Scandinavia in International Relations: a Model for the UK?

Scandinavia appears to be undergoing somewhat of a cultural renaissance globally.  In the past, the advent of mass communication and the growth of US cultural influence globally via its rapidly booming audiovisual sectors fuelled concerns over a past ‘Dallasification’ of global and European culture. [1]  However, the increased global interest in Scandinavian cultural exports such as Scandinavian noir and the popularity of Danish television programmes such as Borgen and The Killing globally perhaps show a re-balancing of this trend.

Image courtesy of the Epping Forest District Council, © 2012, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of the Epping Forest District Council, © 2012, some rights reserved

This “Scandimania” is perhaps representative of the region’s wider success and efficacy in its international relations.  A policy of foreign relations which has seen a focus on the formation of strategic alliances and international cooperation coupled with the shrewd use of institutional ‘uploading’ through different channels of various international organisations.[2]

In the coming years the UK arguably faces a perfect storm of a combination of domestic and international factors which will fundamentally re-orientate its global role and international relations – consolidating its ultimate post-Empire decline.  Made up of countries with a similarly strong maritime and imperial tradition, Scandinavia perhaps provides a good reference point for the UK as it seeks to adjust to these oncoming challenges.

Whilst immediate concerns over the long-term future of the Eurozone have probably been resolved, the emergent post-2008 Europe is a fundamentally altered geopolitical environment.  The growth of the ‘monetary without fiscal union’ debate in popular member states’ rhetoric betrays the wider increasingly integrative trajectory of the European Union moving forward.  The EU in the future will be increasingly both ‘wider’ and ‘deeper’, with increasing political linkages underpinning the economic.

Often seen as a traditional proponent of the EU as a free-trade zone as opposed to a political union, with it failing to sign-up to the Euro or the Schengen Agreement, the UK already stands disadvantaged as an outsider within this future European structure – its geographical situation on Europe’s circumference seemingly acting as a wider metaphor. However, this could be exacerbated by an increasingly fragmentary and isolationist mode of political activity domestically, with the rise of UKIP as a quasi-legitimate political actor and the recession having provided room for the (re-)emergence of a range of nationalist and far-right groups within the UK.

Whilst these groups often lack actual elected positions, their political power is such that they will often be able to dictate the direction of politics domestically – consecutive Conservative concessions to appease Eurosceptic factions in the face of UKIP’s ascent is a case in point.  This could create a future domestic political environment which sees the active eschewing of external interactions particularly with a ‘European project’.  Moreover, fragmentation of the UK in the case of a vote for Scottish independence in September would arguably further turn the UK’s focus inwards at the expense of the external as well as posing obvious dilemmas to its defence and security policy.

This is an addition to the impact of post-2008 government cuts which have been keenly felt by the armed forces in the UK, where there has been a large reduction in active service personnel and a decline in defence capabilities such as aircraft carrier capability (until at least 2020).  As part of an overall strategic policy shift which favours ‘light, specialist forces for short-duration interventions’, these reduced expeditionary capabilities will serve only to further weaken the UK’s standing internationally and particularly amongst its traditional allies such as the US.[3]  The strength of the traditional UK-US partnership is further compromised by the US’s strategic ‘pivot to Asia’ in the immediate future.

Similarly on the outskirts of Europe, Scandinavian interactions with the EU mirrors to some extent the ‘hands-off’ approach of the UK.  Whilst Sweden is a fairly involved member state of the EU, Denmark’s reputation as ‘reluctant Europeans’ is second probably only to the UK and Norway is not an EU member at all.  Moreover, Sweden’s traditional non-interventionist character probably makes it sui generis in this respect.  However, whilst in the case of Denmark and Norway their EU interactions are perhaps as limited as for the UK, they are markedly different in their much greater pragmatic and transactional bent.

This is coupled with the wider use of a strong institutional capacity to ‘upload’ their interests and pursue them strategically through various international channels when their interests and values would be best served this way.  Denmark’s strategic use of European foreign policy structures through the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) to ‘upload’ various Danish foreign policy concerns is a case in point.  This has been particularly pragmatic in the face of recent government spending cuts, where there has been a focus on value maximisation against a backdrop of reduced resources.

A further component of the Scandinavian approach has been the adept use of soft power, both within the international political system and as a wider form of cultural capital within a global civil society.  The traditional Norwegian focus on international cooperation has seen it play host to a range of international delegations and act as third-party mediators in a variety of global disputes.  This notably includes the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but more recently in Sudan, Bosnia and Colombia in 2005 – buying Norway influence internationally.  Whilst Sweden, ranked 6th in Monocle’s 2013 soft power index, acts as the intermediary between North Korea and the US on routine diplomatic and consular issues.[4]  In an earlier article, I examined soft power and the potential that it poses for the UK as a resource to compensate for its loss of hard power due to these competing pressures.  Scandinavia’s usage of soft power is also uniquely married with this ability to gain influence, adapt and form shrewd alliances and intervene for the promotion of their values.

Moving forward, Scandinavia should perhaps represent a model for the UK’s foreign policy as it seeks to balance its external obligations with reduced resources, domestic politicking and an altered geopolitical environment.  The trend for British parochialism could possibly be stemmed by a more pragmatic and utilitarian approach to its international relations, very much in the Scandinavian tradition.

[1] De Bens, Els & Hedwig de Smaele. 2001. The Inflow of American Television Fiction on European Broadcasting Channels Revisited. European Journal of Communication, 16:1.

[2] Zeff, Eleanor & Ellen Piro. 2006.  The European Union and the Member States, pg.8.

[3] HM Government. 2010. Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, pg. 24.

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