American envoy plants green shoots

The relationship between Sweden and the United States is nothing if not complex, and with Sweden’s king and queen opening the country’s new Washington embassy this week, the link has been put into sharp focus.

Swedes often say that they live in the most Americanized country in the world – with the US itself at number two. But the Iraq war and the failure by the Americans to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change mean relations have been a bit strained of late, at least if you believe what you read in the media.

Indeed, a new survey from the Nordic Council appears to show that only one in ten Swedes thinks that a long term partnership with the United States is important for Sweden.

Michael M. Wood, a lifelong buddy of President George W. Bush, is the man who has been sent to smooth over ruffled Swedish feathers. He’s the first to admit that bridges to European countries need rebuilding.

“Quite a lot of damage was done in the first term, with the Iraq war, Kyoto – there was a lot of bad blood in the transatlantic relationship,” he tells The Local, in an interview at the US Embassy in Stockholm’s diplomatic quarter.

Wood thinks that relations are already much more cordial.

“There was a very positive statement by the president of Austria at the European Summit earlier this year. A lot less of the knee-jerk Bush-bashing and US-bashing that maybe existed a couple of years ago.”

The new ambassador to Sweden is not the only presidential friend to be sent over to Europe –America’s men in France and Italy are also chums of Bush.

“I knew the president when we were in high school and college together. We’ve been friends ever since. When he became president and moved to Washington, I was lucky because we would go over for dinner, exercise together, go to a movie together, so I got to see him, even though he was the president, more often than most.”

Wood even made a minor splash in the American papers earlier this year when, out mountain biking with the president, he fell off his bike and broke his collarbone.

“It was not long after the Cheney hunting incident [when a friend of Vice President Dick Cheney was accidentally shot on a hunting trip], so the press in Washington tried to follow that theme, saying’ the president’s friends are shooting each other and breaking bones’,” he laughs. Wood is now getting back to health with the help of a Swedish orthopaedic surgeon.

But the new ambassador is not just a friend of Bush who’s been sent over to charm Europeans – he’s a successful businessman in his own right, having sold his magazine publishing business in a deal reported by the Financial Times to have been worth $650 million.

Talking to him, it’s clear that he intends to bring his experience as a businessman to bear on his new-found role as a diplomat.

“I think that when a lot of ambassadors come to a country they do their work, they visit universities and promote good will. That’s fine, but that wasn’t enough for me – I wanted to try and accomplish something.”

That something, he has decided, will be finding a breakthrough in alternative fuels.

Wood says he ran a number of ideas past his friends and contacts in Sweden and the US – getting Sweden to join Nato, or for the two countries to work together to promote democracy – before plumping for cooperation on new types of fuel.

The decision to focus on an environmental issue surprised many in Sweden, Wood says. Criticism of the Bush Administration on green issues has been fierce in Sweden, as in other parts of Europe.

“There was some initial scepticism and questions like ‘have you checked this with Washington’,” he admits.

But he points to Bush’s “30/30” plan, which aims to cut fossil fuel use in the US by 30 percent by the year 2030, as evidence that Washington takes the issue seriously.

“It’s a subject on which people immediately agree and want to cooperate. It is a strategic issue, and one of the great problems facing everyone in the world these days – for economic reasons, for environmental reasons, for political-strategic reasons. Everybody needs to diversify away from oil that comes from unstable parts of the world.

“So I took that ammunition back to Washington, I talked to the President, and asked him which of the three he would like me to concentrate on, and he quickly said energy.”

What can an embassy do to promote cooperation in a specific area? Wood says he wants to match know-how and capital in the United States with complementary know-how or capital in Sweden.

“If there are scientists at Lund and MIT working on the same thing, then we can find out about it and put them in touch with one another,” he says.

“Thirty-eight billion dollars of venture capital was raised in the US last year, specifically to be invested in alternative energy sources. That’s money that’s been raised that’s looking for companies to invest in, and there are a lot of companies in Sweden – entrepreneurs and scientists – who have the ideas but lack the capital.”

While the Swedish government has not yet formally discussed the issue with Wood, he says that Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and foreign minister Carl Bildt are “excited” by the prospect.

Wood has already met Reinfeldt twice, once since he became prime minister.

But curiously, neither the current ambassador nor his predecessor met former prime minister Göran Persson, despite repeated requests for a meeting.

“We never got an explanation. I mean, I can speculate, but I probably shouldn’t,” he smiles.

Ministers within the Alliance have talked warmly about improving transatlantic relations, and Bildt had his first meeting as foreign minister with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the royal visit. But while Wood says that he hopes the new government in Stockholm will help improve relations between the two countries, he keeps a note of realism.

“Will they join Nato? Probably not. Will they reverse themselves on the Iraq war and send troops? No. So it’s hard to identify any specific foreign policy areas where the new government might present a change.”

But, he insists, when it comes to reducing dependence on fossil fuels, there is real scope for renewed cooperation.

“It feels like since we announced this we’ve reached a tipping point – not just in the US or in Sweden. It just feels like it’s happening, and it’s going to start rolling down the hill fast.”