The Legacy of Olof Palme

26 februari 2006


These days it is 20 years since Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered a dark night on the streets of Stockholm.

He was a person of controversy, and his policies were not universally admired. But he was a man of immense talents, intense energy and an international outlook that has to be admired to this day.

His murder was a national trauma that to some extent continues to this day.

His legacy in domestic politics remains somewhat doubtful. He become leader of the Social Democratic Party in 1969, and was convinced that he had to ride the leftist wave that dominated those years.

This lead not only to a loss of voters in the 1970, 1973 and 1976 elections, when he had to hand over to the centre-right coalition government under Thorbjörn Fälldin. Economic policy also started to stray seriously, with a substantial rise in the tax burden, new regulations and a catastrophic loss of competitiveness for industry.

It was in the mid-70’s that Palme – as part of a scheme to take what he said was the third and final step in the building of a democratic socialist society – launched the scheme of the so-called wage-earners fund.

In essence, business should pay for their ownership being transferred to the trade unions. It was certainly socialist, and threatened the very foundations of society.

It wasn’t the first time in its history that the Social Democrats, under the influence of the mood of the times, had tried more radical socialist measures. But in much the same way as with the previous attempts in 1928 and 1948 it backfired.

Although the issue was with Palme in the subsequent elections he fought in 1979, 1982 and 1985, the last remnant of the funds were abolished as one of the very first steps of the now centre-right government in 1991, and they have not been heard of since then.

It’s an issue no modern Social Democrat dares to revive. It had lead them into a blind alley.

But those were the days when half of Europe claimed to be socialist, and Palme used to say that he pursued a policy of a third way between capitalism and communism.

The problem is that this policy – apart from its economic mistakes – also had a tendency to devolve into a policy of third way between democracy and dictatorship.

He hailed friendship and solidarity with Fidel Castro and other revolutionary regimes in the Third World. These were the years of a certain romanticism concerning the revolutions in the developing countries, and Palme wanted to be in the forefront of that movement.

The Vietnam war is an integral part of that story. It radicalised a generation at the least in Europe. And Palme was right in saying that it wasn’t a question of a Sinosoviet conspiracy trying to conquer the world, and that the national element in Vietnam was strong.

But he was certainly wrong in portraying it as a war for liberation and democracy in Saigon – we now know it ended with a communist dictatorship imposed from Hanoi. And he outraged also many Americans critical of the war by comparing aspects of US policy with the worst atrocities of Hitler. There were many who had not forgotten – perhaps not even forgiven – that in the fight against Hitler Sweden had been neutral.

But it was in his attitude towards the socialist systems of the Soviet empire that he in the end ran into the gravest difficulties.

He could occasionally be harshly critical of manifestations of repressive policies in Eastern Europe, but he was adamant that the Soviet system as such must not be called into question. And he fought fierce political battles against those in Sweden – me included – that dared to say that freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe was a precondition for true peace in all of Europe.

At his last party congress in 1985, he firmly said that there was no room for being anti-Soviet in his or his party’s policies. And already in 1970, he had denied Alexander Solsjenitsyn access to the Swedish Embassy in Moscow after Solsjenitsyn – to the immense displeasure of the Kremlin – had been awarded the Nobel Price in Literature.

This is where he and I most clearly parted ways. The picture is from a well-known parliamentary encounter centered exactly on those issues.

One could not claim to be a “moral superpower” if that morality was only applied to one part of the world, but descended into silence on what was happening just across the Baltic Sea. It was a one-eyed policy, and as such it was neither credible nor moral.

His brutal murder on that dark February night in 1986 changed the politics of Sweden. In spite of everything, there is no doubt that he left a void. For all of the verbal excesses, all of the mistakes and all of the perverted perspective – there was a luster over his days.

Today, we live in a profoundly different world.

Much of what he fought against on the Swedish domestic scene has happened. Parents are free to choose their own day-care center – this was an idea he fought with the full force of his rhetoric.

The revolutionary regimes in the Third World brought mainly misery to their peoples. It’s those abandoning socialist policies that are doing best today. And the Soviet Union is gone. There is no longer any wall in Berlin.

His world was a different one. We have moved on.

 Posted by Picasa

Where is Russia Heading?

26 februari 2006

In any discussion on the efforts to build a common European foreign and security policy, the failure to agree on a common stand towards Russia is always pointed out. Rightly so, by the way.

In itself this is hardly surprising. Relations to Russia often goes to the hearth of the historical policies of the different nations. And the geostrategic position of Poland and Portugal are undoubtedly different.

But Europe does not seem to be alone.

The linked article describes some of the policy debates on Russia now evidently taking place in Washington. It is described in rather simplistic terms as a debate between the Putin-lovers and the democracy-lovers.

I believe there is agreement on the need to engage Russia constructively on major global issues, the most important of which at the moment is the Iranian nuclear ambitions, but where those of North Korea don’t follow much behind. And Russia has as clear an interest in these issues as has the United States. Cooperation has accordingly been good.

