Looking for a Few Good Norsemen

Cartoons or no, Scandinavia is still on the path to world peace


| May / June 2006


For a millennium the civilized world considered Scandinavians churlish vulgarians who raped and pillaged for the fun of it. About a hundred years ago, the Vikings began cultivating a reputation for global high-mindedness and diplomatic sensitivity. Then, just when it seemed that the image of a kinder and gentler Norseman had finally reached iconic status, a Danish newspaper published deliberately provocative cartoons of Mohammed and refused to apologize to Muslims for the insult. Uff-da!

Despite the violence and the media storm the cultural gaff stirred up, it was an anomaly, says Christine Ingebritsen, associate professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. Author of the new book Scandinavia in World Politics (Rowman and Littlefield), she says Scandinavians' precartoon reputation as global peacemakers is the more accurate picture. In fact, she says, Scandinavians have become what she calls 'norm entrepreneurs,' modeling a higher, more altruistic and cosmopolitan standard of behavior for the rest of the world.

In 1901, the first Nobel Prize, the legacy of Sweden's dynamite-making millionaire Alfred Nobel, was awarded and Scandinavians have been setting a high standard of moral leadership ever since.

Throughout the 20th century Scandinavians mediated the peaceful resolution of numerous conflicts. Perhaps the most famous Scandinavian humanitarian in the early half of the century was the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who persuaded a fractious, post-World War I Europe and the United States to provide famine relief for the newly formed Soviet Union. While future President Herbert Hoover and others wanted to use food as a political weapon to literally starve the communist regime, Nansen appealed to a higher ideal, ultimately mobilizing a massive Red Cross relief effort, saving an estimated 7 million to 22 million Russians from starvation, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

The Swede Dag Hammarskjold, secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 until his untimely death in 1961, established the concept of 'preventive diplomacy' by leading the U.N.'s peacekeeping interventions in the Congo. The Oslo Process, initiated in secret in the early 1990s by Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs, established a still relevant if not fully realized road map for peace between Israel and Palestine.

The Scandinavians have also established a more generous model of foreign aid, consistently giving a higher percentage of their gross domestic product than other countries. 'In contrast to the United States, aid is not provided for strategic purposes, although some groups or industries may benefit from national patterns of foreign aid,' Ingebritsen writes. 'Historically, Scandinavian states have given aid for ideological purposes and targeted aid to states in greatest need.'