This article is part of The Local's Sweden in Focus series, an in-depth look at the issues that make this country tick.
It has been a turbulent year for Sweden in international media, exacerbated by Donald Trump's “Last Night in Sweden” moment, with crime in vulnerable areas, shootings and rape statistics all grabbing headlines.
Has this changed the global reputation of a country that likes to be known for its parental leave, gender equality, innovation, work-life balance, lagom lifestyle and fika breaks? The Local sat down this autumn with Swedish ambassadors to five different nations, to ask them what their countries think of Sweden.
Interview with Ambassador Niclas Trouvé, Hungary:
Sweden's reputation in Hungary is traditionally very, very positive. That is because of strong ties between the countries, not least that there are a lot of Hungarians living in Sweden since the '56 revolution and of course above all Raoul Wallenberg who played a big part with the incredible things that he did. Sweden also helped Hungary a lot with getting its EU membership. We've also got Swedish companies which have boosted Sweden's image, not least Ikea. Sweden is traditionally seen as a modern country, a successful country which is very open and tolerant, humanitarian and helpful to Hungary and so on.
But that is the traditional image. It has been joined in the past three or four years by a somewhat more, or a lot more, negative image. I don't think it has replaced the old image, but it has been placed as another layer on top somehow. This of course has to do with the migration crisis where the path Sweden chose to take – being open and generous and taking in a lot of people – was very different from Hungary's – being tough and pretty much saying no to migration and building fences and so on. This has resulted in there being a lot of people there who have an interest in painting Sweden as a cautionary tale: “look at what happens if you take in a lot of people”, with a particular subtext that it leads to crime and so on.
Niclas Trouvé, Sweden's ambassador to Hungary. Photo: Martina Huber
Sometimes this image is created unintentionally, by ongoing reporting about incidents in Sweden, shootings in Malmö, the riots in Husby a few years ago, and highlighting that in Hungary because there's interest in these issues. And unfortunately we have also seen how extreme-right media or social media pick up on currents in Sweden and turn them into something else. This is not always based on facts and is twisted and sometimes turned into propaganda. We have also sometimes seen – and have had reason to act in response to – that the Hungarian government has also made certain claims about Sweden, which sometimes have some kind of basis in reality and on other occasions do not match reality, as we at the embassy have then had reason to point out to the Hungarian government.
There is one clear example from a couple of years ago when they said ahead of their own referendum on migration that there were so-called “no-go zones” in Sweden and a number of other EU member states. In Sweden it was based on the police's report about vulnerable areas, and they then claimed it was linked to immigration to Sweden, that it had created parallel societies and that the police had lost control and were not even able to enter these areas. We then contacted the Hungarian government to explain the report, that it referred to drug trade and gang criminality and was looking at areas where society and the police should instead increase their presence with focus on integration, social issues, order and so on.
Unfortunately, the Hungarian government did not fully take this on board and continued to make these claims. In that situation we and other countries chose to talk to media. We felt that we had already tried the official channels and were therefore free to talk to journalists and tell our version. That worked very well. We discussed this in Hungarian media and international media, and the BBC ran one segment where they interviewed the Hungarian foreign minister who got to share their points. Our role is not to throw dirt back at them, but to get a fact-based dialogue started. Not to whitewash the image of Sweden or paint an image of meatballs and Lönneberga [an idyllic village from a children's novel by Astrid Lindgren]; it has to be a nuanced image of Sweden about the problems that do exist in our society.
The Hungarian flag. Photo: Noemi Bruzak/MTI via AP
I'm often asked for interviews by various media. Sometimes I say yes, if I think I will get a fair chance to present a reasonable image of Sweden, but if I suspect that the person asking intends to twist my message I am reluctant, because I don't want to be used in a debate that I think is being carried out on false grounds. We sometimes get e-mails to the embassy – whenever we post anything on social media or there are incidents in Sweden like for example the terror attack – we immediately get e-mails that are sometimes quite nasty, that Sweden is heading down the wrong track, that we are “lost” in various ways. Sometimes they cross a line – just throwing insults at us – and sometimes it's people who want to express their thoughts about what's going on in Sweden. If it is written in a serious way we respond, but sometimes we feel there is no point in entering into an argument because the recipient is not open to it.
