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Outgoing US ambassador to Sweden looks back

David Landes · 27 May 2011, 11:20

Published: 27 May 2011 11:20 GMT+02:00

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Strolling into the US embassy in Stockholm on a recent Friday afternoon, a visitor may have been forgiven for thinking he had stumbled upon a high school pep rally.

The halls echoed with cheers and hollers, punctuating a sustained round of applause.

As it turns out, the dozens of staff members and diplomats who filled the recently refurbished and rechristened cafeteria, now known to as The American Diner, were merely expressing their feelings for the engagement and accomplishments of Matthew Barzun, outgoing US ambassador, at the sunset of his truncated tour of duty as the top US envoy in Sweden.

The American Diner, complete with vinyl booths, burgers, and images of classic Americana on the walls, is just one of the many imprints Barzun leaves on the embassy.

As colleagues wished their soon-to-be departed boss farewell, it was clear, however, that Barzun has made his mark on the US embassy in more ways than one in his less than two years in Stockholm.

And for Barzun personally, while he is "honoured" to have been called home to lead fundraising efforts for President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign, leaving Sweden earlier than planned leaves him with mixed emotions.

"I had to learn the Swedish word for bittersweet, bitterljuv, because that's the feeling I have," he tells The Local.

"I feel personally sad to be leaving a place that I've come to love, but I'm confident that the work will continue."

On many measures, Barzun has had a fruitful 21 months as US ambassador, even though he may have hoped to have at least one more year to further develop a number of initiatives begun during his tenure.

"My predecessor did really good work building alternative energy partnerships," Barzun explains, referring to Michael Wood, the last US ambassador to serve under George W. Bush, who launched efforts to create and sustain partnerships between the US and Sweden in the area of alternative energy and green technology.

Originally termed "One Big Thing" by Wood, Barzun rechristened and redirected the initiative as the Swedish-American Green Alliance (SAGA).

Barzun says he is most proud of his contribution to "sustaining the focus on sustainability through SAGA".

One of the tools Barzun employed in his efforts was the creation of blogs, both for the SAGA initiative, and a personal blog, Blog Om Sweden, where he shares alternative energy stories "with the hope that it might generate ideas, open new doors of insight, and facilitate new connections".

Considering his background as a web pioneer and IT-entrepreneur (he was one of the first employees with internet publisher CNET), it's perhaps not surprising that during his tenure, Barzun, besides being the first US ambassador in Sweden to run a blog, also helped revolutionize the way the embassy used social media.

Since Barzun's arrival, the US embassy has launched a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and opened channels on YouTube and the photo-sharing site Flickr.

"We have to engage in new ways beyond traditional diplomacy," he explains.

"Face-to-face is great, but when you can't be face-to-face, Facebook, Twitter, the blogs, are really helpful platforms to keep the conversation going."

And Barzun has made a point of starting a number of conversations all across Sweden through another innovative outreach initiative: the Embassy Road Show.

Launched with a stop in Umeå in northern Sweden in November 2010, the Road Show was a way for Barzun and the rest of the embassy staff to get "outside of Stockholm" and engage with Swedes in other parts of the country.

The Road Show has also taken Barzun and his colleagues to Örebro, Linköping, Växjo, and Gävle where they have spoken with everyday Swedes about working and studying in the US, as well as offered attendees the chance to openly discuss topics that sometimes touch on sensitive subjects.

"You would see someone hesitating and you knew they wanted to say something controversial or sort of critical, like Guantanamo Bay or something that had been in the news and we'd say, 'that's OK, we've gotta talk about this' and that would sort of open the floodgates," Barzun recalls.

While discussions sparked by the Road Show visits were sometimes pointed, they nevertheless are an important new tool in shaping the ever-evolving relationship between Sweden and the United States which, Barzun admits, has been tested during his time in Stockholm.

"We had the issues of WikiLeaks related headlines followed by the Surveillance Detection Unit questions that sort of hit back to back," Barzun reflects, saying the issues created some "turbulent waters" for US-Swedish relations .

In late 2010, the whistleblower website publishing thousands of sensitive US diplomatic cables, a number of which were authored by US diplomats in Stockholm and contained confidential assessments of Swedish politicians and policies.

And in November 2010, accusations emerged that a Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) run by the US embassy may have been engaged in illegal spying on Swedish citizens.

A Swedish prosecutor looked into the operations of the SDU, which can be found at US embassies around the globe, but was unable to gather sufficient evidence to proceed with a formal investigation.

"I would point to that as a time of stress to the system, and I'm glad that I think we've come through both well," says Barzun.

He cites Sweden's current participation, along with that of the United States, in a UN-mandated mission in Libya as evidence that the two countries continue to have "shared values"

"The relationship is strong," he concludes.

In Barzun's eyes, US –Swedish relations have long been predicated on helping one another out.

"I keep coming back to continuity, all the way back to Ben Franklin," he says, invoking the US founding father who signed a trade agreement with Sweden, making it the first neutral nation to officially recognize the fledging American republic.

"Why did he sign this treaty in 1783, 228 years ago? He signed it because he needed help. And I'm here today as my country's representative because we still need help.

Story continues below…

"Global economic recovery, clean energy future, peace and prosperity in places outside Sweden and the United States – just to pick the big three things we're focused on here – those things we can't do alone. Sweden can't do it alone. And we feel that we can do it better if we do it together, and we've been doing things that way for 228 years based on that foundation of trust and friendship."

Heading toward his departure from Stockholm the end of may, Barzun says he wishes he could be around to attend future Road Show visits around the country and continue promoting alternative energy partnerships.

He adds, however, that his time in Sweden has helped him learn and appreciate a concept which he hopes to take with him as he heads back to spearhead President Obama's fundraising efforts.

"I'll tell you what it is…it's lagom," he says, referring to the Swedish term which translates roughly into "just right" or "okay".

For Barzun, lagom is a lot about balance.

"I think the world needs more balance right now not less," he explains, referring to pressing issues like global trade, clean energy, and the world economy.

"Sweden has taught me a lot about balance, and I will take that with me when I go back to the US."

And what are the chances of President Obama invoking the concept of lagom in his efforts to regain the White House in 2012?

"No predictions," Barzun says with a smile.

David Landes (david.landes@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

15:10 May 27, 2011 by MarshaLynn
If he is returning to the USA to help Obama be reelected, then we would prefer he stay in Sweden. Obama has been a total disaster for our economy and our values. We are not Marxists. We are counting the days until his ouster at the polls. Frankly, if Obama would move to Sweden himself, we would help him pack his bags.
19:56 May 27, 2011 by Syftfel
Ditto. Send him some place else, where he can't inflict any more damage. What we got with this fiasco was Pelosi and Reed. They should all just quietly sashay away!
00:20 May 28, 2011 by svenskamerikansk
I have to agree with the above posters. America is in meltdown and won't survive a second Obama term.

An Affirmative Action president is producing Affirmative Action results. Obama has been a disaster.
03:49 May 28, 2011 by philster61
"Obama has been a total disaster for our economy and our values. We are not Marxists. We are counting the days until his ouster at the polls. "

George Bush was the disaster for the US economy....Your values are outdated and irrelevant in this century. And 60% of Americans don't believe in evolution.... How mind blowingly stupid is that? Obama was good for US and the world.. He rid the world of history's worst terrorist... he gave health care to millions of those who couldn't afford it... He reluctantly backed the bailout to Wall st... Its companies who create jobs, if greed wasn't the overriding factor in US mindset, then perhaps major companies wouldn't out source jobs. Obama is NOT the disaster, it is America's reluctance to move ahead that is the disaster......
14:32 May 28, 2011 by eltechno

Yes Obama has been a disaster. But to suggest that is because he is a "Marxist" shows that you obviously flunked PolSci 101. Obama is not a creature in ANY way of the left as he is a wholly-owned operation of Goldman Sachs and the banksters.
18:26 May 28, 2011 by Buckshot
We are not Marxists.

Are you saying that Obama is a marxist?

Sure, and i´m Jesus.
19:31 May 28, 2011 by philster61
Reading all from these conspiracy theorists is amusing at best...
22:47 May 28, 2011 by Syftfel
Do you like Barzun's hat?
00:33 May 29, 2011 by Roy E
Reminds me of 'Eraserhead' (the weirdest and most disturbing movie in the history of movies)
05:58 May 29, 2011 by TIBORFOTO MEDIA
Those of you who say that a MARXIST runs USA, don't know nothing about the real thing.

I was born behind the IRON CURTAIN.

But regarding my meetings with Mr. Barzun I consider that he has the right skills for the job. HE HAS A GENUINE HUMOR. For those who want to MAKE A CHANGE ... JUST LOOK IN THE MIRROR!


With respect Mr. TIBORFOTO.com
12:31 May 29, 2011 by swedejane
Hahaha...I cannot wait for the second inauguration of President Obama! Seeing this field of republican candidates implode is giving all of us a good laugh. Newt did it in record time! Palin will be the "best" the republicans have, and she will flame out badly. Hahahaha...yes, it's going to be a great year seeing republican after republican trip over themselves, stick their foot in their mouth, and just generally go around on cable TV with their head firmly lodged up their poop chute.
15:39 May 29, 2011 by technoviking
Haha. If Obama was a "disaster" then what the hell was Bush?

In case you've selectively forgotten, Bush oversaw the financial crisis and the Iraq War, two of the biggest debacles in American history.

I'm no Obama worshipper, but given the laughable state of the Republican party and it's overtly elitist agenda I'm willing to bet The Osamanator will breeze through to a second term.

Of course if your "political" views consist of instructing strangers how they should manage their sex lives, I guess anything you say should also be taken with a grain of salt.
16:16 May 29, 2011 by philster61
Well said technoviking. I don't always agree with yo but this time you are spot on...
00:36 May 30, 2011 by old git
since when can you stroll into the american embassy? anywhere in the world?
03:03 May 30, 2011 by johnny1939
I cannot see how Obama cannot be reelected if this is the best the Republicans can do. Silly Newt, Romney the ass and Palin the trailer trash unless someone will appear as the new Savior. We can only hope....sigh, sigh
11:11 May 30, 2011 by Roy E
Funny how some are obsessed with deflecting to what is now irrelevant . Perhaps it's a way to avoid facing the real and immediate problems staring them in the face.

What these partisans will not acknowledge is that what matters now is that the situation s being made worse, much worse, even when the problems are well known. It is as if there is a deliberate refusal to do the right thing in America today. The politicians are far more interested in control than reform. This quite evident in the Obama administration. Ideology reigns supreme in spite of the negative results of the policies.

The recipe for success has been tinkered with too much by busybody control freaks. The consequences are now manifesting themselves. The days of under 5% unemployment are gone.

America has lost the plot. Things will be getting worse before they get better.
22:09 May 30, 2011 by planet.sweden
I'm and not a natural Democrat supporter, but Obama has been doing a pretty good job in my eyes and the Republican candidates are a joke, Sarah Palin a particularly bad one.

No I'm not an American. British. Maybe that's why I just don't understand Palin's appeal. She's an idiot.
11:24 May 31, 2011 by Scambaiter
Hahahaha...see the Tea Party is out in force on this thread.

What Obama has done for international relations matters not to these neocon bozos. A country that was utterly depised all over the world less than 3 years ago is now merely distrusted. But if any uneducated, saber-rattling, right-wing populists in the Palin/Bush mold get into power, you'll be back to square one. But that's the point really isn't it?...to promote the US as the global tyrant.

As for blaming Obama for the state of the US economy, that's the biggest, transparent lie of all, as two hugely expensive wars in the Middle East, massive unaffordable spending by the Bush administration on care programs and the greed of Wall Street will attest.
12:46 May 31, 2011 by Dimetrodon61
Marxist USA???? I went to East Berlin when they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of building The Wall (Antifascistische Schutzwalle, to use Party jargon). THOSE were marxist. Since Mr Obama is very cosy with the banks, and generally is more concerned for big corporations than for the people who elected him the Birther/Marxist/ fantasies are pure fiction.

But, as Goebbels said "to be successful, propaganda has to be aimed at the least intelligent segment of the population".
16:09 May 31, 2011 by technoviking
@ scambaiter

You're right, but keep in mind most of these tea partiers haven't ever left their state much less the country.

They could care less about international relations.

