The decline of bin Laden’s Sweden

As economic interests trump human rights, the idea of utopian Sweden becomes increasingly faint and fragmented.

The offer of residency to all Syrian asylum seekers is a glimpse at a fast fading egalitarian Sweden [Getty Images]

“People of America this talk of mine is for you and concerns the ideal way to prevent another Manhattan, and deals with the war and its causes and results. Before I begin, I say to you that security is an indispensable pillar of human life and that free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. If so, then let him explain to us why we don’t strike, for example, Sweden?” – Osama bin Laden in his October 2003 videotaped address to the American people on the September 11, 2001 attacks.

When considering Sweden’s global reputation – and what has become of it – I cannot think of a better place to start than IKEA. The company has cultivated an image understood to be quintessentially Swedish: unpretentious, simple and rational, wrapped up, of course, in a healthy dose of Lutheran, Do-It-Yourself self-sufficiency. In short, IKEA is soft-nationalist social democracy in a flat-pack box.

It’s a great story, but it is a story masking a far less egalitarian reality. To begin with, IKEA is not Swedish, and hasn’t been for some time – the company is set up as a “charitable foundation” in the Netherlands in order to avoid tax; IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad was connected to Swedish Nazis in his youth; and in the 1980s IKEA knowingly made use of East German forced labour in order to ensure that prices remained democratically low: a questionable attitude towards cheap labour that continues to this day. Even their famed meatballs contained horsemeat.

In a world of military bulls, Sweden was, and is, a fly, yet Palme’s willingness to stand up to what many outside of the West saw as naked US neo-imperialism in Vietnam, made Sweden a beacon.

In other words, IKEA is part reality, part mythology. The affordable furniture and the children’s play areas in the stores reflect a modest, socially-progressive influence; yet, like Sweden itself, IKEA’s guise of social democracy masks a deep and influential transnational capitalist core, as well as a pragmatic economic world view.

Myth of Sweden

On December 23, 1972, Swedish Radio aired a statement by Prime Minister Olof Palme on what he considered to be war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam: in particular, Operation Linebacker II (also known as the “Christmas Bombing” of Hanoi). Very few words were spoken by Palme, but such was the impact of the speech that the US and Sweden saw a freezing of diplomatic relations between January 1973 and March 1974, and the withdrawal of the US ambassador to Sweden. Here is part of what Palme said:

“One should refer to things by their accurate designation. What is happening right now in Vietnam is a form of torture. What they do is tormenting people. They torment a nation in order to humiliate it, compel them to subjugate with brute force. That is why the bombings are an infamy. Of such there are many in modern history. They are often linked by name: Guernica, Oradour, Babij Jar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville and Treblinka. In all those places violence was triumphant, but the judgment of history came down hard on those who were responsible. Now there is another name to add to the row: Hanoi, the Christmas of 1972.”

In a world of military bulls, Sweden was, and is, a fly, yet Palme’s willingness to stand up to what many outside of the West saw as naked US neo-imperialism in Vietnam, made Sweden a beacon. Palme’s opposition to US aggression should also be considered within the context of Sweden’s commitment to the United Nations, diplomacy and non-violence; support of many so-called “Third World” nations throughout the 1960s and 1970s; and a non-aligned status resulting in Sweden not engaging in an act of war since 1814.

This was the Sweden Osama bin Laden was referring to in his message to the American people: A country committed to justice, equality and non-violence. The effects of the 1960s can still be seen in Sweden, most strikingly, in the acceptance of asylum seekers and refugees from global conflicts. The recent Swedish decision, for example, to offer permanent residency to all asylum seekers from Syria (and their families) was lauded internationally. And, the astonishing fact that by 2012, one town in Sweden, Sodertalje (population 80,000), had accepted more Iraqi asylum seekers than the US and Canada combined.

And, Swedish policies in relation to gender equality – which must have disgusted bin Laden to his core – are likely looked upon with envy by women in many countries throughout the world.

Despite the social democratic thread that continues to run through Swedish politics and society, however, Sweden’s image has begun to fray at the edges.

A beacon no more

Domestically, in 2010, the election of 20 members of the far-right Sweden Democrats to parliament suggested that the image of Sweden as an all-welcoming nation masked an unpleasant strand of populist xenophobia. In early summer, issues of immigration and “integration” came to the fore again as social unrest in the suburbs of Stockholm shocked many outside of the country, unused to any news suggesting a breakdown in the assumed Swedish egalitarian order – news that was also met with a degree of right-wing schadenfreude. And, it was recently revealed that police in southern Sweden had been compiling lists of over 4,000 Roma residents: a highly controversial act (mirroring similar events in France), as the compilation of lists on the basis of ethnicity is strictly forbidden by law in Sweden.

Sweden was not immune to the ideological shift that took place in Europe during the 1980s, with the powerful currents of Reagan-Thatcher conservatism dragging the “old Left” to the bottom of the political sea.

But the tarnishing of an “imagined Sweden” was not taking place only at the level of domestic politics. In the arena of international affairs – once Sweden’s crown jewel – there has been a steady image decline. Perhaps one of the most damning pieces of information to gain international attention as a result of the Sweden-Julian Assange story was the fact that in 2001, under a Social Democratic-led government, Sweden handed over two Egyptian asylum holders to the CIA, on Swedish soil, for the purposes of being sent to Egypt where they were tortured. In 2005, the United Nations Committee Against Torture found that Sweden had violated the absolute global ban on torture. More recently, Sweden was one of only 14 countries at the 2011 General Conference to vote against Palestine’s full membership in UNESCO – something that would have likely been inconceivable under Palme in the 1960s and 70s.

Economics over human rights

In addition, the suggestion that national corporate interests were having an influence on Swedish foreign policy cropped up in 2011, when Sweden took the unprecedented step of unilaterally blocking EU efforts to impose sanctions against a number of Syrian companies. While Foreign Minister Carl Bildt argued that Swedish opposition to the sanctions was because two telecom companies on the list provided communication possibilities for opposition activists, these same two companies had links to Sweden’s Ericsson, causing many to suspect that Sweden’s opposition was based on economics, not human rights.

And, while Swedish telecom companies (partly owned by the Swedish state) were revealed to have collaborated with repressive regimes over the surveillance of political dissents, between 2005 and 2012, successive Swedish governments had reportedly supported the secret construction of a weapons factory in Saudi Arabia. The cherry on the cake, however, could well be Sweden as the only EU member state – along with the UK – to veto espionage talks with the US over NSA leaks: a decision which looks increasingly suspicious, as revelations over US abuses of surveillance in Europe escalate.

For all of the flaws of earlier Swedish social democracy, and despite the limitations of Swedish political power to generate real global change, there remained an important symbolic value in Palme taking the US to task over Hanoi in 1972. Yes, utopian Sweden was, and is, partly a myth, yet mythologies can serve a useful purpose. Sweden was not immune to the ideological shift that took place in Europe during the 1980s, with the powerful currents of Reagan-Thatcher conservatism dragging the “old Left” to the bottom of the political sea. Palme’s legacy can still be seen in Sweden, but it becomes increasingly faint and fragmented as the years go by.

If the bombing of Hanoi happened tomorrow, would the current Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt take such a powerful moral stance against the United States as did Olof Palme in 1972? The answer is to be found in the fact that such a question feels not only naïve, but irrelevant.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen