Anders Mellbourn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Sweden in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Anders Mellbourn, Director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, April 19, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Dr. Mellbourn, welcome to Berkeley.

It's good to be here. Thanks a lot.

Where were your born and raised?

I was born in the south of Sweden, which makes me very proud, but it's only visible in my passport. Then I grew up in Stockholm and in a teacher's family, and with a great interest in public affairs, I would say.

And looking back, how, specifically, did your parents shape your thinking about the world? Just pointed you in that direction?

My father was a professor of German, which was sensitive in the forties and fifties. He got his Ph.D. in the forties in German. He was very active in the Low Church movements, and he had had these popular contacts in Germany, and he was very committed to establishing contacts between the new democratic forces in Germany after the war, especially Mein Teachers. He was a cofounder of a European organization of teachers that met to create understanding after the catastrophe of the Second World War and the Nazis and fascism. That gave me an idealist interest in international affairs. Also, with our church connections, with mission interests in Africa and things like that. That was probably my basic baggage when it comes to international affairs.

Where were you educated?

I was educated in Stockholm, and I have my Ph.D. from the University of Stockholm, where the political science department at that time, and at many times, has been very close to decision-makers, because it's the university in the capital. Many of the professors were also directly involved in public affairs or in government as consultants. Many of us who took our degrees had the idea of not only staying in academia but then [participating in government]. I look at my friends who were teachers' assistants at that time: one is now the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament and former Minister of Defense; another one is a CEO of one of the leading Swedish companies; and others have been in different positions, as state secretaries in government. I have another colleague who was also editor-in-chief of the paper I was with, Dagens Nyheter. So this was a rather special group. This was the sixties.

I'm also very influenced by travel. I traveled in Germany and England with my parents in the fifties as a child, because they had summer courses for teachers in language. I also visited the U.S. quite early. I won a competition when I was fifteen for a seminar on the UN, arranged by the Youth Forum of the UN in the early sixties by a now-defunct New York paper, the New York Mirror, which brought me to New York for the first time.

Then I had the college years, '65, '66, after Swedish high school, and I came back for my graduate work to the University of Michigan, where I met many people that I'm still in contact with, American political scientists. My dissertation, even in Stockholm, was part of the comparative project grant out of Michigan at that time. It was [on] comparative bureaucracy, the roles of politics and administration among civil servants, this theme. Is the civil service a neutral servant, or is it a political servant, or is it more technocratic? That was a major interest of mine, and it's still a prevalent theme in public policy.

If I know anything academically, it's more comparative government than international relations, even [though] I am now more directly into international relations.

Are there any events from that period of your formative years that stand out? The Vietnam War? The revolts of '68? Or the Cold War? What sticks in your mind?

The Cold War was very divisive, to begin with, and the Vietnam War; but I'm more anecdotal with the Cold War. I remember that the first time we started having opinion polls around elections, and projections, was the election of 1960. They obviously had their calculation wrong the first time, because the Swedish Communist Party was getting 15 percent, according to the first projection when polls had closed. I was fourteen years old and I told my parents, "If this is going to [hold up], I have to leave," or something like that.

My setting was very liberal, in the Nordic sense -- not social democratic, but liberal, non-socialist left wing, so to speak. When I went to the U.S. in '65/'66 for my college year on the East Coast -- I was in New York and then in Washington, because it was a Washington semester that small colleges have -- the Vietnam War debate and the discussion had much influence on me; but the impact was very much from the American opposition to the war rather than from the more Marxist discussion that developed in Europe among European students. When I got back I always tried to say that this is an American thing to be against the war, this is not to be against the U.S.

So I feel emotionally rather close to the American generation of the late sixties. Of course, there were many exaggerations in that as well, and I'm more skeptical in many ways now. I heard John Kerry answering these questions on NBC the other day. But this was a formative experience [for me] also.

I think when I ... if you allow me, I'll go on talking.

Yes, please.

I then moved into journalism in the early seventies. I had started my Ph.D. studies and then I was recruited by Dagens Nyheter, the leading paper, to write editorials on foreign affairs, because of contacts and things like that, the way it worked. One of the ideas that I tried to pursue in the seventies, which in today's perspective we can discuss, was that looking at the poor world, the Third World movements, liberation movements against colonialism, it was important to support them, to find a possible way between the superpowers. At that time, it was also a service to democracy, to try to find a solution.

A middle way.

The middle way, which is, in retrospect, sometimes criticized for not having stood up in the Cold War confrontation. [This] is also criticism against Sweden in certain circumstances, which I don't find fair, because there was a case for this. We can see that, for example, with the ANC in South Africa, which many thought (and it was, to a certain extent), an instrument of Moscow communism. The Communist Party was very Moscow oriented and was very strong within the ANC. But some of us, [including] more prominent people than myself, much more prominent, [felt] that showing that a Western capitalist country could support the basic cause of liberation from colonial rule and from racism was important.

It would have been a catastrophe if the Cold War result in the Third World would have been that all these countries lined up with the Soviet side. Of course, they did on certain UN votes, and there were so many crucial votes. But with the revolution in Nicaragua, for example, and the Sandinistas: would they really be "Cuban," or would there be a chance for something else? Something that I was rather interested in, which made both friends, but also enemies, both on the left and the right in the Swedish public at that time.

I get the sense that you're saying that at times the Western side, dominated by the U.S., could be its own enemy; but my focus speaks primarily of the conflict with the Soviet Union not addressing the realities and possibilities on the ground as people sought their national independence.

Yes, I think so, and I think that happened. In that perspective, it was important that certain smaller countries in Europe and others also tried to show that you don't have to be totally anti-Western in the future. We have a better alternative than the Soviet-style communism that now tempts you because you want to be against your old enemy.

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