Foreign Policy: The Nobel Scandal Has Become a Swedish Foreign-Policy Crisis

Have allegations of sexual assault at Sweden’s most famous institution harmed the country’s reputation — or helped it?

STOCKHOLM — The crisis in the Swedish Academy, which started last November with sexual assault allegations against the husband of an Academy member and culminated last Friday in the cancellation of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been described in Swedish media as “the cultural conflict of the century.” But some Swedes are concerned that it may be more than that — namely, a national diplomatic crisis.

As the scandal deepened over the past few weeks, Swedish policymakers have fretted about how it might affect one of the pillars of the country’s international policy: its positive and progressive reputation. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has already admitted to the national media that the Nobel affair has had diplomatic consequences. “This is absolutely not good for [Sweden’s] reputation,” he said last week. “That’s why it’s so important that the Academy now relentlessly continues to work to restore confidence.”

The Nobel scandal has amplified an existing theme of the national debate in the run-up to Sweden’s September general election: Sverigebilden, which translates as “the image of Sweden,” but normally implies a positive image. Lofven and his Social Democrat-led government had already been emphasizing the need to cultivate Sverigebilden, and it has been the subject of numerous op-eds and TV and radio debates in recent months.

Sverigebilden might seem like a superficial aspect of politics, but the Swedish government has made it anything but. Paulina Neuding, editor in chief of the Swedish online magazine Kvartal, describes it as a form of “domestic foreign policy.” On the one hand, communication around Sverigebilden is part of Sweden’s so-called nation branding, which is directed at outsiders, including the tourists and investors who support the Swedish economy. On the other hand, it’s also about shaping the conversation and media reporting about Sweden at home. As negative images of Sweden spread abroad following the 2015 refugee crisis, and the apparent challenges the country was having integrating its new arrivals, the Swedish government made it a priority to engage in what Neuding refers to as “image management” aimed at foreign audiences.

Neuding cites a fact sheet in English published in February last year on the government’s website in response to the dissemination of what it called sometimes “simplistic and occasionally inaccurate information about Sweden and Swedish migration policy.” Around the same time, the Swedish Institute — a public agency that promotes Sweden around the world — launched a social media campaign, using the hashtag #factcheck. The Swedish Institute posted videos on — “Sweden’s official account on Twitter” — contesting claims that Swedish police had lost control over the country’s immigrant-dense suburbs, that Sweden is the “rape capital of the world,” and that the Swedish system had collapsed after the country took in a record number of migrants in 2015.

“Sweden’s strong consensus culture has meant that the government’s narrative has been supported by the political opposition as well as by much of Swedish media and other sections of the establishment,” Neuding adds. The struggle over Sverigebildenhas thus revealed its dark side. Anyone who attempts to highlight shortcomings of Swedish domestic policy is easily deemed unpatriotic and risks ending up ostracized. “Your name gets associated with ‘illegitimate opinions’ by polite society,” Neuding says.

The crisis in the Swedish Academy, however, has been an exception. The government has put the blame on the Academy for tarnishing its own, and by extension the country’s, reputation, rather than on the Swedish media reporting on the scandal. Swedish news outlets, for their part, have even been translating their reporting to English in hopes of getting cited in the international press. Swedes are also discussing the question of how the scandal affects the country’s image, but that hasn’t been treated as a reason not to report on the affair.

Neuding believes that’s because the Swedish Academy crisis is generally perceived as being about an elite, male-dominated institution getting its comeuppance over allegations of sexual abuse and financial crimes — which is entirely consistent with an image of Sweden that many progressive Swedes, who already viewed their country’s elite institutions as potentially tyrannous patriarchies, are comfortable with. (The Swedish Academy is a private arts institution — a rare thing in Sweden, where much of the art world relies on state funding — founded in 1786 by King Gustaf III to advance the Swedish language and literature; since 1901, it has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.) In that view, it’s the Swedish Academy itself that’s the threat to Sverigebilden, not the critical reporting about it.

Some Swedes see the whole affair as an opportunity. “It might mean that we’ll get new Academy members who will better reflect a modern, equal Sweden,” says Camilla Mellander, head of the foreign ministry’s department for trade promotion, nation-branding, and corporate social responsibility.

Mellander believes that Sweden, too, has a ways to go in the area of gender equality. But she argues that, while Sweden’s progressive image may take a short-term hit over the Academy’s crisis, it will not affect the image of Sweden — or Sverigebilden— in the long run. “The fact that all of this has been aired in the open coupled with the fact that many have had the strength to challenge such an established institution also shows that Sweden is a country based on equality, a country where you can effect change,” says Mellander, whose department does not plan to launch any form of campaign to counter the negative media coverage.

“The Academy is an independent institution. This is their crisis, not Sweden’s,” Mellander says, contrasting the current situation with the aftermath of U.S. President Donald Trump’s remarks at a rally in Florida in February last year where the American president attacked refugee policies in Europe and referred to an event that happened “last night in Sweden.” (As it turned out, President Trump was referring to a Fox News program about Sweden that he’d watched on television the night before.)

Back then, Swedish politicians reacted by writing op-eds in U.S. newspapers about Sweden’s refugee policy, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published the aforementioned list in English of “facts about migration, integration and crime in Sweden.” “We’re unused to being portrayed negatively and to be at the center of global attention, and so we tend to react with indignation when we are criticized as a nation,” Mellander says. Both she and Henrik Selin, head of intercultural dialogue at the Swedish Institute, point out that nation brands are built over time and tend not to be shaken to the core by individual incidents.

“That also goes for the Swedish Academy crisis,” Selin says, “though in this case the impact will be prolonged as it will likely continue to make international headlines again when the next Nobel banquet takes place in December and when two literature laureates are selected instead of just one in 2019.”

Meanwhile, in Sweden, the debate about Sverigebilden does not look set to fade away. Neuding sees it as a wet blanket over the political debate. She stresses that Swedish journalists have a duty to report about the country’s problems — including crises affecting treasured institutions like the Swedish Academy — regardless of the impact that reporting may have on the international image of Sweden. “But the response to the crisis in the Swedish Academy,” she says, “has shown that all the talk about the image of Sweden has not really been based on a genuine concern for the country. Instead, it has come to be used as an excuse to shut down those who criticize certain policy decisions around migration, integration, and crime.”