On other issues the situation is somewhat more ambivalent.

After initially supporting the US after 9/11, including in getting access to military facilities in Central Asia, Russia is now discreetly supporting efforts to evict the US from these. It’s role in Ukraine and Belarus is hardly of the nature that it earns much applause. And on an issue like Kosovo it is keeping its cards close to its chest.

Of concern has to be the direction of the internal development of the country.

The political system is increasingly – although not totally – authoritarian. The rule of the law is often the rule of the Kremlin. And in the economy the money-grabbing ambitions of the present holders of power is all to evident.

But Russia remains a large and complex place, and there are also trends and forces that are less negative.

Any constructive policy by the United States or the European Union must be to encourage these.

It’s an important policy debate taking place in Washington.

I expect more of a similar debate in the councils of the European Union as well. Posted by Picasa

A German Key to Europe?

25 februari 2006

Is Germany key to unlocking a Europe that seems to have got stuck after the French and Dutch referendum defeats last year?

That was the question hanging over all the discussions at this years version of the Aspec Italia European Dialogue. And this year the meeting left the more pleasant surroundings of Italy and moved to the immediate vicinity of Brandenburger Tor in Berlin.

Next weekend it is 100 days since the big coalition under Angela Merkel took power in Germany. It was essentially a coalition of losers – SPD had lost the election, and CDU/CSU had lost the election campaign. It was driven more by necessity than by desire.

Since then Angela Merkel has soared to heights of popularity never seen in the history of modern Germany. Not only is she towering over the German political scene in ways few could have foreseen – she has also emerged as something very close to an uncrowned Empress of Europe.

It’s been a success of her style and it’s been a success of returning to a more classical German foreign policy.

That’s not bad.

But soon the hard issues of domestic reforms will have to be tackled. And there might well be some strains as a CDU soaring in public opinion and an SPD very much in the shadows face important elections in Baden-Wuertenberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Sachsen-Anhalt in March.

In the discussions, the jury was still very much out on where the German economy is really heading.

Nearly all indicators are now very positive. The business confidence indicators haven’t been so positive since the reunification of the country. Growth is likely to double between 2005 and 2006. There is no doubt that there is a significant upswing.

But is this merely cyclical, with the risk that it will all turn sourn a couple of years down the road? Or are there also structural factors at work. The economist were leaning towards the first conclusion. Some businessmen thought there were also element of the second.

With 5 million unemployed, the country certainly needs economic growth. But it will probably require growth substantially above 2 percent to start making a dent in the unemployment figures. And it will require sustain growth of that order to bring that figure down substantially.

Is that possible without substantial further reforms?

The Minister of Finance Steinbruecker naturally pointed at what is being done. The fiscal deficit might be down within the Maastricht criteria already this year and most certainly in 2007.

And the public expenditure share of the economy is now projected to decline to levels it hasn’t seen since the early 1970’s – it was around 48 % last year, and the aim is 43,5 % by 2009. Reforms have also made the labour market somewhat more flexible.

All agreed that the grand coalition is likely to stay the course. There was praise even from the SPD for the way in which Merkel runs the cabinet and its discussions.

But whether Germany can really unlock Europe remains to be seen.

The German presidency during the first half of 2007 – coinciding with the presidential election in France – will certainly be of key importande.

But with all other capitals more or less weakened, there is in fact little alternative but to lock towards Berlin.

And with the initial success of Angela Merkel that could well turn out to be a good alternative. Posted by Picasa

Passage to India

24 februari 2006

On Tuesday President Bush sets out of what is likely to be his most significant foreign trip of this year.He’s heading to India – and then to Pakistan.

In every single sense, India today is an emerging power.

It’s very clearly a rapidly emerging economy with its impressive high-tech sector primarily in software. It’s the rapidly growing service provider superpower of the third wave of globalisation.

But it is also a rapidly growing political power.

New Delhi today has good relations with almost everyone. To have a good relationship with both Iran and Israel at the same time is remarkable by any standards. And the relationship with China is developing rapidly. Tensions with Pakistan has diminished.

The United States is now investing heavily in a deeper strategic relationship with India.

To some extent it’s a question of balancing China, but it’s also a recognition that if America should truly be part of shaping the future it must be done also in dialogue with the emerging Asian powers of India and China.

More concrete, the visit will be about nuclear power. And it will not necessarily be easy.

India is investing heavily in both its civilian and military nuclear programs with evident links between the two. It has chosen a technological road that is unique, aiming at eventually being able to use its vast resources of thorium to produce electric power.

Today it has 15 nuclear reactors operating and a further 7 under construction.

But for the United States to enter into closer cooperation that includes the transfer of nuclear technologies, there has to be a clear separation between the military and the civilian programs.

That might not be that easy. Washington wants as large parts as possible classified as civilian and subject also to international monitoring. New Delhi wants limit to this, and there is significant pressure from within the community that in clandestine developed its nuclear weapons to keep the Americans and other foreigners at distance.

It will be a delicate balancing act for President Bush. There is opposition in Congress, and there is the issue of Iran hovering in the background all the time.

