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date: 08 April 2020

Summary and Keywords

Relations between the British colonies in North America and the three Scandinavian countries—Norway, Denmark, and Sweden—predate American independence. Government-level interaction was rather limited until WWII, but cultural links emerged through the extensive settlement of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish immigrants in mid- and later nineteenth-century America, especially in the American Midwest. During WWII, the United States and Norway became allies in 1941, Denmark became a de facto Allied nation in 1944, and Sweden remained formally neutral while becoming a non-belligerent on the Allied side in 1944–1945.

By the end of the war, the United States emerged as a superpower. After initial disinterest, America strived to integrate Scandinavia into the US–led Western security system. Norway and Denmark became US allies and joined NATO as founding members in 1949. Sweden remained non-aligned, but formed close military ties to the United States in 1949–1952.

Throughout the Cold War, US–Scandinavian relations were characterized by ambivalence. America and Scandinavia shared the perception of the Soviet Union as a threat and cooperated militarily, but the Scandinavian countries limited the cooperation in important respects. For example, Sweden never joined NATO, and Denmark and Norway did not allow foreign bases or nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime. America was often frustrated with these limitations but nevertheless accepted them. The Scandinavian restrictions were partially founded on a desire to reduce the risk of a Soviet attack, but there were also fears of being controlled or dominated by the American superpower.

Broader ideological factors also played a role. Mainstream Scandinavian attitudes to America, both among policymakers and the general public, ranged from strongly pro-American to highly skeptical. Americans and Scandinavians shared democratic values, but they organized their societies differently in important respects. Scandinavians were exposed to American ideas and products, of which they rejected some and accepted some.

After the Cold War, US–Scandinavian relations were increasingly defined by issues outside Western Europe. Denmark abandoned its Cold War reservations toward America and aligned itself closely with the United States when it came to participation in expeditionary military operations. Norway and Sweden have also participated, but to a more limited extent than Denmark. For Sweden, cooperating closely and openly with the United States and NATO nevertheless contrasted with its non-aligned tradition and often conflicted Cold War relations with the United States. After the Russian invasion of Crimea, questions about territorial defense again became more prominent in US–Scandinavian relations. Under the Trump administration, US–Scandinavian relations have been characterized by turbulence and great uncertainty, even though cooperation continues in many areas.

Keywords: United States, Scandinavia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, foreign policy, defense policy, security, cultural relations

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