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Story highlights

President Obama will host a state dinner to honor five Nordic nations

Obama has praised the countries' stability

Washington CNN —  

President Barack Obama has hosted plenty of confrontational foreign leaders at the White House, haggling over military aggression, trade disputes and any other irritant that brings a head of state into the Oval Office.

When Obama convened the leaders of the Nordic bloc on Friday, it was not one of those meetings.

“This was a very useful and important conversation, although there was probably too much agreement to make for as exciting a multilateral meeting as I sometimes participate in,” Obama joked after a 90-minute session with the leaders of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark Friday.

Amid turmoil in the Middle East, cross-border aggression in Eastern Europe, maritime disputes in Asia and restive governments in South America, the northern European nations remain an oasis of liberal cool for a president who has sometimes been described in similar terms.

It’s no wonder Obama is fond of musing to his aides, “Why can’t all countries be like the Nordic countries?”

“We are usually dealing with a lot of difficult parts of the world,” said Charles Kupchan, Obama’s top adviser for European affairs. “Suddenly, you go up to the Nordic region of the world, and not only do you have a part of the world that is extremely stable, and Democratic, and liberal, you have a part of the world that is peaceful and is contributing to peace and to the humanitarian agenda and many of the interests the United States cares about in a way that is consistent and reliable.”

Those attributes were toasted in top Washington fashion Friday during a state visit, replete with a pomp-filled Grand Foyer welcoming ceremony and evening state dinner. It’s rare for nations to be honored that way as a group – the official list of Obama’s state visits contains only individual countries – but officials say it made sense for the tightly-coordinated Nordic bloc.

The President greeted each country’s leader in their native language Friday morning, which prompted good-natured chuckles as he tripped over some of the words. In brief remarks, Obama said the U.S.’s Nordic allies are “extraordinary countries” and “extraordinary friends,” noting many shared values, including a commitment to democracy and a belief in creating opportunity for all people.

The leaders arrived at a contentious political moment in the United States that has many allies wondering where they’ll stand on a post-Obama global stage. The Nordic nations are monitoring the U.S. presidential election anxiously as presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump casts doubt about his commitment to the NATO alliance, particularly as Russia continues its military build-up along its western borders.

And they watched with amusement as Sen. Bernie Sanders, his rival Hillary Clinton and former GOP contender Sen. Marco Rubio debated various aspects of their countries’ social and economic structures – deriding Rubio when he joked Sanders would make a good president of Sweden (the constitutional monarchy has a prime minister, not a president).

After their meeting, Sweden’s prime minster praised Obama’s attempts to install Nordic-style programs in the United States, including expanding health care coverage and bolstering social safety net programs.

“Seeing the U.S. advance on these issues will create new ripples of hope for all of us who believe in social justice and individual freedom,” Stefan Löfven said.

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During midday talks between Obama and the other leaders, Russia’s aggressions took a central role, Obama said. The last time Obama met as a group with the Nordic countries, it was during a quickly arranged stop in Stockholm after he canceled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. It was meant as a rebuke to Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine, but six months later, Russia was completing its annexation of Crimea unabated.

Rounds of sanctions haven’t prompted Putin to reverse course, leading to some European nations to doubt their efficacy. But Obama and the Nordic nations are insistent the financial restrictions be renewed when they expire this summer.

“If we make concessions now, what kind of signal would that send to Russia and Ukraine?” one Nordic ambassador said to the U.S. last week. The ambassador spoke on background to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

Obama said those anxieties were mutual.

“We believe that our citizens have the right to live in freedom and security, free from terrorism, and a Europe where smaller nations are not bullied by larger nations,” Obama said. “Around the world, America’s closest partners are democracies and we only need to look at the Nordic countries to see why – we share the same interests and we share the same values.”

The leaders also hoped to hash out a strategy for absorbing waves of migrants, as well as boost efforts against ISIS. Obama also pressed for better sharing of intelligence between nations about potential ISIS sympathizers who may be plotting attacks in Europe.

Later in the day, the Nordic officials will reconvene at the White House for a state dinner, the highest honor conferred upon visiting heads of government.

The decor and menu all reflect a heavy nod to the guests. Absent are the fussy arrangements featured for past dinners, replaced with uncluttered, functional settings featuring natural materials and clean lines. There are no tablecloths; instead, rented dark wood tables are featured with only a woven white runner down the center.

The dinner will take place in a tent on the South Lawn with a transparent ceiling the White House says will “evoke shadowy spaces in the arctic night.”

On the menu: salt-cured ahi tuna served in a hard-carved ice tray; tomato tartare salad; and red-wine-braised short ribs. Dessert is caramel almond mille feuille.

White House chef Cris Comerford said the cuisine was partially inspired by New Nordic cooking – exemplified by Copenhagen food mecca Noma – that places emphasis on local, sometimes foraged, ingredients. That includes the presentation of canapes, one of which is served on old branches gathered from the South Lawn. The White House is also serving small bites of chicken and waffles, citing the popularity of waffles in Northern Europe.

CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Laura Koran contributed to this report.