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What the Nordics can teach us

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On a recent visit to four of the five Nordic countries, I noticed a strange dichotomy — of self doubt on the one hand, and superiority on the other. The first is perhaps the result of the sudden challenges to modern democratic societies, when their achievements of the past 70 years are cast into doubt, when their citizens live their lives under threat. The second may be a result of the recent global hype surrounding Nordic societies, as if they are some kind of a socialist utopia. To me, the sense of insecurity and fear of the future that I felt there was more striking.

Yet, that fear clearly is mixed with bold ideas, plans and efforts for how to save themselves — and perhaps the world. The Nordic people are grounded in pragmatism, democracy and capitalism-light.

{mosads}The Nordic spirit — somewhat bruised by recent political and economic crises, exacerbated by the European refugee conundrum — is still alive and well. Nordic people are fighters; they have survived through the centuries braving tough weather, rough seas, and the threat of invasion by powerful neighbors, Germany and Russia. They surely will continue to survive. But perhaps they themselves don’t know what an outsider can see: their societies, built on trust, have much to offer the rest of the world, including the United States.

When you arrive to any of these countries, the orderliness, the care for the immediate environment, the smart solutions serving the citizens are striking. One cannot fail to see that the carefully planned cities and the manicured neighborhoods are the reflection not of exaggerated wealth, but of the philosophy of caring for others, for the citizenry, beyond caring just for oneself.

Not that they don’t have any problems at all. The people I met, while proud that their countries rank among the happiest in the world, weren’t ecstatic about it. Most see it this way: “We, too, have our challenges and all we can do is to instill into the next generation, and perhaps others, the desire and ambition to find solutions that don’t disrupt our democratic way of life, and that we make our modest contribution to the welfare of Planet Earth.” Big words, great ambitions, but nonetheless sincere. Most are confident that they can beat the present wave of desperation, angst and extremism.

I also found that Nordics, in general, love America. They have not forgotten that their freedom and security depends on the protective shield of the United States. Although Finland and Sweden missed a chance to join NATO in the 1990s, when the proverbial “geopolitical window of opportunity” was open, even they realize the importance of the relationship. These countries are some of America’s best friends and allies.

I did encounter confusion about today’s America. Many Nordics don’t understand what’s going on in our country and they’re frightened by the partisan divide, polarization and infighting. But they acknowledge that there is no alternative to preserving the Nordic-America relationship. They were flattered to hear that I called them “the stem cells of liberal democracies,” that I think this is a moment when they can give back to America and be an important part of the debate about the direction the United States is heading.

The takeaway from my visit is that the Nordics desire for a stronger and broader relationship with America, not a weaker one. This relationship lasts in good times and bad. I also felt the wish to draw the five countries (and perhaps the Baltics) closer together, be more visible, be a more important player in the transatlantic relationship. I saw the efforts for greater internal cooperation, a growing interest to be considered one entity — making them a powerhouse strategically, economically and socially.

Here in America, we should look beyond Tivoli, the Blue Lagoon, Saunas, the Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) and the Wasa. We must help the Nordics rid themselves of the clichés stuck on them as the “beautiful rich kids of the world.” They are not socialist countries, bordering on communism. They are plain old “capitalism with a heart.” They must help us help them be the drivers for new ideas, for technical and social innovation, and responsible leaders in the technological age.

We must harness their incredible solutions for livable, sustainable, smart cities. We need to team with them to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables pragmatic and sustainable. We must encourage them to intensify their joint effort, as a group of countries, to build the Nordic brand as a source of solutions for other countries, including the United States.

The survivability of a society depends not on how big or strong it is, but on its ability to adapt. Adaptation is not about losing one’s identity, traditions or ambitions. On the contrary, it is about cooperation, learning and sharing. All five Nordic countries have been remarkably resilient in all of these. The U.S.-Nordic relationship is a dynamic, not a static process. They have a lot to offer to us as we ponder our own future. We’d be well served to mimic the Nordic mindset of inclusion and tolerance, of innovation and competitiveness, of creativity and design.

Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden perhaps hold the secret that we seek: the Nordic way.

Andras Simonyi, Ph.D., a former Hungarian Ambassador to NATO and the United States, is leader of the “Nordic Ways” project at George Washington University.

Tags Europe Nordic countries smart cities US allies

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