I do meet a lot of people though, school classes, civil society, political parties, companies. Almost every time we talk to people we talk about Sweden's reputation. There's great interest, that's positive. People often ask me “what's going on in Sweden, how have you handled the fact that so many arrived in 2015, doesn't that cause a lot of problems?” I then tell them in good conscience that “yes, there are a lot of problems, but here's what we're doing to handle it”. I hope that that is more credible than me just saying “no, we don't have any problems”. I would be lying if I said that. We should not promote an image of Sweden as a paradise. We have our problems and Hungary has its problems. Sometimes we talk about those, but it is not in our interest to spread a negative image about Hungary. We want to have a good dialogue with Hungary, with the government and with the rest of society.
That said, the positive image is still here. There are still people in Hungary who were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg, I actually met one the other day. We often organize events and memorials, talk to schools about him. It becomes a platform from which we can address migration issues and respect for human rights. The embassy does a lot of different things, but values are very important to us. It's become very important today what with everything that's going on in Europe, so we have felt that it is our role to stand up for our Swedish values and what we stand for, because we're proud of it. To me it feels good to be an ambassador for Sweden to Hungary, because I really stand for the things I say, I think they are important.
Flowers left at the scene of the April 7th terror attack in Stockholm. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
Interview with Ambassador Ingrid Johansson, Pakistan:
Sweden's image in Pakistan is positive through and through. Sweden is seen as a role model in very many ways. Modern, advanced, good welfare, and I think many Pakistanis see it as the kind of country they wish Pakistan could be. In Pakistan they are very focused on their own nation-building, it's a young country that has not yet found its feet. They look up to Sweden and the rest of Europe as a model. They also want to be seen as modern and progressive, that's what they wanted to build and I think there's a sadness that this is not the case everywhere in Pakistan. It is still a country that wrestles with establishing the state, reaching the citizen, there are deep-running social problems. It also helps that Sweden is a country that doesn't have any strong interests of its own in Pakistan – we are not seen as someone with an agenda, unlike perhaps a few other countries, we are seen as an honest broker.
We try to use this in various ways, talk about how we work and why human rights and a functioning legal system are important to us, how openness relates to our economic development, that our welfare and society are built on these conditions. I spend almost all my time emphasizing that link. You can't push an economic agenda and think that Pakistan will eventually become a great economic power, without also strengthening the legal system, democratic principles and gender equality and so on.
I try to make the Swedish example relevant. Why should they look to a country with 10 million inhabitants when they are 208 million themselves? What can we offer them? I also try to offer encouragement, that Sweden wasn't built in a day either, but Sweden show what is possible in the future.
Ingrid Johansson, Sweden's ambassador to Pakistan. Photo: Kristian Pohl
Being a Swedish ambassador in Pakistan is easy. We are well-regarded, we have good relations and they are impressed and look up to Sweden as a society. Being a female ambassador is also easy. Being a woman ambassador is an advantage, I think, because my ambassadorship gives me all the formal contacts and I can meet whomever I want, the title opens doors. This is a profoundly traditional society and in my capacity as a woman I also have access to the female sphere. A male colleague does not have that in the same way. We are very interested in supporting women's and girls' rights and it is an advantage that I can meet people. I've never felt that I had to adapt, my role as an ambassador frees me from potential cultural conventions, I've for example never felt that I had to wear a headscarf.
In Pakistan people associate Sweden with various brands, Ikea and Volvo and that kind of thing. Tetra Pak is huge in Pakistan, they know that's Swedish. They know we are gender equal, modern and progressive. A big contrast between Pakistan and Sweden is women's participation in public life and in society as a whole. Well-educated Pakistanis often got their degree in Europe or North America, so they've got that international image of Sweden that people have in those countries, and some people have travelled here.
But in general the knowledge of Sweden is limited. You know where it is, hopefully you don't get it mixed up with Switzerland. In Urdu it's actually easy to get it mixed up with Sudan as well. We don't have a huge Pakistani diaspora in Sweden, but there is an increasing interest in studying in Sweden. That's because Sweden has a good reputation, and we've established ties with former students who move back. Educated Pakistanis generally speak English and they are then attractive in IT, tech and engineering.
I rarely see negative news about Sweden in Pakistani media, apart from possibly (the April 7th terror attack on) Drottninggatan because that was out of the ordinary. I think it's because Pakistan is self-sufficient when it comes to this type of news. There are running reports of various attacks and violence and natural disasters, so I don't think the audience is particularly interested in Sweden.
