Foreign affairs: Northern exposure

Beset by domestic problems it can’t solve, Sweden’s young minority government fled to a distant conflict it is in no position to affect.

Sweden's Prime minister Stefan Lofven announces his new government during a Parliament session in Stockholm October 3 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sweden's Prime minister Stefan Lofven announces his new government during a Parliament session in Stockholm October 3
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Having lost more than 15,000 of the 47,000 troops with whom he arrived for what would be one of military history’s greatest battles, King Gustavus did not lose heart.
With his left flank dismembered in an artillery duel, the Swedish monarch – who spent his best years in the battlefields, where he was repeatedly wounded and eventually killed – now shifted troops from his front line’s center to its emptied left; then he stormed and captured the enemy’s cannon; he turned those barrels on the enemy’s front, before unleashing cavalry and infantry at the enemy’s rear – and finally saw his enemy scatter and concede defeat.
By the day’s end, Sweden loomed as Europe’s Archimedean point, an inspiration not only for generals but also for statesmen and clergy, having prevented Catholicism’s takeover of Germany after cobbling together and leading a Protestant league.
That was in the 1630s. Since then, Sweden has morphed into a champion of peace that for the past 200 years, hasn’t fought a war – and this week, imposed itself on the Jewish state.
For decades, the contrast between its military past and pacific idealism lent Sweden a kind of moral authority that even its adversaries had to admire.
Thus, when then-foreign minister Sten Andersson showed up in Jerusalem in 1988 and lectured on the merits of Palestinian statehood during a dinner reception attended by a battery of Israeli leaders – all listened with deep respect, including his hosts that evening, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin.
With the Soviet Union still intact and Stockholm looming as a bridge between Moscow and Washington, and as a welder of capitalism and socialism, Sweden mixed prosperity, compassion and diplomatic pragmatism in a way Israelis couldn’t but envy.
A generation later, little is left of that status. Beset by political gridlock, economic perplexity and social clouds of which there was no hint a quarter of a century ago, Sweden’s barging this week into the Arab-Israeli fray made it seem like a shipwrecked Viking flailing a broken sword.
THE FIRST of the unique assets that Sweden lost in the last generation was its neutrality.
Yes, a leader like Gustavus might have unified Scandinavia rather than stood by while Germany molested Sweden’s Danish and Norwegian brethren, and Russia invaded its Finnish cousins. Still, neutrality allowed Sweden to emerge from the war unscathed, its cities intact, its people healthy and its economy ready to supply hungry postwar markets with cars, planes, appliances and furniture, while offering the most lavish social services in the world: free child care, universal medical care, cheap education, indefinite unemployment wages, 12-month paid maternity leave and a monthly $100 per family for each child raised.
At first, the price was the tax burden, which at nearly 60 percent on average ranked as the highest in the world. The people were fine with that, as long as it worked. By 1993, however, as this generosity produced 13% unemployment, 67%-of-GDP public spending and a 13.5%-of-GDP deficit, the Swedish model was cracking.
Sweden therefore began shrinking the welfare state. Today, after austerity steps taken by social democratic leaders followed by eight years of conservative rule, public spending is sharply reduced and corporate taxes are down to less than America’s, but the original welfare state is humbled – like some of Sweden’s industrial pride, with Saab gone bankrupt and Volvo sold to the Chinese.
IT WAS in the 1990s’ general setting of ideological retreat that Sweden was tempted to compromise not only its unique economics, but also the neutrality that animated its claim to diplomatic sainthood.
Those were the heady days when the Cold War’s sudden end made neutral Austria and even Switzerland consider joining the European Union. Sweden joined in 1995, and thus lost its diplomatic uniqueness.
Until then, Stockholm had spoken from atop the tightrope it suspended between antagonistic superpowers.
This week, Sweden tried to raise its voice from within a choir of 28 European nations, only to learn that it had grown hoarse – at least when it came to its singing of Middle Eastern themes.
Back in 1988, when neutral Sweden prodded Israel to recognize the PLO, there were hardly 100,000 Muslims in Sweden, constituting just 1.2% of the population. There was reason to trust Sweden’s impartiality.
Today, Sweden is home to more than half a million Muslims, and the country is admitting tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Somalia annually. While the altruism this reflects is inspiring, the social problems it creates are famous – and festering.
