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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Sweden's Role in the World

How does this new world after 9/11 impact a small country like Sweden and its foreign policy? In what ways, if at all, does this changed world require Sweden to rethink its foreign policy?

It has fundamental impact for us. It had already started with the end of the Cold War. In my editorials in the seventies, when we talked about Swedish foreign policy, it was [to make] the case for in-between action, in order to be faithful to democratic ideals, saying that there is something in between that you can develop to help people [avoid] the Soviet trap, if you would like to call it that.

Today's world is more complicated, when there is only one superpower and there are new confrontations. We are more definitely into the Western structure, whether we are members of NATO or not. And we have, of course, joined EU, and we are now trying to learn to see that an attack on Madrid is an attack on us, because we are members of the EU. We are working in the larger context. We have to realize that we cannot isolate ourselves from the threat.

Admittedly, there could have been, in the Swedish tradition, the feeling that since we are standing on the side, we are not that open to the attacks. Maybe Stockholm is not as high up on the hit list. But with mobility, we know that terrorists from certain areas have been living in Sweden. We are part of the system, and we have to see what is out contribution there. Maybe we have certain strengths in civil society developments and conflict resolution, and we now have to contribute them in a wider context. We are still making mistakes in that. We are still learning that and realizing it.

It's a paradox, because Sweden is a very globalized country. We have a very globalized industry. We had that much earlier than you had. Swedish industry was dependent on international trade. Trade issues have never been controversial from the point of view of the left, really, traditionally in Sweden. It's been [important to] the left that we have foreign trade. Outsourcing is not a [concern] that will catch on in the way it does here.

This is not primarily [a question of whether] we should send troops here and there; we should, to a certain extent. But in this organized forum that we are a part of, we have to give our instruments to a larger group. That's where the EU development is important for us.

What form does that take? Intelligence, cooperation? You mentioned feeling this common threat if Madrid is attacked. But I'm curious, does it embed you more deeply in Europe's way of seeing the problem, which is different from that of the United States?

Yes, and that is one of our complications, because Swedish public opinion and the government has said that NATO membership is not in the cards. That's still our intention. Even with this basic pro-American culture that we have in the north of Europe (and in one way we are more Anglo-Saxon in our orientation than Continental), when it comes to security, there is the fear of getting [involved in NATO]. But we have said that we are now totally into the European structures, and [that is a] paradoxical role for Sweden. Well, there are two things -- one is not paradoxical, that maybe we will try to push for the soft power aspects, even if Europe has to get its military act together. The soft power instruments we are relatively good at; [but] we will have to contribute in the larger context.

The other paradoxical aspect is that we in the north, those who are NATO members and those who are not, like the Finns and the Swedes, with the new Baltic states, will have to work to get the transatlantic context in order again, because the concern for U.S. presence in Europe and openness in contacts is probably stronger in the north, regardless of NATO membership, than in other parts of Europe. We could have an interesting cooperation between the Baltic states now, both members of NATO and EU, former Soviet members, Poland and these countries that Secretary Rumsfeld calls "New Europe." We have the northern part of "old Europe," Germany, and then we have the Scandinavians. Maybe we can contribute something together, both realizing that our future is in developing the European Union and making enlargement work, but at the same time upholding the relationship with the U.S., not uncritically.

So in a way, the British example is a good one for you, in the sense of trying to find a middle way between the United States and Europe, but maybe not taking the exact form that the British took, namely in supporting the war and providing a military contingent. What is the politics of that in Sweden?

Swedes feel close to the Brits in many ways, and this is also a cultural thing, with language and everything like that. We in Sweden shared the hesitancy of the Euro with the Brits, perhaps for different reasons. But of course, there is skepticism that the Blair administration has been so close to the Bush administration on this. We don't share their view of the Iraq developments. But the idea seen in Britain that you have to keep the relationship with the Americans, which many Europeans realize, is probably a little stronger [for Swedes].

Going back to our proud history, or less proud history, of great power status, we have always had this tension with the Russians, regardless if this was Czarist Russia or the Communist Soviet Union. We are still very nervous about what's happening in Chechnya, and with [the question of] press freedom in Russia, and [whether] democracy is getting on, because we will never be totally at ease with Russia. And in that case, we think having the Americans in the vicinity is a better thing that relying on Paris. That's quite true.

Sweden has a long commitment to multilateral processes, and here I'm not talking Europe, but I'm talking about the UN. [Multilateralism] is a place for a small state to realize its idealism and its foreign policy goals. That's another layer that has to be added, because not only do you want to be tied to Europe and not untied from the United States, but you also want to further the mechanisms that come with multilateral legitimacy and processes.

Oh, yes. That's why we have had these problems, to put it mildly with the Iraq war. But it's interesting in this aspect, you ask the question [asked by] the Swedish foreign minister at the time, the late Anna Lindh, who was tragically assassinated last September, dying on September 11 of all days, last year. She was supportive of the military buildup as long as there was a chance for a Security Council resolution based on the findings of the inspections. The inspectors were led by a Swede, speaking of our commitment to multilateralism.

It was only when it was clear that the Americans with the Brits were going to go it alone, disregarding the Security Council, and when there were no reports from the inspectors that the WMDs were there, that Sweden said that this is the wrong policy. We did not oppose the buildup and the first phases, like the Germans did, for example. There's a great difference there. I remember the Swedish prime minister being extremely critical of his fellow Social Democratic colleague, Chancellor Schroeder, early February, coming back from Berlin, saying, "I don't know what they are talking about. I can't understand their policy." Which was quite remarkable.

Sweden officially accepted the Afghanistan invasion, since it was based on the Security Council protocol. Of course, there will always be a tension between a superpower and a small power on this. Some people in Sweden now also say that we have been too committed to the UN, and the UN is not a very efficient organization. There are many things that are true in that, but, basically, multilateralism is essential for a country like Sweden.

I would even say this rather jokingly, that it's surprising with our problems with the EU membership, where we are not very federalist -- if you are familiar with this discussion, which is very European and hasn't caught fire here at all in the U.S., probably for good reason -- but anyhow, Sweden is very intergovernmental, not ceding sovereignty that much to the Commission. And there could be good reasons for this: it's a nonaccountable bureaucracy and things like that. But, otherwise, if you are into multilateralism, of course, you have to cede sovereignty, and we have ceded sovereignty to the UN. We can accept military decisions taken by the Security Council.

What's interesting now is that we have seen the Security Council improving in the last ten years, definitely. There are very interesting developments in that, which the U.S. also should see. When we are talking about sovereignty and the U.S. blames the UN for rather abusive states stressing their sovereignty and preventing things from happening, of course, we have the problem of the U.S. being so sensitive to its own sovereignty as well. Sovereignty is upheld by failed states, warlords in failed states or those dominating failed states, some rogue states, abusive states, and then, unfortunately, by the only superpower. That's a little ironic.

Next page: The Role of a Superpower

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