A Pakistani vendor paints the colours of the flag on a young girl's face. Photo: AP Photo/B.K. Bangash
Interview with Ambassador Cecilia Julin, South Africa:
We haven't conducted any surveys so I don't know for sure, but my impression is that Sweden's reputation is positive, but possibly outdated. I would also say that it's a slightly political image. If you know about Sweden you often know about Sweden's role in the battle against apartheid, you know that Olof Palme was Swedish and was an important person. Sweden has a reputation as a country that showed solidarity and stood up for the oppressed in South Africa. Quite a few people spent time in Sweden during the apartheid period and they too have a very positive image but are more well-informed – they know that the climate isn't as fantastic as in South Africa, but they know the Swedish model well.
But the problem is that this knowledge about Sweden is decreasing. The battle is over, democracy has arrived, Sweden no longer provides foreign aid in South Africa. We don't have the same kind of platform. The born-free generation, those born after democratization, they have very little knowledge of Sweden.
Cecilia Julin, Sweden's ambassador to South Africa. Photo: Kristian Pohl
Many South Africans' idea of the Swedish economy is often slightly distorted. Many think that we are a lot more socialist than we are, and I think it's important that we correct that, that we make sure that the image is based on fact and not some kind of socialist ideal that doesn't exist. We've also got a role in talking about even things we've done that have not worked well, that we don't sweep problems under the carpet but use our Swedish transparency to talk about problems and challenges, that we have not always succeeded in all respects and have had to try new solutions.
We haven't had those problems we've had in some other countries (regarding a negative image of Sweden). I was ambassador in Spain up until last summer and it was news there when Sweden had migration problems. That wasn't the case in South Africa and I think it's because South Africa isn't connected to the migration issue and the migration flows to Europe and to Sweden and so it has not been noted in the same way. Sometimes you get a niche piece of news, we've had the odd article about “rapes and cancelled music festivals” and that kind of thing. But it makes no impact and it doesn't stick.
A South African flag on a building in Cape Town. Photo: AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
Interview with Ambassador Jakob Kiefer, Chile:
Chile always remembers my predecessor Harald Edelstam's efforts in the 1973 military coup, when he took on the task of protecting power over the Cuban embassy and Sweden took in thousands of political refugees. Chile never forgets that history. There's barely anyone in Chile who doesn't have some kind of family in Sweden. We don't even know exactly how many people of Chilean background there are in Sweden today, somewhere around 60,000, because they truly are a success story of integration.
But Sweden back then was Sweden in a different time. Sweden in the 1970s and '80s was very much influenced by social democracy, Olof Palme, the strong state. Today Sweden is something else – it's still the strong welfare state, but not like it used to be with two TV stations, monopoly and only public healthcare. So our job today is very much about preserving the amazing friendship and brotherhood or sisterhood between our people, but it is also about trying to renew this image of Sweden, because at least in Chile our reputation is somewhat idealized, everything is seen as perfect in Sweden.
We tell them that Sweden has changed a lot in the past few years. In the 20-30 years after the Cold War we have become EU members, we have allowed privatization but still have a common welfare model left, that is that everyone pays tax according to their ability and expect to get public service, schools and that kind of thing in return. At the embassy we try to make ourselves relevant, by sharing stories that are relevant to Chile. It is a country that is quite rich, but the riches are very unevenly spread. Healthcare is uneven, education is uneven, the quality is poor, the industry needs to be developed. In Sweden we've risen from all of that and have become a well-off industrial nation. How do you do that? If we are 10 million people and they are 18 million – it should not be too difficult.
Former ambassador Harald Edelstam with Salvador Allende's daughter Beatrice. Photo: Freddy Lindström/TT
We are perceived as very credible, but I've had to avoid this phrase “in Sweden we have a system”. In Sweden we also have challenges, but there are reasons why we are good at some things. It is not pure coincidence that Sweden is one of the most innovative countries in the world: we invest 3.5-4 percent of our GDP in innovation and Chile invests 0.4 percent. So if they want to know what makes us successful, well, what you put in on one end comes out the other.
People maybe know that Ikea is Swedish, that H&M is Swedish, that Volvo is Swedish. But they don't know that all of these globalized companies, like mining company Atlas Copco, also are Swedish. It's not always that easy to get that story out there. But my job is also to do with talking about problems from a context of what could be relevant to Chile, so that they can also learn from our mistakes.
