- By Jim TownsendJim Townsend just completed eight years as President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. This capped more than two decades of working with European allies and partners to build a post-Cold War transatlantic community. Along the way, he worked on issues that ranged from NATO enlargement to managing coalitions for military campaigns in Libya, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, rebuilding U.S. force presence in Europe, and NATO reform. His greatest accomplishment is being married to Joan Townsend and having three wonderful children: Carolyn, Jimmy, and Beth., Azita RajiAzita Raji served as U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 2016 to 2017.
The U.N. Security Council is rarely the principal battlefield for top U.S. security and foreign policy crises. But because Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has so effectively used her bully pulpit to call for action against egregious acts by Syria and Russia, she has helped fill the void caused by media-shy Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and provided a strong voice for U.S. foreign policy. This means that Haley will be critical in mobilizing the U.N. Security Council to support U.S. actions as the crisis on the Korean Peninsula worsens. But she can’t do it alone: She needs allies on the Council beyond the four other permanent members.
Sweden is a natural ally, but the Trump team isn’t paying attention.
Sweden became a rotating member on the Security Council last year and brings to the table not just shared values and a sophisticated global outlook, but a broad and close bilateral relationship with the United States. This close relationship has been growing for the past few years, especially in the defense and security areas after Russian President Vladimir Putin became more aggressive in the Nordic-Baltic region. As a result, Sweden has worked closely with NATO, the United States, and regionally to stiffen deterrence against Russia. The Russians see that too, which is why Sweden has had to endure Russian cyber attacks, an ongoing misinformation campaign, and airspace violations. When U.S. ships get harassed in the Baltic, it is helpful to have the Swedish military just over the horizon.
But the bottom line is that whether there is fighting to be done in the Baltics or a Security Council resolution to be won in the U.N., Sweden can be very helpful to the United States — but only if the United States makes an effort to work with Sweden.
Swedish Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist is in Washington this week, providing an important opportunity for the new administration to get to know a Sweden that has changed since the last time Republicans occupied the White House. If the administration and Congress are reluctant to give much time to meet with a minister they think is in the United States to preach a long-dead doctrine of neutrality, they will miss a chance to instead discuss an approach to the North Korea crisis, in addition to the crisis in Sweden’s own backyard.
Working closely with Sweden should make Trump happy as he looks for allies and partners to do their part in providing security. Sweden certainly contributes its share, participating in the fights against the Islamic State, against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in the NATO operation over Libya. This would not have been the case 40 years ago, which is when Trump seems to have forged his worldview. The Sweden he came to understand then, the non-aligned Sweden of the “third way” and ABBA, is not the NATO partner of today with whom the United States has one of its closest bilateral military relationships.
But we cannot take this partnership for granted. The politics in Stockholm that keep Sweden out of NATO today could turn against the U.S.-Swedish partnership if politicians feel that the United States no longer shares values with Sweden or that Americans do not appreciate or need a blossoming, cooperative relationship with the Swedes. The fact is we do need this relationship, not just to deter Russia, but especially on the Secuirty Council, where the United States will have to lead a tough campaign to strengthen U.N. sanctions against North Korea. If the United States is forced to take a more active approach towards a North Korean nuclear threat, Haley will need all the friends she can get on the Secuirty Council. The United States cannot take any nation for granted.
So how do we ensure Sweden stays alongside the United States in the months and years to come? Part of reassuring the Swedes that we do indeed continue to share the same values will depend on whether the Trump administration modifies some of its extreme views on issues like immigration, which Sweden must deal with as well. But specific measures the United States can take include most importantly sending out a U.S. ambassador who can continue the work of strengthening bilateral ties in so many areas, such as trade and investment, innovation, and scientific collaboration. On the military side, exercises and training should continue unabated between our two militaries and with NATO. Nordic cooperation and unity were greatly strengthened by meetings of Nordic and Baltic defense ministers hosted by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. The regional unity forged in these meetings help the Nordic and Baltic nations face down Russian pressure together. Those meetings should continue as a priority.
The United States should undertake these measures with Sweden not just to be nice, but because America needs Swedish partnership in so many areas — and on the Security Concil most of all. The Trump administration needs to know that since the end of the Cold War, the United States has had partners like Sweden to bear their shares of the load, and they are willing to do more. But the Swedes and other European partners are now asking how they fit in to the new paradigm in Washington. They need to know that the team in the White House values their cooperation and that there is no time to waste as we meet challenges together, from the Korean Peninsula, to the fight against terrorism, to deterring Russia. But we can’t just take their cooperation for granted. As Trump will learn, it is nice to have friends when danger lurks around the corner — but to keep friends, you have to make an effort.
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