Articles - December 2017


According to a reliable, albeit unscientific, survey, more than two-thirds of the ambassadors in Washington have served their embassies in a less exalted capacity. True to form, Sweden's Ambassador, Karin Olofsdotter, was Deputy Chief of Mission from 2008 – 2011; she now leads this mission as Sweden's first woman ambassador to Washington, having presented her credentials in September.

In a recent interview with Diplomatic Connections at the House of Sweden, a stunning example of contemporary Swedish architecture on the Potomac River, she repeated a more recent redefinition of Sweden's long-standing neutrality policy, which kept the Scandinavian country out of World War II. Sweden, she said, is "militarily nonaligned." This refinement reflects Sweden's membership of the European Union, and the fact that it is a partner with, but not a member of, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Still, newly aggressive Russia, their neighbor to the east, concerns the Swedes, drawing them ever closer to Western security structures. Sweden has taken part in recent NATO exercises and re-introduced the draft.

The influx of refugees/immigrants is a growing domestic problem. In Sweden, unlike some other EU countries, the issue is not whether to admit them; rather, the challenge, as Ambassador Olofsdotter explains, is how to integrate them into the welfare system with minimum disruption. Sweden, in 2015-2016, with a population of 10 million, took in 163,000 refugees, mainly from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Swedes are proud of their welfare state which includes universal healthcare and schooling as well as other generous benefits. The country boasts high revenues and wages, collective bargaining, significant levels of female labor-force participation, and an open economy.

In the summer, a government crisis threatened the coalition of Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Lofven when three of his ministers faced a no-confidence vote over an alleged security breach tied to a foreign contract. Lofven averted the vote by removing two of the ministers, but the crisis raised questions about his survival until the 2018 parliamentary election.

When it comes to bi-lateral relations, Karin Olofsdotter says the Trump administration's declared opposition to existing trade agreements is worrying (Sweden's exports to the U.S. run upwards of $10.2 billion annually), but in many respects, the relationship is sound. The State Department country profile of the Scandinavian constitutional monarchy calls it "a respected moral leader in international affairs." Ambassador Olofsdotter, who stays fit running long distances, is married with two children.

Diplomatic Connections: Is Prime Minister Lofven still your prime minister?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: He is definitely still my prime minister.

Diplomatic Connections: Sweden hasn't been involved in a war since 1814, but today can you say that Sweden is still a neutral country?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: We are not actually neutral. We are militarily non-aligned, and there's a difference. We are not like Austria and Switzerland. The fact that we're non-aligned means that we have not signed up with any military alliance. In case of war, it doesn't mean that we would necessarily be neutral. We have a solidarity clause now that all political parties have signed up to that in case of an attack on our neighbors; we will come to their help and protection, and we hope or assume that they would do the same thing. It sounds very much like Article 5 in the NATO treaty; but, of course, it isn't because this is just us stating our hopes and wishes. It's simply a statement of how we see our neighbors and our obligations towards our neighbors.

Diplomatic Connections: Isn't there a Nordic defense agreement?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Not on paper, no. There's a Nordic Defense Cooperation, but that's not equal to NATO, which is a treaty-based alliance. The Nordic Defense Cooperation is a voluntary cooperation. We have a very deep relationship, particularly with Finland. What we have done is stressed what we would do to confront the situation in our region, with the hope that it would be reciprocated.

Diplomatic Connections: But given the tension in the region, isn't there also a discussion about joining NATO?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: It's a discussion that comes and goes over the years. At the moment, given the security situation in our vicinity, with us strengthening our defense, and seeing how the Russians are acting in Crimea and Georgia, and with the whole debate about security and defense in Europe, the issue is not on the table again; it's discussed from time to time. Some political parties want us to join, but that doesn't mean that it's on the table.

Diplomatic Connections: If there were a referendum on whether or not to join NATO would it win?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Probably not. According to the opinion polls, I think it's 40 percent who want Sweden to join. It's going up slowly, but it's not the majority of the population.

Diplomatic Connections: But, Sweden is a member of the European Union.

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Yes.

Diplomatic Connections: But not yet a member of the euro zone.

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Sweden has been a member of the European Union since 1995. But Sweden had a referendum and voted against adopting the euro. Sweden plans to honor the referendum and thus, will be maintaining the Swedish kroner for the foreseeable future.

Diplomatic Connections: And doesn't the EU also have a Common Security and Defense policy?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Yes. We don't know how far that will go in the end. I was working at NATO and the European Union in 2001 when we created the military capability in the EU, and there was a big debate on it at that time, that it must not be anything that duplicated NATO.

Diplomatic Connections: Doesn't that run counter to Sweden's non-aligned position?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: The strong line goes with joining something that has collective defense, and the EU doesn't have it. We're quite cooperative with the European Union security effort. We have many times signed up for the EU Battle Group, on two occasions we've even been responsible for it, not that it has been used, but still it's a readiness factor. And we take part in all NATO's military operations.

Diplomatic Connections: As you say, the main concern is Russia's recent demonstrations of force in Crimea and Georgia.

Ambassador Olofsdotter: It's a historical concern, and the tension is going up because we're in the neighborhood.

Diplomatic Connections: And you have re-introduced the draft.

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Yes.

Diplomatic Connections: And this year, you staged military exercises that were the biggest in 20 years.

