The Carl Bildt legacy

Controversial, arrogant, funny, and painfully outspoken. Many are the words that over the years have been used to describe Sweden’s outgoing Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. He hands over the Foreign Ministry to his successor today, after eight years as its well-travelled, ever-tweeting frontman and one of Sweden’s longest serving Foreign Ministers.

‘Everybody was there’. When Carl Bildt on 29 September gave an account of his eight years as Foreign Minister at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI), the room was filled to the brim with Swedish and foreign diplomats, scholars and publicists. During his eight years he has had 111 Foreign Minister colleagues in EU circles and attended more than 130 Foreign Ministers’ meetings: “That should be more than a lethal dose”, he said. Constantly on the go, he is so busy that European officials cannot keep track of his moves. Meanwhile his ministry has complained that he has not spent enough time back home. He is a far cry from his predecessor, Jan Eliasson, who frequently had coffee with the Ministry’s staff.

He has been at the epicentre of Swedish politics since the 1970s. But the end of the term of office of Fredrik Reinfeldt’s government means an end to Carl Bildt’s lengthy political service. The story about Carl Bildt is the story of Sweden’s modern political history, and it is rich in colourful detail, events and situations. In his speech at UI, Mr Bildt recalled a speech he delivered at the same Institute in 2006 after being appointed Foreign Minister. For over an hour, he gave an account of how the world has changed over the last eight years. He described the hopes he had for the world, the economy and peace back then, “not only in Europe, but in the world as a whole during the years since the reunification of Europe had begun”. In two respects, his predictions unfortunately came to pass, he said: The international financial crisis of 2007 and an increasingly aggressive Russia, with the invasions of Georgia and later Ukraine. He admitted, among other things, that maybe he could have been more critical of Russia in the beginning of his mission. Mr Bildt, who has been called one of Vladimir Putin’s toughest foes in Europe, made true to his reputation and strongly opposed Russia in his last public speech as Foreign Minister: ”we are obviously facing an openly revisionist, distinctly authoritarian and expressly anti-western Russia today and tomorrow”, said Bildt and continued that after a peaceful period, it is now “the power of weapons that dictates the immediate European geographical area”. Asked by the WorldPost earlier this week why he is so much more outspoken than most other European statesmen on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine, Mr Bildt answered: ”It is for a very simple, but extremely clear reason: Europe’s borders have been drawn in blood, and to change them will draw blood again.” He said that Sweden is also seeing examples of Russia’s assertiveness: ”Even in Sweden, we’ve seen the most serious incursion of our airspace by Russian aircraft in the eight years I have been foreign minister”. In his speech, he talked about ‘troubling trends in Turkish politics’: “That there unfortunately are worrisome trendencies in their policies must no not lead us to undervalue the progress already made or the crucial importance of the steps that must be taken…A Europe that shuts the door on its own opportunities in Turkey is a Europe that shuts the door on its own strategic opportunities in the region whose future will have a marked influence on our own future.”

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Mr Bildt spoke of his concerns about the developments that followed after the Arab Spring and the necessity of a new European global strategy. He stated that the Europe’s crisis management must turn into improved competitiveness, and mentioned the ‘extremely important’ free trade agreement with the United States, and the ‘necessary’ digital internal market: “With 6 per cent of the world’s population, 20 per cent of the world’s economy and 50 per cent of the world’s social expenditure, we must understand that we may be attractive today – but we also face clear challenges in the future.” He pointed to Sweden leading the way on climate issues, with the report from the Global Commission on Economy and Climate, to which Minister for the Environment Lena Ek was one of the initiators, as a concrete example. He said that climate change would not be a problem if the whole world were like Sweden: ”we have reduced our emissions by almost 25 per cent while our GDP has increased by around 60 per cent since 1990”. Speaking about Sweden’s foreign-and security policy, Mr Bildt mentioned the ‘ground-breaking’ cooperation between Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark highlighted by, among other things, the joint air exercises that ”no one would have thought possible not that long ago”. On NATO he stated that Sweden’s cooperation with the alliance becomes ever more important in ‘unpredictable times’. He further believed that the Reinfeldt administration had ”succeeded in eliminating some of the squeamishness about NATO that still remains in circles in our country that are more nostalgically attached to neutrality – although a great deal remains to be done in this regard.” He said that, to him, cooperation in northern Europe has been of the greatest importance during his tenure, while acknowledging the criticism he has faced on not focusing on ‘classic’ areas such as southern Africa. He finished his speech at UI by proudly referring to the newly published Transatlantic Trends survey, which noted that support for the foreign policy pursued was, at 74 per cent, higher in Sweden than in any other EU country.

Carl Bildt has a reputation of being extremely knowledgeable, well-prepared and on top of just about any issue. Swedish journalists agree that he is one of the people scariest to interview. His biographer Björn Häger, due to publish his book in the spring of 2015, has said that the slightest mistake you make as a journalist when interviewing Carl Bildt, he tends to use to his advantage: “He is a famous man of great rhetorical self-esteem, who is unafraid of making mince-meat of critics who do not possess all the facts”. Carl Bildt is controversial and many Swedes claim that he ‘always gets off the hook’. Or as Carl Bildt said when some young reporters at newspaper Aftonbladet tried to make him accountable for secret contacts with the United States: “Reviewing Carl Bildt is nothing for beginners”.  The criticism against him covers a broad spectrum. After having resigned as leader of the Moderate Party in 1999 – and hence becoming a private citizen – he took several assignments in the business world. In 2002 he joined the board of Vostok Nafta, an investment company with holdings in the Russian gas company Gazprom. His shareholdings in VostokNafta became an issue for the Riksdag Committee on the Constitution, and in December 2006, he sold his shares in the company. He has also been a Director of the oil company Lundin Petroleum (called Lundin Oil until 2001). Lundin Petroleum drilled for oil in southern Sudan and was singled out in a 2010 report by the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan (ECOS), as complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The company denied the allegations. He has been an advisor to the fund manager East Capital and PR firm Kreab. He stepped down when he became Foreign Minister in October 2006. Recently, his stint with Kreab caused a Georgian ex-minister to accuse him of corruption. Asked to comment on the strong criticism he often faces, Mr Bildt told magazine Café: “I have strong opinions. I stand out. I am demonised. But I never read it.”

Despite his somewhat dour manner, Bildt has charm, which has attracted devoted followers. But Carl Bildt has ruffled some feathers along the way. Some observers have called his undiplomatic comments a product of Swedish upbringing, which values honesty even if it hurts. Mr Bildt’s bluntness was also noticed during this spring’s crisis in Ukraine, when he called President Viktor Yanukovych a “Quisling” on Twitter. A choice of words that met criticism not the least in Norway – Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian politician who stood on Nazi Germany’s side in his own country and “Quisling” is used today as a synonym for traitor. Bildt later admitted that his tweet was not very diplomatic: “No,” he said, “but a spade should be called a spade”. But even his fiercest critics concede Bildt has put Sweden firmly on the diplomatic map. Carl Bildt himself said at UI that he finds it difficult to say what he would miss the most or the least. But asked what he is most proud of he said: “many people say that Sweden really has been seen and heard in the world and in European politics, that we have had influence”.

He is the diplomat that world loves to hate, but what Carl Bildt will do now is still unclear. It has been rumoured that he will be the EU’s Ambassador to Washington. The author of three books, he once said he wanted to be “the Olof Palme of the right”. He could yet end up with a place in the history books. Until then one thing is certain: he will not retire.

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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