We often identify the term “Scandinavian model” with issues of domestic policy, such as the welfare state, social protection, strict environmental legislation and advances in the integration of women into the labour market. And it is clear that countries like Sweden and Norway have been pioneers in the conception and application of many of the guidelines that the European Union has since incorporated into its own social policies. If, in recent years, authors like Jeremy Rifkin have been talking about a European model opposed to the American dream, this is largely due to the readiness of Brussels to imitate the successful Scandinavian socio-political experiment. Its influence was not only decisive in the ideology and direction of social democracy in the rest of Europe, but also in the actions of Christian-Democrat coalition governments which had been in power for decades in Germany, France and Italy. It was only after Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal, neo-conservative revolution during the 1980s that people started to question the principles of the Nordic welfare model of protection through economic intervention.
The international vanguard
The Scandinavian model’s notable influence in terms of the ‘pacification’ of the internal social order of EU member states eclipses by far the significant contribution that it has also had on foreign policy, inspiring and forming some of the fundamental principles of contemporary international relations. On the one hand, movements like eco-pacifism and important elements for the collective security system, such as peacekeeping operations, would be unthinkable were it not for the stimulus of countries like Sweden and Norway during the second half of the 20th century. At the same time, on a more practical level, the leadership that ‘medium’ countries like those of Scandinavia exercise in the realm of international politics is truly surprising, especially in the context of a world order in which levels of military, political and economic power continue to play the principle roles in influencing global issues.
Why does it not surprise us that the first two Secretary-Generals of the United Nations were the Norwegian Trygve Lie and the Swede Dag Hammarskyöld? Or that that the greatest annual recognition of services to peace is a prize awarded by a Swedish foundation? Or that the SIPRI in Stockholm is a leading centre for the study of international politics? Or that the Israelis and the Palestinians settled down to negotiate for months, at the start of the 1990s, in icy Oslo, under the mediation of the Norwegian government? Only Canada, another northern country, is comparable to the Scandinavian countries in terms of global moral influence. Curious: decidedly internationalist and pacifist countries that share a solid system of public benefits. Would their social model have something to do with this?
Exporting a model that works
Certainly. This foreign influence is largely explained by the characteristics of a social model inspired by values that the Scandinavian governments have, bit by bit, been extrapolating onto the international scene, traditionally dominated by the principle of ‘might is right’. If the Nordic countries have been pioneers as regards ecology, pacifism and peace operations, this owes a lot to the fact that their social domestic model is governed and oriented by the same principles.
However, there is a deeper link between the northern welfare model and the gradual revolution that international relations have experienced over the last decades. The Scandinavian model is based on universality over class differences, also promoting a collective sense of social responsibility that contrasts with the traditional Anglo-Saxon individualism. These elements favour a new perspective for foreign policy, less based on national interest and more inclined to promote justice and equality above differences in nationality. The same solidarity that the Scandinavian model enshrines leads these countries to be the most generous when it comes to development aid, due to the belief that only promoting the collective well-being can guarantee the individual well-being.
There are no magic wands to solve the problems of the world, and the Scandinavian social model itself is faced with numerous challenges. But the social recipe of countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden represents a good starting point whose application at a global level is starting to be a reality in certain fields. Let’s hope that this tendency continues, and that Europe knows how to lead the way.