In the largely Muslim Stockholm suburb of Husby, riots that broke out last year lasted for 10 days and saw shops looted, several policemen injured and 100 cars torched. In Malmo, the country’s third-largest city, one in five residents is Muslim.
Stockholm’s automatic granting of residency to war refugees is creating an influx, which this year alone is expected to land 80,000 Syrian asylum- seekers on Sweden’s shores There are immigrant ghettos in Sweden where faceless apartment blocks contain shoebox apartments overcrowded with newly arriving Syrians, Somalis and Iraqis, slums where most men are jobless and police reportedly avoid setting foot.
The cost of this to Sweden’s social safety net is exorbitant. This is what made outgoing conservative premier Fredrik Reinfeldt say that immigration has made Sweden’s social spending unaffordable – simple math that still got him in political trouble for sounding anti-immigration, which he is not.
Others, to be sure, are indeed anti-immigration – and unabashedly so.
“ISLAMISM is the Nazism and Communism of our time,” said Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Akesson in an election speech in August in his hometown of Solvesborg. Though his far-Right party has been accused of harboring closet fascists, Akesson’s outcry that immigration was costing Swedish jobs and weighing on social services won his party 13% of the electorate in last month’s general election, more than twice its previous following.
Now firmly established as Sweden’s third political force, the anti-immigrant electorate seems the most vital in Swedish politics, casting its shadow on the Center-Right Moderate Party that just lost power and the Center-Left Social Democrats, which created the Swedish model and dominated its politics during the welfare state’s golden era.
The Social Democrats have now returned to power, but a simple look at the numbers indicates that rather than casting a renewed vote of confidence in social democracy, Swedish voters have cornered their politicians and paralyzed parliament.
The coalition of Social Democrats and Greens that this week promised to recognize the state of Palestine commands hardly 40% of parliament.
Its election promises to deliver a reform package within 100 days and expand spending by re-taxing the banks and the rich, are as plausible as George Papandreou’s vow in 2009 to deliver “happiness within 100 days” while assuring that “the money is there,” shortly before accompanying the Greek economy into the abyss from which it has yet to emerge.
Sweden’s new government knows it cannot deliver on its promises to multiply social spending; the markets will in such a case batter the krona, spike interest rates and pressure the labor market, while the opposition obstructs the budgetary process and the far Right agitates the street.
The new government also knows it has no remedy for the immigration crisis, other than to uphold the existing policies and muddle through.
And so, unable to affect the domestic scene, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven fled to a foreign affair where talk is cheap and responsibility is everyone else’s except his.
No one in the new government thinks that a Swedish statement on anything Middle Eastern can affect this sorry region’s affairs. There is, however, hope that jabbing Israel will impress the very immigrants whose presence is irritating a steadily growing number of Swedes.
In other words, Lofven’s flight to the Middle East was not only escapism, it was also opportunism, and had little to do with yesteryear’s ideal of neutrality. This statement was not about Palestine, and also not about Israel. It was about Sweden, a perplexed country at a loss to reconcile its humanism with other civilizations’ wrath and despair.
Some think that Europe’s immigration crisis is the harbinger of a new religious clash, the likes of which the continent last saw during the Thirty Years War, with which this column began. Such analogies may or may not prove true, just like the gathering anti-immigrant sentiment may or may not produce leaders who will storm the enemy’s weapons and turn them on the enemy. What is clear is that Europeans like Sweden’s new government find it easier to live in the past than in the future.
This writer happened to have attended that dinner in 1988 when a Swedish statesman last publicly pontificated on the Jewish state. Sten Anderssen stood lean and tall and spoke with confidence and conviction.
Though he made his audience squirm in their seats, he exuded the authority of a country that combined power and morality, the nation of King Gustavus, Folke Bernadotte and Raoul Wallenberg.
I looked at Rabin and Peres as they listened attentively to the Swede promise that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized, democratic and secular.
That is how they, and 20-somethings like the one I was at the time, felt when we arrived in Oslo in 1993.
It was but several years ahead of sobriety’s arrival – the same sobriety that this week made Middle Israelis yawn, as a Sweden that is at a loss to solve its own Middle Eastern problem felt equipped to tell the Jews how to solve theirs.