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'In a networked world, Sweden may be more powerful than the US'

'In a networked world, Sweden may be more powerful than the US'

Published: 10 Jan 2012 14:55 GMT+01:00
Updated: 10 Jan 2012 14:55 GMT+01:00

The Arab Spring makes clear that the nature of power wielded by states is evolving as societies get networked digitally. Intriguingly, a new network-centric theory of power appears to favor Sweden's open and collaborative nature as a multiplier of its influence globally.

International relations theorists have long talked about hard power and soft power; hard power is coercive, embedded in military might and financial means, whereas soft power is attractive, derived from positive views of a nation's cultural and social institutions.

The United states is a superpower in both realms. Sweden, not so much.

In 2009, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, Anne-Marie Slaughter, wrote an influential article for Foreign Affairs in which she began to extend the hard/soft theory of power to incorporate the effects of Internet-enabled networks.

She argued that in the Internet age, "the measure of power is connectedness", and that this favors the US because American society has all the right traits for connectivity. Now Slaughter has expanded on her thinking with a new article in The Atlantic that argues the old notions of power just won't suffice to explain what happened on Tahrir Square, so she identifies a new kind, "collaborative power".

Collaborative power isn't "power over" but "power with". It is an "emergent phenomenon" of the network, and although it cannot be commanded, those who are willing to align with its aims — who "move to the center" of the network — can guide it.

How is the United States positioned to "guide" collaborative power?

How is Sweden positioned?

Many of the social and demographic traits in the US identified by Slaughter as beneficial to connectivity are also present in Sweden.

In fact, Sweden is often better positioned than the US to become a collaborative superpower, especially in the Middle East.

What are these traits?

Slaughter proceeds through a whole list: a small population (compared with China), which makes a country more manageable politically and less prone to secessionism; many immigrants, since they contribute strong trusted connections back to their country of origin, facilitating trade; international exposure, especially by a country's youth, through travel and global engagement; open and transparent government, which promotes trust in state actors; innovation based on "constructive conflict" and the challenging of authority; and economic and social equality, which fosters inclusion.

What's interesting is that for all these network-friendly traits, a compelling case can be made that Sweden outperforms the US.

For example, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born is higher for Sweden than the US. Sweden's innovation model, based on collaboration between industries, not only outperforms the US but is also more network-friendly.

Sweden's society is far more egalitarian than America's. For a detailed argumentation around each point, read the longer original version of this article.

In the Arab world, America's legacy of hard-power politics interferes with the trust-building needed to direct collaborative power. US-funded initiatives to promote internet freedom and digital activism are seen as tainted with murkier US policy goals.

This is not the case for Sweden, which has successfully funded an initiative to build trusted networks between young democracy activists and opinion leaders, both across the Arab region and with their Swedish counterparts.

Each year since 2008, participants in the Young Leaders Visitors Program (YLVP) are invited for a few weeks of networking, training, seminars and internships. Some alumni have ended up among the youth leaders of the Arab Spring.

When surveyed, many YLVP participants indicate that Sweden's reputation for neutrality is what motivates them to trust the network. Trust is the currency of collaborative power, it's what enables collective action towards a common goal.

And Swedes are easy to trust, in part because they are always seeking consensus. This suggests that networked collaboration to promote open societies and democracy in the Arab world should be left to countries not afflicted with hard power, such as Sweden.

In a collaborative power dynamic, the network quickly disseminates best practices for the good of all, with a boost to the reputation of the originator. In this context, gaining reputation is akin to "moving to the center" of a network, improving both the quantity and quality of connections. This should be Sweden's aim in its digital public diplomacy.

Where networks are scarce, it is in Sweden's interest to build up their physical capacity. Sweden has considerable resources available to build the foundations for networks that can grow autonomously around prioritized issues. YLVP is a great example.

Finally, even open networks need to be trusted before they can be used to build trust. For digital networks, this means they need to be safe and secure for users, regardless of where they live.

Fortunately, Sweden has recourse to some great hacktivist talent.

So: Build networks, secure networks, engage networks. These are three useful motifs around which Sweden can structure its future digital public diplomacy efforts.

A nimble, innovative and open society such as Sweden has all the right qualifications to mesh itself deeply within trusted networks that are able to mobilize collaborative power.

Stefan Geens is a Stockholm-based Belgian national who has served as a technology and new media consultant for the Swedish Institute. He publishes about the global politics of digital networks at Dliberation, where a longer version of this article first appeared.

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Your comments about this article

15:36 January 10, 2012 by sberger
Very interesting article. I realize you are referring largely to digital networks, but in terms of Sweden's soft power capabilities, I would argue not to forget the origins of that power, which is very much rooted in Sewdish neutrality during the Cold War and its political as well as economic networking. Sweden excelled at so-called countertrade/barter which is what put it on the map as an international power broker. Many of the relationships you mention, including the Arab and developing world were forged originally in the economic arena. This, in addition to all the important social aspects you mention, is mainly responsible for Sweden's "soft" power capabilities.
00:06 January 11, 2012 by blik
Arab Spring my Ass!

The Arab spring will only create a shift to the hard right as the Fascist Religious Cult the Arabs follow takes over and try's to take over the rest of us.

Pretty much like Communism. They have nothing and want to share it with the rest of the world. So bad example there Stefan!

Does Stefan Greens propose Sweden replicate something like the failed Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of last century?

The failed economic-political model that kept India and all the other deluded member States in severe poverty for that entire period!

This article stinks of Leftist Anti Americanism which at the end of the day is anti self.
01:59 January 11, 2012 by MarkinBoston
The same pacifist crap - dressed up in 'digital' clothes. You use power to make things happen. What has Sweden made happen? Do you really think Arabs care about what Swedes think? If so you're delusional. If the world relied on soft power, the Berlin Wall would still be standing. The 'soft power' crowd didnt' want to do anything to upset the nice Communists. Where were the Swedes when Ronald Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down the wall? Busy planting their potatoes and polishing their furniture. And staying safely out of the line of fire, while Americans stood armed in the Fulder Gap, ready to die to defend a Europe that hated them.
03:56 January 11, 2012 by HenryPollard
Re: MarkinBoston

Yes of course! The sole reason for the fall of the Soviet Union was Ronald Reagan and them good ol' American troops.

Nothing to do with the fact that the Soviet's decline was already sealed by the mid-1970s due to mismanagement of economic policy, nor to do with it being led by Gorbachev, the most incompetent Premier the Union ever had.......
09:52 January 11, 2012 by Grindsprint
LOL @ sheep actually believing that Reagan saying "Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall" had such an impact on him that he actually went ahead and did it :D geeeez! And America won ww2.... lol
10:31 January 11, 2012 by Marc the Texan
Simmer down. This article is just pure comment bait for Americans. I don't disagree with Stefan Geens' premise. But after everything is weighed and measured, where is the real upside. Also, I don't see how having a higher percentage of foreign born population than the US can benefit any nation. What an absolutely asinine goal to pursue.
10:38 January 11, 2012 by rfmann
Delusions of grandeur. 'Soft power' my foot.
12:59 January 11, 2012 by Already in use
Oh wow, I believe this is the first time I read an article here that actually has content!
17:02 January 11, 2012 by tigger007
there's an old saying in africa''you can't be above me and below me at the same time'' this sums up this article in a nut shell.i don't totally disagree with Stefan Geen either,but you can't compare these two countries in this way.everybody in this world has a roll to play,may it be big or small.some people wish america can have a soft power along with it's hard power and sweden could have a hard power with it's soft power according to Stefan Geen and Anne-Marie Slaughter.
17:06 January 11, 2012 by stefangeens
[I wrote the article]

sberger: yes, Sweden punches above its weight in the soft-power stakes, and the trust this has engendered in Sweden translates into a good reputation in digital networks.

blik, MarkinBoston, Marc the Texan, rfmann: Don't write off this article as anti-American. I see Sweden and the US as aligned in many of their goals, especially when it comes to promoting human rights, trade and economic development globally. My point is that Sweden is better positioned to achieve many of the aims the US has set for itself in the digital arena. This is not a case of pitting their interests against each other but looking at comparative advantages.

Whether or not you like it, both the US and Sweden are trying to woo the Facebook generation in the Middle East. I happen to think such outreach is an excellent idea.
21:55 January 11, 2012 by rfmann
@stefangeens: I don't think your article is anti-American, I simply think it is, sorry, plain silly. It begins with the fact that whatever point you try to make is so fuzzy and woolly that it would be difficult to even figure out a way to determine whether it is, in fact, correct.

Fortunately, the idea of comparing the 'power' (even just the 'soft power', whatever that may be) of a country with the population of a large metropolitan area to that of the U.S., who has been leading the world for many decades now in many hard and soft power related matters (nukes, military, technology, communication, media) is so preposterous, it's probably a good thing you did not even attempt to support that notion with anything approaching actual fact.

The U.S. comprises not only more than thirty times as many people as Sweden, it also does better in /per capita/ GDP as well as in GDP /per work hour/. The best minds of the world are lining up for U.S. work permits and green cards in order to become high-tech entrepreneurs and world-leading academics, while Sweden is fighting to preserve its meat-ball culture, parochialism, and awkward language against a flood of refugees and asylum seekers. Face it, a bank such as SEB as well as the largest Swedish university do not even have functioning English-language Web sites, the idea of 'wooing the (international) Facebook generation' --- which after all isn't the 'Ansiktsbok' generation --- is just comical.

I am not dissing Sweden --- it's a decent enough little country that has its moments, but "more powerful than the U.S." it may not be, soft, hard, or otherwise. That is, as I said, just delusion of grandeur.
00:15 January 12, 2012 by stefangeens
@rfmann, FWIW I didn't write the title, even if it does have quote marks around it; it makes a stronger claim than the article itself. But as for evidence - read the original article; it's four times longer. It includes the observation that the US is not so keen anymore about taking in all those eager immigrants, whereas Sweden continues to benefit from the "flood" (for reasons I explain).
09:42 January 12, 2012 by area man
This piece and the original article are quite interesting and thought provoking. Forwarded the original on to friends for discussion. As for many of the comments here--Good lord, it's disheartening that the Americans here are so reactionary and xenophobic. You guys seem to embody the worse traits that you imagine among immigrants--simmering resentment toward the foreign country you're (presumably) living in. You're calling Swedes parochial?! I can only hope your Swedish colleagues and friends have great senses of humor...
13:29 January 12, 2012 by rfmann
@stefangeens: Your original article isn't any better. That 'foreign-born' statistic as a counter to the homogeneity argument is absurd. If you compare the ethnic makeup of Sweden with the ethnic mix and long history of immigration in the U.S, the fact that /in this generation/ a couple more percent in Sweden are 'foreign born' does not change the reality that Sweden is /a lot/ more homogeneous than then United States, in just about every way imaginable, ethnically, politically, socially, culturally. And while its policy toward refugees is certainly laudable, it's not exactly a substitute for attracting top international talent when it comes to international success, sky-high choral participation notwithstanding.

@area man: I called Sweden parochial, which is what it is, and I am not American, and clearly not 'reactionary' or 'xenophobic' or what else you imagine others to be in order to not have to deal with their views. As for the Swedish sense of humor, let's not open that particular can of worms, shall we, lest we touch on another of your sensibilities.
16:35 January 12, 2012 by tigger007
Stefan i bet you didn't think that you would be defending yourself in such a manner like this! Sweden is a homogeneity state and it will take generations for it can be near north america. remember north american has over 450yrs and

that north america had it's problems in the begining.Stefan sweden is taking on as you put it'' eager immigrants''but has no clue on how to tap into the gold mine.i have meet alot of ''eager immigrants'' but they get the shaft when the try to intergrate in to sweden.the market place in sweden is homogenious and it's nonwilliness to change will never benefit from this'' eager immigrants'' gold mine.
18:45 January 12, 2012 by jdbpogo
all of swedens soft power advantage is pretty much negated by the FRA law, who can trust a network that is constantly monitored and archived by a government that has broken its own laws by aiding their superpower master in the extradition of foreign nationals to offshore interrogation facilities. when this came to light it really made me wonder what else is happening that hasn't been brought to our attention. i don't think any other western country spies on its citizens in this manner and in my opinion is completely unacceptable. until this situation is remedied, sweden has no soft power. period.
20:11 January 12, 2012 by calebian22
Considering the outcome of voting in Egypt I wouldn't say that the digital influence has impacted the hard line there. Islamist parties receiving more than 2/3 of the popular vote is not a battle cry of success in the digital age.
09:59 January 15, 2012 by Lavaux
Now that Sweden is a superpower, it's going to have to spend trillions to keep the world from blowing up. Of course, all this spending on peace will leave little money left over for welfare state goodies. Worse, Sweden can't expect help from that other much-reviled superpower because it's broke and taking and hatchet to its military. But no matter, appearances and feelings are far more important than real capabilities. Still, I can't imagine what Sweden might do if Iran launched a nuke at Tel Aviv, or more importantly, how all of Sweden's collaborative power is to be applied to prevent it.
20:25 January 15, 2012 by Just_Kidding
Nice comforting delusion for Swedes!

The percentage of immigrants are higher in Sweden, but their number are a lot higher (since us has 29 times more people than Sweden) and they hold more key positions in the society than Sweden thanks to US's openness to smart and hardworking immigrants.
08:25 January 16, 2012 by skogsbo
US immigration is a joke, start a conflict, millions flee, the US take how many, what percentage? Practically none? Did Sweden initiate Iraq, how many times more Iraqi immigrants have Sweden taken than the US, despite being many times smaller. The US has never been keen to take immigrants from the ME etc.

Sweden hasn't benefited, it's been too many at too fast a pace to intergrate, otherwise it would have worked. No dramas for the US there, just keep those borders closed.

Soft power, my ar$.... it's just a fluffy article to try and make people think that Sweden is somehow benefitting from it.

The internet may give folk in the ME more information, twitter etc. my help co-ordinate an uprising, but who fills the gap in that nation when the current power is ousted, extremists, no amount of Swedish soft power can stop that, so is it really benefitting? It just means that the population can tell the world that the new rulers are even worse than the last!!
19:57 January 17, 2012 by Ranger
Sweden is just a corrupt little country with a corrupt political system and a corrupt judicial system and it will never be anything more than that.
10:07 January 18, 2012 by anonymous4
Go to Wikipedia and click on the English speaking version. You will see that it has been shut down with a message against the USA SOPA and PIPA Acts. This will give you insight as to whether Sweden has or has not more power than the USA.
05:06 January 19, 2012 by Jeff10
Yeah, well, a case might be made that eating dirt is better for you than eating beef, but who wants to make such a case?
13:48 January 23, 2012 by robban70226
he long stick and the white glove theory aways work
17:38 January 25, 2012 by zeulf
@Grindsprint You need to read a bit more history. Gorbatchev did not actually teardown the Wall , just informed the Ost Tyske regime that CCCP would not exert pressure to prevent German Vacationers crossing the Hungarian/Austrian Border.
20:38 January 31, 2012 by efm
Delusion of grandeur, --haha more powerful than USA?

Oh, come on?

My Swedish wife may have some power over me! that's another story.

The author has been drinking a bit to much.
17:23 February 1, 2012 by haberdave
Just remember what Captain Kirk said to Scottie about the Borg...."Don't worry they only pay attention to those whom they are currently against...to them we are as insignificant as a barely tolerable mosquito."
03:22 February 8, 2012 by jomamas
Sweden will never be 'more powerful' than the US what a pile o stupidity.

Even if Swedes punch above their weight, pound for pound, America would have to be in worse shape than Brazil for Sweden to be 'more important' than it.

Also - the Swedes should not take any moral dignity in not taking sides in the cold war. Though America has it's problems, the sides were clear: those who stood for general openness, democracy, and fairness - and those who stood for brutal dictatorships, gulags and complete control of all behavior by the state.

If you think that America now resembles even remotley the Soviet era (i.e. Patriot act) then you need to keep smoking pot and reading Che volumes while you live in your parents basement.

Swedes may have had to be 'neutral' for geostrategic reasons, but it is nothing to be proud of.

Just like Sweden refused to stand up and fight the Nazis - while the world was burning, French, American, English, Aussie, Canadian blood was being spilled to stop them - while the Swedes watched.

There is pride in cowardly behavior, or an inability to distinguish right from wrong.
11:55 February 10, 2012 by Max Reaver
If you think Sweden is doing better on immigration than US just because Sweden takes on more immigrants than US on a scaled basis, then you havent experienced US.

Take SF for example, a multicultural city where even the bus signs are written in three languages, English, Spanish and Chinese. It will never ever happen in a Swedish town.
00:03 February 12, 2012 by Hunner1210
The World is FAR TOO FAR up America's a$$ for Sverige to ever be considered "more important". But better? MUCH better!
09:01 February 17, 2012 by Marc the Texan
Swedes. Do yourselves a favor. Just stop comparing your country and culture to the US. Just stop it. It's apples and oranges. You are collectively coming to bizarre cultural conclusions. Stop measuring yourselves against America, it's ruining your country and Americans don't give a rats... about Sweden.
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