Elisabeth Braw, The Wall Street Journal, 23.05.2018
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently received his Swedish and Finnish counterparts with a high-profile ceremony at the Pentagon. Why the pomp and circumstance? The defense ministers were in Washington to sign an extensive cooperation agreement—a trans-Atlantic success story hiding in plain sight. More European countries should follow the Swedes and Finns in finding practical if limited ways to increase cooperation with the Trump administration.
“Sweden and Finland signing the agreement is a pragmatic move,” says René Nyberg, a Finnish former ambassador who co-wrote a government-commissioned report on the potential benefits to Finland of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This month’s agreement codifies a range of cooperative practices the three countries have developed over the past several years, including information-sharing and joint exercises. “Primarily we want to build interoperability through exercises,” Sweden’s Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said during his visit to Washington.
While modest, the agreement may be the most significant diplomatic achievement between European countries and the Trump administration. There’s little competition: European Union negotiators have achieved only a temporary postponement of U.S. tariffs on steel. Meantime, the gulf between Washington and Europe has widened over a range of issues. This makes the U.S.-Finnish-Swedish agreement all the more remarkable.
The accord was negotiated and signed by ministers representing decidedly different political camps. Swedish Peter Hultqvist, a Social Democrat representing a coalition that contains the Green Party, faced considerable opposition from cabinet colleagues. Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö belongs to a center-right government. And Mr. Mattis works for Donald Trump.
The agreement shows that even in today’s strained circumstances, trans-Atlantic cooperation is still possible. “Even though there are ideological differences between our three countries, the security situation remains, and this agreement shows that you can achieve pragmatic solutions that benefit everyone,” notes Karlis Neretnieks, a retired major general and former commander of the Swedish Defense University. Adds Mr. Nyberg: “It’s an example that we Europeans don’t always need to go to the White House.”
Sweden and Finland wisely chose to focus on an area with potential for cooperation and shared benefits. Both countries need to strengthen their defenses against Russia, especially since they don’t belong to NATO. The U.S. also benefits from better defense in the Baltic region. “Politically, Sweden and Finland are not ready to join NATO, but we can’t tackle security threats alone,” says retired general Sverker Göranson, who was chief of Sweden’s armed forces from 2009-15. “Joint exercises involving our three countries are crucial, because it enables us to conduct joint operations if needed.” Last year 1,300 U.S. troops participated in Aurora 2017, Sweden’s largest military exercise in more than 20 years.
Some Europeans might call the Swedish-Finnish overture a form of disloyalty, given Mr. Trump’s hostility toward Europe. But it isn’t. Neither the Swedes nor Finns are breaking ranks with the EU on key issues such as Russia, tariffs or the Iran nuclear deal. Their agreement with the Pentagon — which also includes regular trilateral meetings — zeroes in on aspects that can be developed regardless of the prevailing political climate.
Over the past 25 years, Central and Eastern European countries in particular have sought to establish strong bilateral relations with the U.S. Now is an opportunity to further strengthen such ties. Even a powerful country like Germany, which has often come under fire from Mr. Trump, could find areas where on-the-ground cooperation with the U.S. can be solidified.
Is this ideal? Certainly not. But a breakdown of trans-Atlantic ties would benefit neither Europeans nor the U.S., and unglamorous technical cooperation brings practical benefits. The U.S.-Swedish-Finnish agreement strengthens the trans-Atlantic link by reinforcing working relationships between soldiers, officers, bureaucrats — many of whom will outlast the current contentious era. As the British supermarket giant Tesco proclaims in its slogan, every little helps. Let’s hope Mr. Mattis soon hosts more honor cordons for European colleagues.
Ms. Braw is a senior consultant at Control Risks.
Photo: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (center) with Peter Hultqvist (left) and Jussi Niinistö, the Swedish and Finnish defense ministers. By: SHAWN THEW/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY/SHUTTERSTOCK