Chile consumes a lot of heavy metal, and Sweden has a large music scene and a lot of those bands. They always come to Chile if they go on tour. People wonder how Sweden is able to produce so many bands. We get one band a month that I have never heard of but is huge in Chile, that's pretty cool.
Jacob Kiefer, Sweden's ambassador to Chile. Photo: Martina Huber
Sometimes we get the odd negative comment on social media along the lines of “the highest rape cases“. I try to reply in the comments, and then I can turn that into a conversation about how Sweden compiles its statistics and why it is like that and let's look at the rest of the world. They sometimes mention violence – it's not Breitbart news, it's in Swedish media, but is it Sweden? Yes, it exists in Sweden. And we're handling it. How are we handling it? Well, we have a political discussion, something has to be done, and then Swedes expect the political system to handle it. Swedes have high trust in the political system, unlike Chile where there's quite a large gap between decision-makers and the people.
But we certainly don't feel that there's a negative campaign against Sweden. It's rather the opposite, that we almost have to tone down this idealized image of “successful Sweden”, as I mentioned.
We have to be careful, because we shouldn't be a propaganda machine either when we explain what Sweden is and why our values are important to us. I am a #HeForShe ambassador, and I'm involved in abortion and a woman's right to choose – because it's illegal in Chile and there is an ongoing debate about that which I have then said I welcome – and LGBTQ rights, which we think are normal European values, at least most of Europe. This is very much the image of Europe I think, and the EU. After Trump we feel we're becoming more interesting and Europe is becoming more interesting, so that is positive.
Our challenge is the next generation of Chileans who don't have their own memories from the Pinochet days. But I was in China before and it's very easy to be an ambassador in Chile. It's fun and positive. We are welcome in China too, but not at all like this. You really feel the warmth here. And the government is very positive, they want to be like-minded, we have similar ideas about values and that's great.
Interview with Ambassador Staffan Herrström, Thailand:
I think an important part of Sweden's reputation in Thailand is our royal family. Thailand is a monarchy and our royal families have a close relationship. I think that matters. We've also got a lot of Swedish tourists who visit Thailand, I think that also matters. We haven't done any surveys, so this is just based on my impression, but I think that Swedish products are associated with quality, sustainability and security. Thailand is a country that wants to and needs to decrease their number of traffic accidents, so our Vision Zero has got a lot of attention. Openness and innovation are also part of that image of Sweden that we think is true and try to promote, but I also feel like it resonates with the country.
Sweden's King and Queen visiting Thailand in 2006. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT
The knowledge of Sweden is quite good. There's a lot of Thai people in Sweden, many Swedish-Thai families, so I think people are more familiar with Sweden than what our size would normally warrant. We've noticed increasing interest in some of the things Sweden represents: quality, environmental sustainability, innovation, smart solutions, smart cities and waste disposal. People know that we are a digitized society, that we are good at waste disposal – this piece of news that Sweden has disposed of its waste so efficiently that we have had to import waste, that's something I've occasionally encountered.
There's enough fundamental knowledge about Sweden to be able to talk about issues like innovation, digitized solutions in Stockholm which is the world's second-best startup hub. It's important to adapt some of our message about Sweden to what is relevant to Thailand's development. Thailand wants to digitize more – there's a lot of talk about Thailand 4.0 – and is interested in waste issues and road safety, so more people listen to me if I speak about those issues.
Staffan Herrström, Sweden's ambassador to Thailand. Photo: Pawel Flato
I think we are all concerned on a general level about wrong information being spread about Sweden, but I can't say that I worry about that from a Thai perspective. Occasionally I run into wrong information – not necessarily negative – for example this story about Swedish employers having introduced six-hour workdays on a large scale, but that's not really of the same kind. But of course we have to be alert. One important task for an embassy is to ensure that information about Sweden is correct, both when it comes to our good sides and our problems in society.
I also think, but I want to stress that this is not something I know for sure, but my impression is that the image of Sweden as a country with gender equality and same-sex marriage is also well-known. That's an area where we feel we are able to share something about Sweden. It's also good for companies. Ikea recently introduced paternity leave for staff in Thailand. There's already a sense of that in Thailand. I think both Thailand and other countries are following Sweden with great interest.
Interviews conducted in Stockholm in September, translated from Swedish and edited for length and clarity.