Outgoing US ambassador to Sweden looks back

Outgoing US ambassador to Sweden looks back
In the final days of his shortened term as US ambassador to Sweden, Matthew Barzun tells The Local's David Landes about what Sweden can teach the world about balance as he prepares to help US President Barack Obama get reelected.

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.

“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.

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