Ambassador Olofsdotter: There is support in the country for strengthening our military capability. We are increasing our defense spending by 11 percent in the coming years. There's really no opposition to having a conscript army again, but we're not even close to signing up the same amount of people as we did in the old days. We ended the conscript about 15 years ago. This year it will be 4,000 people. When I was young, 80 percent of all men were conscripted, and then the numbers gradually dropped, especially after the end of the Cold War. Now, we're not getting the numbers of professionals, so we're re-introducing conscription. But it has changed. The needs are different.

Diplomatic Connections: Are there Swedish troops in Afghanistan?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: We've been there for years, with a large contingent before in ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), but now we are there with a training and advisory mission. We are in all NATO missions, and then, of course, we are in the EU missions as well. In NATO, we are together with four other countries designated as Enhanced Partnership Countries (Sweden, Finland, Australia, Georgia, and Jordan) meaning that we are even closer than some other partners.

Diplomatic Connections: Since 2015, there's been a surge of refugees admitted to Sweden – 160,000 in that year alone. How would you update the refugee situation in Sweden?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: The asylum process takes almost two years, so the people who get asylum are now coming out on the labor market. We have elections in 2018, and I do believe that (refugee) integration will be a very big issue in the elections. How do we create a system that really integrates people, gets the into the labor market? It's a big issue where some parties want to lower the minimum wage, which we don't have; others want us to reinforce education—it's a big political question. I think most people are actually not so negative towards refugees getting asylum; the concern is how to integrate these people well into our life, and into our economy. The question is no longer whether to let in refugees. That was an issue in 2015, but now it's an integration issue.

Diplomatic Connections: How has the influx impacted on the Swedish welfare system?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: There's not really any discussion about the costs to our welfare system; it's more a debate on how to integrate them in the best way. That is a challenge. If we don't manage, we will have people who never have jobs, remain isolated, don't learn Swedish, and so on. Waves of integration we've had before, like in the 1990s, were the people from the Balkans, and that has worked very well. And all the earlier waves as well, so I think it was the concern that there were so many coming at one time and that would put a big strain on the system. I mean, just the fact that it takes two years for some people to be processed; that's a very long time.

Diplomatic Connections: Are there certain areas that are more affected by this challenge than others?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Yes, the bigger cities. Just like when America was founded, people want to live with their own kin, like you have Little Italy in New York, and all the Swedes went up to Minnesota. In Södertälje, for example, south of Stockholm, there's been a huge influx of immigrants, but the economy there and the labor market are not such that they can be easily absorbed and get jobs there.

Diplomatic Connections: What would you be looking for to improve bi-lateral relations?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Trade and investment is really high on our agenda. The United States is Sweden's fourth biggest trading partner. And of course, we are concerned about the rhetoric coming out of this administration when it comes to trade policy. Sweden's whole economy is based on the fact that our trade is open: 45 percent of our GDP comes from exports, and we don't believe that the world economy or the job situation would be better if we close borders or raise tariffs. And I think our example proves that. We will see now what happens with these NAFTA discussions. We would've liked to have seen matters going forward on TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). We believe that the United States and Europe really forge a very close trade relationship because we are each other's biggest markets. Absolutely, that's a concern we have. For the moment, we're monitoring the situation: it's rhetoric right now. The proof will be in what happens with NAFTA, and how that's handled in the end.

Diplomatic Connections: How much time do you spend – or do you intend to spend -- on the road?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Like in most countries, the capital is not the rest of the country, and it's the same with the U.S. It's extremely important to get out and meet people. The United States is like a continent almost: there are so many different parts with different challenges. In the embassy, we're going to try and identify which are the five or ten most important areas to attract investment to Sweden and visit those places.

Diplomatic Connections: When young Swedish diplomats ask you what it's like to work in the United States, what advice do you give them?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: That it's great! The challenge here is that there are 192 embassies, the competition is extra stiff, and to get access to the politicians in this town is not easy. You really have to have a selling point to make your country interesting, so that your American counterparts really want to meet you and listen to you. One has to be even more on one's toes here, compared to other posts, because this is the capital of the world.

Diplomatic Connections: Does being a woman help?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Always helps. There are fewer of us, we stick out in a crowd, and then if you are serious, it's just an advantage. Of course, if all ambassadors were women, it would be great to be a man.

Diplomatic Connections: How has the foreign service changed in the years since you joined?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Very much. In general, embassies have less staff. In a posting where there are two or three diplomats, you have to be able to fix the radiator, go meet the King at the airport, write a good report, and be host for dinner in the evening of the same day. Before, it wasn't like that. You have to be much more of an all-round person. Washington is a huge embassy, and there are people here for most things.

Diplomatic Connections: Presumably, technology has also had an impact.

Ambassador Olofsdotter: Technology has changed things. You have to be much quicker. There's also a difference in reporting. In the past, an ambassador's reporting would often contain news (to the ministry). Now Stockholm knows what's happening the same time as you do, so we have to do deep and long-term analysis.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you think that technology could advance to a degree where the presence of an ambassador would no longer be necessary, and could, for example, be replaced by a hologram?

Ambassador Olofsdotter: No because I still think that a personal meeting makes such a difference. That's why I think that in diplomacy, the notion of food is very important. When you eat together, you are creating a totally different relationship. Maybe you can do video conferences some of the time, but for the real meetings, you have to have people. I can't imagine a hologram of me.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you, Ambassador Olofsdotter. It's been a very interesting interview and we appreciate your highly-valued time.

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