Carl Bildt represents a small country involved in most key international issues. Since becoming foreign minister in 2006, Sweden has participated in the Nato-led operations in Afghanistan and Libya, acted as the president of the EU and is the chairman of the Arctic Council until 2013. In a career spanning over four decades, Bildt has served as the leader of the Moderate Party and as prime minister. He is also known for his verbal agility. In response to the Wikileaks telegram in which an official at the US embassy to Sweden reportedly described him as a “medium-sized dog with big-dog attitude”, Bildt shrugged, saying that he, at least, is not a poodle.
Monocle meets Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign affairs minister, at his office in an impressive 18th-century palace in Stockholm.
Monocle: Many were surprised that you were happy to be foreign minister after being prime minister. Was it an unusual move?
Carl Bildt: Many were surprised, including myself. I had been away from active politics for seven to eight years, and didn’t really plan to return, but when the fatherland calls, you have to serve. I found it was fascinating to be part of a time when we’re starting to build a joint European foreign politics, with a new machinery and new possibilities.
M: As a relatively small country, how can Sweden get its voice heard internationally, and what role can you play?
CB: To begin with, there’s our own part of the world – northern and north-eastern Europe – where we have a joint responsibility with other countries to do our part for stability and cooperation. Sweden is also very actively involved in European cooperation. In the wider world, we try to make our voice heard within other areas. Human rights is an example: we are one of the countries that are most outspoken even when it is perhaps a little uncomfortable.
M: Which situations in the region are you most worried about at the moment?
CB: The situation in Belarus is alarming. It’s not the brutal killing we have seen in Syria, but it’s a quiet and compact repression. It’s the only country in Europe with political prisoners. The same goes for the situation in Ukraine, though it’s not as serious as in Belarus.
M: Sweden has also been involved in the operation in Libya and putting political pressure on Syria. How can the West support the democratic ambitions of the Arab countries?
CB: Egypt is the Arab world’s largest country with 85 million people, and an intellectually and culturally dominating centre. We are putting a lot of effort into helping out with economic development, opening up Europe for trade connections and supporting efforts to set up political parties for the upcoming elections.
M: Many Swedes are against military involvement in international conflicts. Why is it important for Sweden to send soldiers to Afghanistan, for instance?
CB: Because we want to do our part. We are talking about operations with a UN mandate, and it’s natural for us to help with the resources we have. We also have a broad political agreement for it. Only the Left Party and the Sweden Democrats, two small parties at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, are against.
M: Stockholm was hit by a suicide bomber last December, and Norway by a terrorist this summer. How worried are you about the further threat of terrorism?
CB: That’s something one can be worried about, but right after 9/11, there were fears for a much worse development. Terror is, unfortunately, part of our modern world. We must try to deal with it and limit it as much as we can. Above all, we must have a society with an understanding for the global development that makes us more international. On one side, we have terrorists who fear that the West is taking over Islam. On the other side, terrorists who think Islam is taking over the West. Both are wrong. But we are living in a world where we are coming closer to one another; we have to learn to live with that.
M: Would Sweden have been spared this type of terrorism had it not participated in the Afghanistan operation?
CB: No. We would have been a part of it in one way or another. We’re part of the modern world; getting out is not possible.
M: Sweden used to be known for its neutrality. Is that something that it has given up?
CB: That has no relevance today. That was about alliance freedom and a possible neutrality in the case of a war between the Soviet Union and the West. But there was never any doubt of our ideological ties to the West. It was also an attempt to provide stability in Europe during the decades of division and ideological confrontation – but all that disappeared when the Soviet Union fell and we joined the EU.
M: Should Sweden join Nato?
CB: I don’t think it’s possible right now, and I don’t think it’s needed, as our cooperation is working so well.
M: Previously, the euro project was seen as a success story by many, including yourself. Now, with the economy in crisis, have you changed your mind?
CB: I still think it’s a success. We do have considerable problems in a number of southern European countries, and they are affecting Europe as a whole. But if we look at development in northern Europe, it’s very positive. Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, the Baltic countries, Poland – we have a north European success story and a south European problem.
M: What went wrong?
CB: The south European countries built up too much debt and deficit. But France and Germany are also responsible for a great deal. When the euro was set up, there were rules regarding the size of each country’s deficit. Then, France and Germany made themselves an exception. Naturally, that sends a very bad message.
M: Should Sweden still join the euro?
CB: Absolutely. Sooner or later. But it’s not today’s most topical question.
M: Sweden is chair of the Arctic Council. International debate is heating up around the Arctic, and several countries – Canada, Russia, Denmark – are attempting to claim territory there. How would you like to see the region develop?
CB: Due to climate change, the ice in the area is being reduced, which leads to discussions about shipping routes that weren’t possible before. And due to the world’s energy and mineral needs, the area is being explored in a new way. But I think it will take years before the resources there can be used, because the challenges of extracting oil, gas and minerals are so big.
M: At the same time, there is a lot of activity there – not least military activity.
CB: Naturally there are resources there – for Russia, it’s the only place where they have access to the Atlantic. The Baltic is too small and closed. But there’s significantly less cause for worry than 20 years ago.
Carl Bildt’s CV
Born in Halmstad
Joins the Moderate Party 1973
Becomes chair of the Free Moderate Student League; studies at Stockholm University but doesn’t graduate
Elected to the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament
Becomes leader of Moderate Party
Elected prime minister
Holds different diplomatic posts in the Balkans: EU’s special representative for former Yugoslavia, co-chair for the Dayton peace talks, High Representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Balkans 2006
Appointed minister for foreign affairs