Looking for a Few Good Norsemen

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

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.’

The Norwegian government continues to use the Nobel Peace Prize
to honor exemplars of global citizenship. Recent winners Mohammed
ElBaradei, Wangari Maathai, and Jimmy Carter, like earlier winners
Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, the 14th
Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa, have become icons of engaged,
compassionate humanitarianism for the rest of the world to

So where are the Scandinavians (and their Nobel proxies) now,
when we need them? Among the norm entrepreneurs active on the world
stage today are Norwegians Jan Egeland, Erik Solheim, and Gro
Harlem Brundtland. Egeland is the United Nations
undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency
relief coordinator. He’s known for holding news conferences after
tsunamis and earthquakes and wagging his finger at the West for not
responding more quickly and more generously. Solheim, a
controversial socialist politician, in early 2006 brokered a
tenuous peace between the rebel Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan

Brundtland, a physician and Norway’s first female prime
minister, was chair of the World Commission on Environment and
Development. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission published Our
Common Future
, which led to the first Earth Summit in Rio in
1992 and established the concept of sustainable development.
Brundtland was also director general of the World Health
Organization from 1998 to 2003 and is thought by some to be a
likely successor to Kofi Annan as the next secretary-general of the
United Nations.

Brundtland summed up the Scandinavian standard for world
citizenship in a Toronto speech in late 2005: ‘In our globalized
world, the threats we face are interconnected. . . . Whatever
threatens one threatens all. . . . We have no choice but to tackle
the whole range of threats [simultaneously]. We must respond to
HIV/AIDS as robustly as we do to terrorism, and to poverty, and to
proliferation. . . . What we need is to inspire greater political
commitment and determination to make this world a better place. . .
. [In this way] we can all make a difference.’

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