But the visit nevertheless is a contribution to the opening up of a new chapter in the development of new strategic relationships.

Europe should take note. Posted by Picasa

Valley of the Wolves

24 februari 2006

It’s evidently a smash hit here in Berlin – where I am at the moment – with its very large Turkish community.

The film ”Valley of the Wolves” is already attracting full houses in Turkey, but now it is evidently catching on here as well.

And unfortunately it fits into the picture of a dangereously increasing gap between the United States and Europe on the one side and some key countries of the Muslim world on the other. Turkey is obviously a very important country in this respect – hanging between the West and the Muslim world with its secular democracy and its European ambitions.

The film takes it start in a real even in northern Iraq when Turkish special soldiers there were arrested by American forces. And then it descend into story of evil Americans and brave Turks fighting for their interests. Anti-Semitic overtones are certainly there as well.

When the Americans marched into Iraq without waiting for Turkey to work through the difficult issue of whether they wanted to be part of it or not a very major strategic mistake was undoubtedly made. The confrontation between the US and Turkish strategic interests in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq was unavoidable – and when it happened mishandled primarily from the American side.

We are now beginning to see the consequences.

Large segments of Turkish public opinion is getting increasingly critical of – perhaps even hostile to – the United States. The risk that this will accelerate even further is obvious.

And to this should be added a perceived reluctance by parts of European public opinion to accept Turkey as a European country and future member of the European Union. Here in Germany the CDU/CSU is on the record as being against Turkish membership.

If Turkey then feels betrayed by the Americans and rejected by the Europeans it is bound to have an effect on its development. A descent into a more Muslim orientation looks significantly less likely, but a rapid increase in more hard-line nationalist sentiments will in such a situation become almost unavoidable.

That would significantly add to all the others worries we are likely to face in the Southeastern direction in the years to come.

The Valley of the Wolves is a fiction that warns us of were a more nationalistic Turkey might be heading.

We have a deep strategic interest in a more European Turkey.

But then we must shape our policies accordingly.

An important message – not the least here in Berlin where the film is attracting audience night after night. Posted by Picasa

Something Rotten in the State of Sweden (2)

23 februari 2006

It going from bad to worse when it comes to what persons in the Swedish Social Democratic Party are doing to preserve power in the September elections.

It’s not enough with State Secretary Danielsson blatantly lying to the official inquiry into the tsuami tragedy, and the Prime Minister de facto protecting him from ant consequences.

Now The Secretary General of the Social Democrats Ms Marita Ulvskog – after initially denying everything- has been forced to admit that persons at the Social Democratic Party Headquarters have been organizing a nasty and anonymous campaign of slander and misinformation via email against the Moderate Party Chairman Fredrik Reinfeldt.

Using false names and false sender they have been sending false and slandereous email to journalists accusing Mr Reinfeldt and his family also of illegalities of different sorts.

It’s nasty. Very nasty. And unheard of in our political system. It’s a modern Watergate.

But that’s the way it is.

Liers in the Prime Minister’s Office. And falsifiers and spreaders of slander in the Partÿ Hq.

One can only hope that they will all be thrown out. Posted by Picasa

Samara Civil War Starting?

23 februari 2006

It wasn’t a small bomb that destroyed the Golden Mosque in Samara in Iraq. The destruction was the result of a very major operation in terms of explosives, planning, execution – and intention.

It could well be that this in retrospect will be seen as a watershed event in the history of post-invasion Iraq.

There is little doubt that the purpose of the attack was to inflame tension between the Sunni and the Shia communities of Iraq. It wasn’t an attack by insurgents against the coalition forces or against the new Iraqi authoroties – it was solely and obviously aimed at inflaming sectarian tensions.

As such, it was an attack well in line with the intensions of the extreme al-Qaeda aligned parts of the insurgence.

And it come at a particularly critical time in the political process of the country.

It’s two months since the elections that were supposed to bring order and stability in the country, but there is no new government in sight, with what the Washington Post calls ”the deeply flawed administration established last year”, under the ”the weak and unpopular” Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari still in place.

The problem is that the same Jafari has now been nominated by the dominating Shiite coalition to form a new government. The Americans have been doing everything they can to stop it, but evidently without success. They don’t see him as capable of forming the strong coalition with Sunni and Kurdish parties that is necessary in order to start to calm down the more nationalist – as distinct from the fundamentalist – part of the insurgence.

And this was before the horrible attack on the Golden Mosque and the outburst of sectarian violence that has followed.

Washington and London has rushed out with statements condemning the attack and promising help with the reconstruction of the Golden Mosque. Fine. But key will now be whether it will be possible to get Mr Jafari to really speed up the formation of a genuinely representative and effective government.

The signs – at the least from the perspective of London, where I am at the moment – are not encouraging. There is a new gloom in the discussions about the future of the country.

It all adds to all of the other worries in the emerging new crisis zone from Jerusalem to Jalalabad.

Are we ready for a rough future? Posted by Picasa