To them international relations means screwing a Mexican immigrant.
22:24 May 31, 2011 by Syftfel
I disgaree with most of the comments on Sarah Palin above. At least she has managed something, an entire State, Alaska, albeit a small one. She has considerably more government experience than O has. His claim to fame is that he was an irritating agitator, and a street corner leafleteer, on the South Side of Chicago spreading socialist venom. He had no leadership background. None. Even Bush seems like a statesman by comparison. Most Americans will vote for whomever runs against O, including Palin. He needs to be voted out of office before he does more damage. Any decent American will vote for whomever is running against O, including Romney, Gingritch, Palin, Guiliani, Christie, Daniels, Bachman etc.
01:51 June 1, 2011 by Roy E
Be careful, Syftfel, you are blaspheming their religion now. Everybody knows that Sarah Palin is an idiot because.... because.... ummm..... because.... ummm .... why is Sarah Palin and idiot again?

...It's because they are automaton parrots and that's what their high priests told them to say. .

What's great about Sarah Palin is that she's not so arrogant as to try to dictate how other people live their lives. That fundamental common sense in and of itself makes her more qualified than any of the command and control Democrats.

It's speaks volumes that something that she has survived the relentless character assassination campaign waged by Left and the establishment, both in full 'See Threat, Kill Threat' mode.

Sarah Plain still lives! It drives the Lefty control freak elitist wannabees insane. Gotta love it!
13:53 June 1, 2011 by technoviking
@ Roy E.

You mean like the FOX NEWS political chief and the McCain campaign staff who revealed her astonishing ignorance during her debate preps and what they considered her unpreparedness for office?

ROGER AILES has been quoted by Foxers as saying she's an idiot.

Those lefties?

Or hell, just go watch her stutter through any unscripted campaign interview... But of course she doesn't do those anymore.

Sadly, there are qualified, smart conservatives out there but since they now have to deal with the religious lunatic fringe they get out-yelled by the freak show circus players like Palin who appeal better to the lowest common denominator.

I'd love to see the return of my grandfather's Republican party but unfortunately it's been destroyed by the likes of you.
14:44 June 1, 2011 by Roy E

You're unhinged. But thanks for reinforcing my point. Sarah Palin is like catnip to those of a certain political indoctrination.
19:50 June 1, 2011 by technoviking
@ Roy E.

Ho hum... I guess your point is that you are ignorant.

Too easy. Enjoy.


17:51 June 5, 2011 by Roy E
Cherry picking opinion articles hardly constitutes wisdom and enlightenment , technoviking. Sarah Palin, the individual , is quite incidental . It's you who fails to see the larger issues at play.
19:45 June 5, 2011 by Bostonexpat
@Roy E--I disagree that Palin drives the leftties/Democrats nuts; quite the contrary, her presence was and continues to be a political draw for the Dems.
06:49 June 6, 2011 by technoviking
@ Roy E

Yes, because quoting people constitutes "opinion articles".

Watch for yourself and enjoy.


I'm aware of the issue at play. Religious dogmatists with low to non-existent intellectual standards like yourself have unfortunately destroyed conservatism in America and made it into a laughing stock. That's the issue.
20:55 June 6, 2011 by wenddiver
I think we are missing the real point here, sure we are going to have an election, somebody's going to get elected, on the day of the inaguartion the whole nation will celebrate the coming together of the different partis and factions for the peaceful transition of power.......Then like zoo monkeys we will all line up and throw poo at the people's choice until he is grey haired, old and haggered for the next four years.

The important thing is that this Government was so afraid there were no hamburger joints outside the US, that they built one inside the US embassy. I guess he never heard of McDonalds. Live the stereotype!!
11:15 June 23, 2011 by Iraniboy
Only Sarah Palin! She also has a good insight to Russian's affairs since she should actually watch Russian soil from her office!!!

Obama is not an angle but if it wasn't for him, US was fallen apart by now due to all the destructions made by republicans before him.
14:36 June 23, 2011 by Lostaussie
Does it really matter who wins the next election, nothing much will change!
02:14 June 24, 2011 by SayNoToUS
@ Lostaussie

It rarely does not matter who wins the "carnival" called the US Presidential election. Yes, nothing much will change. The citizens of the USA generally get what the deserve. Our best people rarely run for office. The Founders should have put term limits in the Constitution. One six year term per person per office. Careerism leads to corruption. Too many career politicains here, and no true statesmen.

I miss Ronald Reagan. His administration made me feel good about my country.
20:27 July 22, 2011 by vladpootin
On the matter of Wiki leaks, the embarrassment was the world getting a peek at the work product of our diplomatic corps and assorted experts in the field. Cubicle dwellers authoring opinionated and half-baked analysis based on dinner parties and the morning english-print newspapers.
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