. Millions of Swedish-Americans have left their significant mark on American development, over the last two centuries. That, and the President's secret love for ABBA and Stieg Larsson novels of course in itself, should not be a reason for him to visit Stockholm. It is the role Sweden plays today, and the role countries like Sweden are expected to play in the context of transatlantic relations.
A most obvious, and current example of a strong transatlantic link is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Here, Sweden has been one of the starkest supporters from the get-go. Sweden's free-market friendly government plays a key role when it comes to convincing more skeptical EU states (such as France) to move forward on the talks. It is no secret in Washington that there are expectations that Sweden will continue to be one of the drivers of the process as negotiations really get underway and controversial issues will start to surface.
Second, despite being a non-allied country, Sweden is today NATO's closest friend. While the country's neutrality is prohibiting (perhaps for now) as far as NATO membership is concerned, it is one of the most important partners to the alliance, leading the way towards a new and closer tie for partners in and outside Europe. With robust military contributions to the ISAF operation in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and to the 2011 Libya operation (surpassing those of many NATO members), Sweden has also taken many other steps towards partnering more closely with the alliance in recent years. Military contributions aside, Sweden is also leading by example when it comes to providing humanitarian relief to global hot spots and in supporting long-term development goals.
The Swedish foreign minister, Mr. Carl Bildt, also has personal experience from brokering peace on the Balkans in the 1990s. This experience, along with his extensive global network of leaders, may prove helpful in managing several of the crises currently erupting all across the Middle East. Sweden is also expected to play a leadership role in the still infant and somewhat anemic common foreign and security efforts of the European Union.
At a fundamental level, Sweden and the U.S. share many similar values and views on a whole host of global issues, ranging from the need to support democracy and human rights, free trade and to the need to fight global climate change. The NSA scandal aside, both the Swedish government and Washington holds a very high regard for civil liberties issues.
During his visit to Stockholm, President Obama will also meet with leaders from the other Nordic countries. Our Center for Transatlantic Relations has for long advocated the "Nordic way" of development, as a possible and successful model for the modernization of Europe. When many of the countries of Europe struggle to safeguard their democratic way of life, to reform their economies to be able to sustain a welfare model, when the temptation is to find authoritarian and xenophobic solutions, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland stand out as positive examples.
The Nordic region offers an interesting exception to the current malaise characterizing many European economies. As one of the few regions that is currently experiencing economic growth, the Nordic countries are repeatedly ranked among the most innovative and dynamic in the world, constituting a potentially interesting trade partner for American companies seeking to expand abroad. While Sweden's clean tech industry and Finland's IT sector are among the world's best, Norway is an energy rock star and Denmark is a green energy giant. All of them build on a well-educated workforce.
It is also a strong and very welcome message, that the president of the United States cares not just about the 'big boys' in Europe, but about the smaller, but close allies and partners as well. Sweden is perhaps not a globally significant power, but can serve as a globally important example.
In sum, although the timing might be extraordinary, President Obama's upcoming trip to Sweden is not incidental. Nor is it merely a courtesy visit. On the contrary, it signifies the deepening of U.S.-Swedish (and U.S.-Nordic) relations over the past years - a relationship that is increasingly expected to bear weight amidst other pressing global concerns in coming years.
Finally, it will be allowed that the authors pay tribute to the efforts of Swedish diplomacy and to the U.S. Ambassador to Stockholm, Mark Brzezinski. Perhaps good old diplomacy can still do wonders at times.