An Interview with Ambassador Björn Lyrvall
On 3rd December 2016, the Ambassador of Sweden to the United States Björn Lyrvall spoke at The Fletcher School’s Second Annual Conference on Gender and International Affairs. Ambassador Lyrvall spoke about Sweden’s recently launched feminist foreign policy and the positive impact this approach is having in promoting gender equality and creating more effective and sustainable policies. The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs sat down with Ambassador Lyrvall to hear more about his experiences implementing this new foreign policy. Ambassador Lyrvall also shared some insights on recent political developments in Europe and discussed the impact of U.S. elections on Sweden-U.S. relations overall. A longer version of this interview will be featured in the Summer 2017 Print Edition of The Fletcher Forum.
Fletcher Forum: How does Sweden plan to work with a new U.S. Administration whose stated views on women’s rights contradict Sweden’s values on such issues? What are Sweden’s priorities in engaging the new Administration?
Björn Lyrvall: First, as we speak we are still waiting for some important appointments. Whenever we get those we will wait for policies to be presented by a new Administration. That will take some time. We have obviously noted with concern some of the statements made during the campaign. It was a very tough and sometimes unpleasant campaign, and we know that sometimes in election campaigns things are being said that won’t necessarily be implemented after the elections, so I think it is prudent for us to wait and see what policies will be put on the table before drawing any definite conclusions of how to react. We will certainly have a great interest in continuing to promote a very close Swedish-U.S. relationship. We have had many years of extremely close relations—both as a result of, and contributing to, some very important results in international politics. We have been working very closely on issues such as climate change, on trade issues, on human rights issues—including gender equality—and international development issues, and clearly these are all questions that we would wish to continue to work on. We will try to define what will be the best way and the best path ahead to promote these issues. We might have to adapt a little bit the line of arguments, but that remains to be seen. And it’s better to not speculate too much on that. But clearly we are interested in a very good and close relationship with the new U.S. Administration.
FF: On a more practical level, how does a change in the Administration affect your role as Ambassador, if at all? How do you think the new President’s policies will impact relations with other countries, at a more general level?
BL: There are clearly going to be changes when you have a new Administration coming in. You change 4,000 people in the Administration who are politically appointed. You have to build up new networks with people. You will be seeing also a period of adaptation in the new U.S. Administration when policies are being formulated. There is going to be an effect on the dynamism of the relationship, at least initially. But the fact remains that Sweden is the tenth largest investor in the United States. For a country with ten million people, that’s not so bad. We could argue that we’re the biggest investor per capita. Swedish companies here create some 330,000 American jobs. These are facts that will clearly be taken into account by a new Administration. We are a security provider, not a security taker, so to speak, when you look at it on a global scale. These are arguments that will also be taken into account. And we will try to do what we can to put forward these arguments to policymakers in a new Administration. There still remain many positions to be hammered out in the new Administration so I think we are now in a mode of informing and discussing what we could contribute with whoever we can in the transition team, and that will hopefully be taken into account as well. And things are changing—clearly they are. And the second part of your question relates to the international aspect?
FF: Yes, on a general level how does a U.S. President’s new policies impact relations with other countries [from Sweden’s perspective]?
BL: There is no denying that the United States is the only superpower and is of profound importance in terms of what happens politically at a global level. At the time of the Presidential campaign we had greater interest in the U.S. elections in Sweden than we have had in any Swedish political process. I had an open house at my Embassy on election night and no less than 300 Swedes came to that. People came to Washington, DC, just to be present at the time of the U.S. election. It shows the enormous interest. There are blogs, books, and endless newspaper articles written about the U.S. election. So, it shows that there is a recognition back in my country that these elections count and are of very great importance to the world, as well as what agenda we will be able to pursue on the global level. We should be very well aware of that; this makes it even more important to try to forge as close as possible relations with the new Administration.
FF: Some have cited the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election as reflecting a growing populist sentiment in the country, which has also been demonstrated throughout Europe. To what extent has Sweden felt this change in public attitudes and how has Swedish leadership handled this shift?
BL: Well, we are like everybody else, affected by this trend and we have seen it in the growth of an anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, which have in the most recent elections gained 13% in the Parliament, making this party the third largest party in Sweden. Subsequently—at least, if you can believe the opinion polls—that party has grown even more. I think it is perhaps a reflection of some people’s sense that the world is changing very rapidly. They feel a sense of insecurity. There is a nostalgia perhaps setting in for a past that is no longer there—and maybe they even have a very much romanticized view of that past. These are the kinds of things that I think have fed this kind of populism that you see. There have been swift global changes. You have seen waves of refugees moving as a result of terrible conflicts, and as a result of climate change as well, and many other reasons. There are things I think that have caused some people to resort to populist sentiment and perhaps falling prey to easy solutions that are not the way you can address the complex global problems of today. I think that we should not, as far as a government, become populist ourselves. Some issues are not possible to answer by very simple replies; you have to have a more complex approach to deal with them. We’ll have to try to do that and to increase the level of complexity of the discourse. Obviously, you have to reach out to people with your message, but you can do that by trying to adapt and reshape the conversation coming from these populist parties.
FF: Building on that—it is clear, not only in Sweden but in Europe as a whole, that the debate has become increasingly divisive. How does Sweden maintain a unified message abroad even with these political divisions at home? What lessons, if any, are applicable for the United States?
BL: If you look at foreign policy issues it’s clearly an area where we have traditionally, as a country, tried to consult across the aisle. There has been a very determined effort by consecutive governments—be they center right or center left—to consult the opposition on major or important decisions that could affect the security of the country. This is a good tradition and this is something that we should try to defend and continue. In the case we are facing right now, this has largely meant that established parties, both on the left and right, have conducted these conversations while the populists have been out of it. That is something I just note is the case, and we will see how things evolve. I don’t know if we are in a position to give recommendations to the U.S. Administration. I don’t think we are. The situations are very different. But I take note of the polarization in American politics, which I think is extremely unfortunate, and concerns me when I see it. The “art of the deal”—the art of making decisions—is usually done through some kind of attempt to reach out to the other side and to forge a compromise. That is not a reflection of weakness, that is reflection of strength. If you can get the message across to people that it is in the interest of the country to have a greater spectrum of society involved in decision making, then I think that is something that we benefit from—both my country, this country, and any country that would work in this way.
About the Interviewee
Björn Lyrvall is Ambassador of Sweden to the United States. From 2007 until taking up his current position in September 2013, Ambassador Lyrvall was Director General for Political Affairs at Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm.