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"It seems natural
when on foreign soil [Washington, D.C.] to draw a parallel with another Swedish politician of international stature. Carl Bildt takes no offense at the comparison with
Olof Palme."
-- Svenska Dagbladet
   newspaper, 1995



… In other words, there is very little in Carl Bildt's past to unite him with Olof Palme. It is presumably for that reason that attempts to demonstrate otherwise so often rely on similarities between the two men's class background, education, appearance and similar superficialities-- rather like equating Churchill and Castro on the basis of their mutual fondness for cigars and sunny climes.

If one focuses, instead, on the politics of the two men, the differences are striking. Palme's consistent efforts on behalf of peace and global solidarity were rooted in values and insights that were already well-developed during his younger years. His attempts to apply those values in action were met with a furious resistance that eventually degenerated into an ugly atmosphere of hate that almost certainly contributed to his death. Palmephobia was, of course, most rabid among Sweden's and the world's military and monetary elites.

Despite his war of words with Palme, they are now thought of as two of a kind.
-- The European, 1995

 "Olof Palme has a passion for confrontation. I have a passion for factual analysis.… It is a point of honour for me always to have solid evidence."
-- Carl Bildt, 1983

"It would be unrealistic to expect that the Soviet Union will ever make fundamental changes in the direction of western ideals and values."
-- Carl Bildt, 1987



For Bildt, it has been just the opposite, and for much the same reasons. His political career has been characterised by an overshadowing interest in weapons and military affairs, as well as a hostile attitude to essentially everything that Palme stood for. Despite the failures of his most important political projects, Bildt has never had to struggle against the forces of darkness from which Palmephobia emerged, for the simple reason that he represents those interests. It is probably for that reason that Bildt has been wrong on just about every important issue.

So terribly wrong, in fact, that the general impression of Bildt as being intellectually gifted-- an impression which is probably his most valuable political asset-- is difficult to understand, to say the least. It cannot be based on the results of his policies, which have been disastrous for Sweden. Nor can it be based on his self-proclaimed "passion for factual analysis" or his oft-cited detailed knowledge, which very often have shown themselves to be something quite different. It is not only a question of demonstrable error, as in the case of the furious submarine chase, but of significant blank areas on the intellectual map.

Prior to the 1992 U.N. conference in Rio de Janeiro, for example, then-prime minister Bildt signed a debate article in Sweden's leading newspaper which was astonishing in two regards-- the profound environmental ignorance which the article displayed, and an apparent lack of awareness that anyone would notice. Regarding Latin America, the public pronouncements of Bildt and his party comrades indicate a strong belief that its history began about the time of Fidel Castro's accession to power in Cuba; there is much talk of Castro, but not a word about Batista, Teddy Roosevelt or the C.I.A. It is much the same with Bildt's publicly discernible knowledge on a variety of important issues.

"A properly designed terror balance frightens only those who contemplate taking the step from peace to war. . . . The u-boat violations provide a good illustration of this. Our defence's inadequate ability to frighten off the admirals in Kaliningrad from ordering the intrusions has created a situation in which the reduction of tensions between Sweden and the Soviet Union is seriously threatened."
-- Carl Bildt, 1985
Best and brightest

The available evidence suggests that, in Carl Bildt, Sweden has a politician with a quick wit and a quick tongue, a passion for facts that often are not facts, and an apparently unshakeable self-confidence linked to an unreflecting ideological dogma-- roughly the same traits that characterised the clever guys in the White House who organized the Vietnam War, thereby earning David Halberstam's sardonic epithet, "the best and the brightest".

But things are going pretty well, nonetheless. Carl Bildt has at his disposal an authoritative and suitably aggressive speaking style that is well-adapted to this era of broadcast entertainment. He handles himself with ease in the sort of superficial verbal fencing that passes for news interviews, and he is especially adept at diverting disagreeable questions into more advantageous areas of discussion.

Thus far, there have been precious few journalists with the interest or ability to keep Bildt to the subject, and it has therefore been a rather simple matter for him to set the agenda. He will not be any easier to challenge, now that he is being portrayed in the news media as the hero of Bosnia. Sweden's leading daily newspaper, for example, has published lengthy admiring portraits with titles such as, "A Thoroughbred Comes Home" and "NATO Dove with a Touch of the Scarlet Pimpernel".

"The Swedish model
is dead.… The
Swedish model
never existed."
-- Carl Bildt, 1991
Analyses like the one presented here, which is based on what Bildt and Palme have actually said and done, will no doubt be dismissed as foul attacks on a true statesman, while simple-minded comparisons between the two swells from Stockholm's high-rent district will be accepted as the real stuff of journalism.

There is probably more than ordinary journalistic incompetence behind that kind of simple-minded comparison. A large portion of the Swedish news media have actively participated in Bildt's worst misadventures, and they are understandably reluctant to remind their audiences of that fact. This is, in all likelihood, the principal reason that Bildt has emerged from the u-boat fiasco with hardly a splash. By contrast, it is not difficult to imagine how Palme would have been treated had the outcome been the reverse, i.e. if some clear evidence of intruding Soviet submarines had finally surfaced.

An advertisement of the airline SAS, with a message that is quite common in Swedish media

It is practically impossible for an ordinary Swedish news consumer to acquire an impression of foreign reality that does not reflect U.S. interests and interpretations.

American pictures

The complicity of the news media has been a contributing factor in both the drawn-out submarine chase and the wild ride down the dead end of "the only way". But the most important support provided Carl Bildt by the Swedish media consists of the world view which is everyday etched into public consciousness. It provides a suitable framework for certain images, but not others; and those media glimpses of reality often have a perspective that is pleasing to the United States.

There was, of course, a brief interlude during the 1970s when other perspectives were allowed into the public arena on a somewhat more frequent basis, largely as a consequence of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in the U.S. It was then that Carl Bildt charged that Swedish state television had permitted "Hanoi to lead it by the nose" when it broadcast a report from Vietnam's point of view.

But in recent years, order has been restored in the world of the mainstream news. Swedish state television has no doubt sharpened its image in the eyes of Carl Bildt, by such means as broadcasting lengthy reports on Nicaragua without once mentioning the United States' devastating involvement in that unhappy land's internal affairs-- roughly equivalent to describing the current situation in East Timor without mentioning Indonesia, or Tibet without China.

During the Persian Gulf War, Swedish news media functioned as a component of the United States' world-wide propaganda apparatus, and at least one over-excited editor cried "traitor" at anyone who failed to give whole-hearted support to the U.S. attack on Iraq (advertised as a U.N. operation, but publicly disavowed by that organization's general-secretary).

Svenska Dagbladet has written that Patrice Lumumba "was overthrown and executed by Mobutu" in the former Belgian Congo, without cluttering its readers' world-view with the C.I.A., whose creature Mobutu is well-known to have been. Dagens Nyheter has in its news columns referred to the U.S. State Department's annual report on global human rights as though it were the genuine article, even though it is widely regarded as a political document that is often used to stigmatise current enemies and ignore atrocities committed by current allies. Etc., etc. . . .

With a handful of shining exceptions, it is practically impossible for an ordinary Swedish news consumer to acquire an impression of foreign reality that does not reflect U.S. interests and interpretations. It has not become any easier, now that there is only one superpower remaining-- the one that has long reigned as world leader in propaganda. It is a state of affairs with obvious advantages for the Swedish politicians who Washington leads by the nose, while anyone foolhardy enough to venture a Palme-like foreign policy can count on a misinformed resistance based on that which "everybody knows".




"Sweden has thereby backed demands and viewpoints which, to my knowledge, have not been supported by any government outside the intimate circle of Soviet allies."
-- Carl Bildt on Palme government's "yes" vote for a 1982 U.N. disarmament resolution, which actually had its origins in the U.S.; 87 countries voted for the resolution, 19 against and 18 abstained


The new Carl Bildt

But things are going to be different from now on, it has been repeatedly stated and implied. Carl Bildt has been in Bosnia for two years, and there are rumours that he has matured in service-- that he may even have developed a less deferential attitude toward the United States, now that he has himself felt the bite of its arrogance and arbitrary ways. One may well hope so, and even wish him further education in such matters, for example by putting in a few years as a Central American peasant.

Many who have followed Bildt's work in Bosnia agree that he has comported himself well. Even old opponents among the Social Democrats have praised Bildt's contribution, and have supported him completely-- in glaring contrast to the Conservatives' often sneering reaction to Olof Palme's far more extensive peace-making efforts.

But two years of an otherwise coldly war-like career stretching over three decades does not provide an especially solid foundation for a lasting commitment to peace. It remains to be seen what Bildt's experiences in Bosnia may mean for the future direction of the Conservative Party, with its traditional military orientation and its laissez-faire intellectual baggage from the 19th century. The first indications may well reveal themselves in public debate over domestic political issues.

"It would ring false if we were to speak ever so eloquently about the need to help the poor peoples of the world, while at the same time allowing class divisions and income disparities to increase in our own country. There has to be a clear and direct connection between our policies at home and what we stand for in the global arena."
-- Olof Palme, 1985

"That Swedish asshole."
-- Richard Nixon's
epithet for Olof Palme
Exquisite irony

As Olof Palme and Martin Luther King often emphasised, there is a direct connection between a nation's domestic and foreign policy. The United States' brutal assaults on the "inferior peoples" of Indochina and Latin America could hardly be perceived by black Americans as a historical anomaly. In much the same way, the emphasis of Swedish Conservatives on self-interest and their indifference to human destinies beyond the confines of their immediate area's "little world" are reflected with forthright clarity in the party's foreign policy.

It is even possible to understand why Conservatives are so willing to tolerate the recent comparisons between Bildt and the formerly detestable Palme. What an exquisite irony-- to cloak oneself in a despised opponent's politics, in order to exploit them for one's own purposes.

On the other hand, it is not always easy to understand what certain elements of the Social Democratic Party have been up to lately. According to one interpretation, the party leadership has wandered astray, and has ended up on something like the Bildt government's "only way" out of sheer confusion and stupidity. That way has led straight into the European Union and soon into NATO, so the theory goes, with a fuzzy foreign policy profile as a consequence.

The Social Democratic leadership has squandered a large portion of the political legacy left by Olof Palme. An alternative interpretation is that control of the party has been captured by a gang of neo-liberal EU/NATO enthusiasts who have exploited the confusion which they, themselves, have created in order to nudge the country in a Conservative direction. This interpretation is supported by several indications, including: the unprecedented violation the eagerness for maximal co-operation with NATO demonstrated by Defense Minister Björn von Sydow; and the remarkably undemocratic decision by EU enthusiast Maj-Liis Lööw to cling to her party's group leadership in the EU parliament, despite her phalanx's electoral defeat.

Whatever that case may be, the Social Democratic leadership has-- intentionally or otherwise-- squandered a large portion of the political legacy left by Olof Palme. Those best equipped to continue his foreign policy have ended up in peripheral roles; and Palme's warnings about the economic and social consequences of neo-liberalism stand as a prophetic rebuke of the jobless path along which his successors have dragged the country.

It would appear that both Conservatives and Social Democratic "renewers" have much to gain by blurring the distinction between Palme and Bildt.
Common obscurity

It would appear that both Conservatives and Social Democratic "renewers" have much to gain by blurring the distinction between the politics of Palme and those of Bildt. One thing is fairly certain: The day that ordinary Swedes can no longer tell the difference between Olof Palme and Carl Bildt, Sweden in its finest expression will have been eliminated from the political map of the world, presumably to disappear into the EU and NATO.

For many, this would probably be regarded as a positive development. There has long been a sizeable contingent of Swedes who like to think of the United States as a kindly and protective "Uncle Sam"; and it is true enough that the U.S. has taken on a less grim and ugly appearance since the end of the Cold War a few years ago. But it remains a warrior society with great internal tensions and conflicts. It has often had need of various external threats, real or invented; and there is little doubt that its foreign policy will continue to be dominated in the future by the same kind of violence-prone men as previously.

It need not take many years before those facts once again acquire great significance for the people of Sweden. To take just one plausible scenario: There is much to indicate that the 21st century will witness a mounting test of strength between the U.S. and China. This is one explanation for the United States' eagerness to preserve and expand NATO, despite the end of the Cold War that it was devised to fight. Strong and reliable allies in Europe may come in handy during the years ahead.

How many Swedes want to see their children drawn into that sort of global contest; and where will it be possible to find an Olof Palme to mediate a reduction in tensions, or speak in the interests of the less powerful peoples of the earth?

"The Nobel Prize will
not provide more
food for Moscow."
-- Carl Bildt on the
selection of Mikhail
Gorbachev for the Nobel
Peace Prize, 1990
The world the Conservatives might have made

These are some of the questions that invite a reminder of how the world might have looked if the policies of Carl Bildt and the Conservative Party had prevailed during the post-war era. Obviously, it is impossible to be certain about the course of events in such an eventuality. But the Conservatives have been sufficiently clear on a number of issues to suggest that the developments sketched below would have been far from improbable, if their foreign policy had won general acceptance in the western world:
  • Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of conciliation would have been impossible, and the Cold War would have escalated along with its arms race. The Berlin Wall would still be solidly in place, and the Iron Curtain would have been extended northward to divide the Baltic Sea. Finland would have been even more firmly bound to the Soviet Union, by more or less "peaceful" means.

  • Sweden would have long ago become a member of NATO and, like Norway, would have actively taken part in the rape of Vietnam. Sweden would either have developed its own nuclear weapons, or accepted the presence of NATO's on its territory. The Defence Ministry's portion of the national budget would have been substantially larger, and the Swedish arms industry would have been set loose on the world in the same fashion as other NATO countries. Ronald Reagan's dreams of "Star Wars" would have come true, with Sweden as a willing sub-contractor.
"I admire Sweden enormously, and the entire world owes Sweden a large debt of gratitude for its leadership on environmental issues, which began with Olof Palme."
-- Canadian businessman and diplomat Maurice Strong, chairman of the U.N. environmental conferences in Stockholm, 1972, and Rio de Janeiro, 1992

"Recent decades have shown. . . that free market economies do not consume, but actually create new resources for sustainable development."
-- Prime Minister Carl
Bildt commenting on
Rio conference, 1992

"Sweden is well-situated for demonstrations. Now that Vietnam has served its purpose in that regard. … South Africa can function as a suitable object of indignation."
-- Conservative Party's official organ, 1977

For a more detailed
comparison of Palme's
and Bildt's foreign
policies, see
Worlds Apart.

Return to Part I
  • The Vietnam War would have dragged on for several additional years, while the U.S. attempted in vain to bomb its ill-equipped enemy "back into the Stone Age". A weakened and disunited Vietnam would have been unable to stop the mass murder in Cambodia. In general, the position of Asian communists would have been strengthened, and the region's remarkable economic development-- so often and approvingly cited by Conservatives-- would have been indefinitely postponed.

  • There would have been no U.N. Environmental Conference in Stockholm in 1972, nor any follow-up twenty years later in Rio de Janeiro, and thus no Agenda 21. Sweden's nuclear industry would have expanded, and the Swedish business community would have been free to ignore the environment in the name of The Market.

  • The United States' brutal suppression of peasant revolts in its Latin America client-states would have continued with no significant opposition from the outside world. The genocide of Guatemala's Indians would have continued, and Nicaragua would not have enjoyed even a few paltry years of public health and education before the CIA succeeded in reinstating the economic elite. Naturally, Sweden would have given its full support to the United States in its thirty years of military and economic aggression against Cuba.

  • In the Middle East, there would have been no peace process for Israel's Likud government to sabotage, and the Palestinians would still not have a patch of ground to call their own. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela would have ended his days in prison; and the apartheid system would at this stage be in relatively solid condition, thanks in part to the investments of Swedish industry, and the passive consent of the Swedish government.

  • And no Swede would have been regarded as the self-evident choice for peace co-ordinator in Bosnia-- least of all, Carl Bildt.

— Al Burke      

Note: This is the complete text of an article published November 1997 in somewhat abridged form in the Swedish magazine,