Everybody’s talking about…The image of Sweden

Everybody’s talking about…The image of Sweden

A fortnight ago, US President Trump shone the spotlight on Sweden, with his comments setting #lastnightinsweden trending. The comments came as a thunderbolt out of the blue, prompting amazement and humour amongst Swedes, unused to being the focus of attention. Problematically for the country, it was still in this reaction mode when riots broke out in Rinkeby in Stockholm, and hubris gave way to embarrassment at the reality of the problems faced in integrating a wave of refugees. Suddenly, Swedes were confronted by living in the limelight, with political rhetoric exposed to the intense glare of international media and geopolitics. In Mundus’s opinion, this is something Swedes need to accustom themselves to, given the twin forces of a culture that is an ideological outlier, and strident, activist politics and foreign-policy. For the issues are not just asylum and integration, they are also about climate change and energy and feminism, and amongst others things, fundamental values such as a respect of facts, science and rational discussion and freedom of the press.

Swedish views are also deeply rooted, defying a traditional ‘left-right’ analysis that might be made in other countries, as the following quotes highlight:

“… and I can already say now that there will be substantial costs linked to people that have already come, and will be coming in the years to come. They are so substantial that they will add even more restrictions on public finances, and I am going to be completely honest and open about this … Now I am asking the Swedish people to have patience with this, to show solidarity with a world … And we have to prepare ourselves to do that in the coming years. I would also like to say that we create a better world this way." Fredrik Reinfeldt, 2014

“We need a course of action to create a low-carbon and climate-resilient world economy. We must protect land and ocean ecosystems. It’s not a choice, but a necessity for survival … And Sweden will play its part, becoming one of the first fossil-free nations in the world, and having no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.” Stefan Löfven to the UN General Assembly, 2015

“I don’t think a feminist foreign policy is idealistic. It is the smartest policy you can have at the moment. Every peace agreement has a better chance to succeed if you involve women.” Margot Wallström, 2016

“I regret that President Trump is slandering our country in his attempts to find reasons for what he wants to do in closing off the United States. I suspect that his actual knowledge of the issue is extremely limited. If it were not for the massive turmoil that could ensue, I would urge him to skip one of his golfing weekends and come to us and see for himself.”  Carl Bildt, 24 February, 2017

Last night in Sweden

The Löfven government does not always adopt Swedish social conventions of diplomacy and tact. It has in the past criticised both Arab states and Israel, with loudly articulated views about Palestine, and it is very wary of Russia. But it is the US, which seems destined to attract most attention. There have been several potential flashpoints already with the Trump administration. Mainly, these have provoked a collected response from Sweden, such as the Deputy Prime Minister’s Facebook photo of herself signing the Climate Law, flanked only by women, which many interpreted as clever mockery (although this was denied by Lövin’s office). Most recently, it was President Trump’s remarks about a program that he watched on Fox, highlighting the issues of integration of Muslim refugees in Sweden that sparked controversy. As the world wondered whether there had perhaps been a terrorist attack, the reaction of the Swedish government was first to ask for an explanation via their Washington embassy. Suddenly the world was focusing on an issue, which was uncomfortable for Sweden, publicity that was made worse by the unfortunate timing of riots in Rinkeby. Eventually, the government responded by a heavily worded communiqué from the Foreign Ministry, which began ‘In recent times, simplistic and occasionally completely inaccurate information about Sweden and Swedish migration policy has been disseminated.’ The Foreign Ministry then set out a long, factual analysis about the mistaken assumptions. The rebuttal ended by asserting that the Swedish system is nowhere near collapsing, pointing to the high GDP growth rate and government budget surplus as indicators of the country’s strength.

Cultural underpinnings

Sweden has been long-recognised for its unique culture. According to one measure of this, the World Values Survey, Sweden belongs to a group of Protestant European countries, in a cluster, along with its Nordic neighbours, but even more extreme in terms of its secular values and individualism. In comparison with other western countries such as the USA and UK it is much less religious and believes even more in the rights of the individual. And, over the last 20 years Sweden has become even more of an outlier, and now occupies the extreme top-right of the chart opposite. The World Values Survey defines as giving ‘high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.’ In Mundus’s view, this reflects the Sweden that we know, and hence the above quotes from Swedish political leaders fit well within the boundaries of domestic opinion.

It is also our view that the period since the Financial Crisis has witnessed a strengthening of Swedes assertiveness. Sweden was affected badly in the year that the crisis began, but GDP growth surged afterwards and has remained healthy, particularly in comparison with other EU states. This clear success has fed back into Swedes self-perception, strengthening their confidence in ‘the Swedish model’ and Swedish values. In addition, the government has a significant proportion of political activists as ministers, particularly from the Greens, but also Social Democrats, such as the Foreign Minister. These activist politicians began their careers in politics for the change that they hope to bring to Sweden and the world. And given current opinion polls, which make it unlikely that the government will be returned in its current constellation in 2018, these ministers are likely to be thinking to their political legacy.

In this case, there is little to be gained from deferring to the opinions of powerful leaders from other states. At most, what we will see is the government giving the Trump administration a little time to settle in. As Löfven said this week ‘There are many things in the incoming administration's policy that requires clarification. That work is on-going right now and that's why we need to have and have early contact with the administration, then we can have the opportunity to dialogue.’ If, when it comes, the clarification is not what Sweden’s government is hoping for, then there seems little to be gained in downplaying obvious differences in the build-up to the 2018 election. Doing so would require them to back down on major policy initiatives of this government, such as the pledge to be the first fossil-fuel free state and the feminist foreign policy. More likely, is for government ministers to assert the moral strengths of their position, playing well to Swedish ears, but in conflict with conservatives in other countries. Tensions may well come to a head in the UN Security Council, or a meeting of the International Energy Agency later this year. Given this, Mundus recommends that Swedes should fasten their seat belts, or, in the words of Carl Bildt ‘head for the bunkers’.

Note: This is a shortened version of the original. Tables and footnotes are only available in the subscriber version of this article. 

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Sean is responsible for Mundus’ strategy and commercial activities. He began his career in the oil industry Australia. After working internationally in commercial roles with BP in South Africa, the UK and Singapore he moved to Sweden with his family in 2009. He worked in business development and then as the Strategy and Growth Director for NASDAQ Commodities from 2009 to 2015. Sean holds an engineering degree from Adelaide University and an MBA from the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia. He blogs about energy and innovation at www.renovamus.com