STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Like a distant cousin who unexpectedly shows up for dinner after years of ignoring invitations, President Obama arrived in Sweden on Wednesday for a last-minute, but first-ever, presidential visit to this Scandinavian capital.
Obama visited on an unusually sunny day and was greeted by large crowds of spectators as he zipped through meetings, a visit to a Holocaust memorial and an evening of diplomacy on his way to a meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Swedish stopover was added to the president’s schedule after Obama’s earlier plans fell through. Last month, the White House canceled a Moscow summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the ugly extradition fight over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and a year of dead-end diplomacy had left U.S.-Russian relations so stuck that there was little hope for quick progress. Putin’s loss became Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s gain.
But Reinfeldt received a distracted president. Obama left Washington in the middle of an intense, high-stakes lobbying effort to line up congressional support for his plan to launch missiles to punish the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack. Any hope of shining much of a spotlight on favorite Swedish issues – climate change, Arctic policy, trade – largely were dashed.
An afternoon news conference with Reinfeldt was dominated by the crisis in Syria, and Reinfeldt, a moderate up for reelection next year, welcomed his guest by keeping some distance. The prime minister said he believed holding Assad to account for his alleged use of nerve gas in the Damascus suburbs was best handled by the United Nations.
Asked by reporter what “inspires” him about Sweden, Obama carefully commended the country for its strong government investments in research, education and infrastructure, while still supporting “free markets.”
“You know, I have to say that if I were here in Europe, I’d probably be considered right in the middle, maybe center left, maybe center right, depending on the country. In the United States sometimes the – the names I’m called are quite different,” he said.
Obama had little to say about the purpose of the trip. Stockholm is one of the “world’s greatest cities,” he said. He thanked Sweden for exporting hockey players to his hometown Chicago Blackhawks.
“Hej,” Obama said, greeting reporters. “I’ve just exhausted my Swedish.”
The White House tried to put the best face on the trip, downplaying the eleventh-hour planning with the sort of guest etiquette Miss Manners could approve. The unexpected change in Obama’s schedule was a chance to finally accept an old friend’s invitation, officials said.
“The stop in Sweden is the result of a letter of invitation that came from the Swedish prime minister some time ago, so we’ve been thinking about making that trip,” a senior administration official said. “And the cancellation of the Moscow summit is what allowed us to move forward now.”
If the Swedes were offended to be the presidential plan B, they did not show it Wednesday. Swedish newspapers featured prominent Obama coverage and trivia, including one detailed description of the president’s motorcade that compared the presidential limousine with a Volvo V70 wagon, for reference.
Some of the hype was ginned up by the U.S. Embassy, which had been snapping photos of a cardboard cutout of the president in front of Stockholm landmarks, including the ABBA museum, for posting on Facebook.
Some protesters gathered outside Obama’s hotel and at other sites around the city. Opposition to the prosecution of Pfc. Chelsea Manning featured prominently, as did concerns over NSA spying and Obama’s failure to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This was the first visit to Stockholm for a sitting U.S. president. George W. Bush visited Gothenburg, Sweden, for a European Union summit in 2001, but in the diplomatic rule book, that visit falls short of the more coveted one-on-one meeting that Obama held with Reinfeldt.
On a policy front, Obama’s visit was being hailed in Sweden as a chance to push the Swedish view on world affairs, such as a more aggressive effort to curb climate change and expand free trade. The White House is looking to Sweden to help support its push for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.
After his news conference, Obama visited Stockholm’s Great Synagogue, which opened in 1870, where he examined artifacts related to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and businessman who rescued thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary. He and Reinfeldt also visited a Holocaust Memorial.
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, Obama paid tribute to Wallenberg in brief comments.
“Because he refused to stand by, Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose, not simply to bear witness, but also to act,” he said.
Obama also visited the Royal Institute of Technology, where he looked at some projects related to energy, including a small car powered by fuel cells. He ended his day with dinner at the prime minister’s residence with the leaders of Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark.