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US-Sweden today: The ties that Carl built
'Obama's visit to Sweden a big win for Carl Bildt'

US-Sweden today: The ties that Carl built

Published: 08 Aug 2013 15:32 GMT+02:00
Updated: 08 Aug 2013 15:32 GMT+02:00

US President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Sweden is a diplomatic coup for Fredrik Reinfeldt and his government, but the real winner is Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, argues historian and commentator David Lindén.

Obama will skip a summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in September and instead visit Stockholm. For Sweden, this is both great and historic news.

It will be the first truly bilateral visit in Sweden by a sitting US president and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt proudly announced that this would be an opportunity “to put forward the Swedish view” on world affairs. This phrase has been used many times in the past when Swedish PMs have travelled to Washington. But this time, it actually carries some meaning. Put simply, there is a major difference between hosting the US president in your own country, and having been slotted a brief meeting and a press conference by a protective scheduling secretary in the White House.

With this arrangement, Reinfeldt has sealed his place in the history of Swedish-US relations, a history that goes back to Swedish mercenaries fighting alongside American colonist revolutionaries during the War of Independence. Few Swedes and Americans know, for example, that the 18th century Swedish Count Axel von Fersen participated in the battle of Yorktown and that there was a Swedish member of the Society of the Cincinnati, a society founded by the original contributors to the American Revolution.

But although this visit is a triumph for Reinfeldt, it is even a greater triumph for Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. His aristocratic heritage, intelligence and swag (or arrogance, depending who you ask) makes him a popular guest on both sides of the Atlantic. Bildt has had a career within the Swedish Moderate Party spanning more than four decades and has been closely associated with the not always friendly US-Swedish relationship.

During the height of the Cold War, when Soviet submarines were thought to have illegally entered Swedish waters, a parliamentary commission of which Bildt was a member investigated the suspected intrusion. But before the committee's conclusions were made public, Bildt travelled to Washington where he discussed the findings with members of the Pentagon and State Department. It became a Swedish political scandal and made his name as an international politician. When then Vice President George H. W. Bush was in Stockholm, he knew all about it, according to former Moderate Party leader Ulf Adelsohn.

And so Bildt found himself on the radar of the Reagan White House.

In 1986, he became leader of the Moderate Party and in 1991 he formed a non-socialist minority government. As prime minister, he travelled to Washington twice to see both Bush and Bill Clinton, to whom he also sent an email in 1994, making history with a few key strokes in what was the first email exchanged between two government leaders (although Clinton had an assistant writing his).

In one of the US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, Bildt was described as a "medium-sized dog with a big dog attitude". It is a good description. Bildt is a man who dares to take chances and many American politicians like that. After he lost the 1994 Swedish elections, he became peace negotiator during the war in the former Yugoslavia. It is telling that his appointment was supported by the Clinton administration. Bildt has himself described that he realized that the "interview" took place when he had some beers with friends at the Georgetown Inn in Washington, DC.

With Obama now heading to Sweden, it's safe to assume that Bildt has been negotiating with the White House for quite some time about having the US president pay a visit. And when it happens, Bildt will extend his record as the Swedish politician who has met the most sitting US presidents and played perhaps the most pivotal role in keeping relations between the two countries so strong.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King's College London and is currently a political commentator for Borås Tidning (BT). Previously he was a visiting scholar at University of North Carolina on the topic of Swedish-US relations during the Cold War. Follow him on Twitter here.

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