Histories of Scandinavian Foreign Policies

: Utenrikspolitikkens opprinnelse. Norge og verden. Oslo 2020: Oslo Universitetsforlaget , ISBN 9788215030043, 200 S. NOK 399,00.

: Skilleveje. Dansk udenrigspolitik i 250 år. Kopenhagen 2020: GADs Forlag , ISBN 978-87-12-05906-6, 398 S. DKK 299,95.

: Swedish Foreign Policy, 1809–2019. A Comprehensive Modern History. New York 2020: Peter Lang Publishing/New York , ISBN 978-1-4331-7484-1, XXIV, 424 S., 1 SW-Abb., 6 Tabellen € 114,95.

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Melina Antonia Buns, Department of Cultural Studies and Languages, University of Stavanger

Within international politics, the Scandinavian countries are generally considered as a region promoting multilateralism, peace, gender equality, and environmental protection.[1] While such connotations are very much the result of branding strategies actively pursued by Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, respectively, they furthermore rest, on the one hand, on the long period of actual peace in the region, and, on the other hand, on the region’s special position as a social democratic ‘middle way’ during the Cold War, which was further manifested by the regional cooperation within the institutions of the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers.[2] Whereas in particular the Scandinavian countries’ foreign policy and international cooperation of the 20th century both have received increased attention from historical research in the past years, three recent publications aim at historicising the history of foreign policy of these countries in a longue durée perspective. Given the shared history of the Scandinavian countries, which were first united in 1397 under Eric of Pomerania (Kalmar Union, 1397 to 1523) and successively in the unions of Denmark-Norway (1380-1814) and Sweden-Norway (1814-1905), such a longue durée of the history and as well as the conceptualisation of foreign policy might in fact provide new insights into contemporary foreign policies and challenges, as Halvard Leira argues in his book Utenrikspolitikkens opprinnelse. Norge og verden (‘The Emergence of Foreign Policy: Norway and the World’).

Instead of analysing actual Norwegian foreign policy goals, practices, and impacts, Leira approaches the topic through the lens of conceptual history, arguing that the term’s conceptualisation can be seen as a necessary precondition for historical analyses of foreign policy and its content. Whereas in contemporary politics, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy can arguably be described as becoming more indistinct, since foreign policy affects all policy areas (p. 13), such blurring is only made possible by the initial distinction of foreign policy as a separate policy field. According to Leira, this distinction between domestic and foreign policy “emerged in a specific historical situation, due to specific historical reasons” (p. 14). In five analytical chapters, ‘The Emergence of Foreign Policy’ thus sets out to show that foreign policy is no “timeless phenomenon” (p. 14), but emerged as a “central element of modernisation and democratisation” (p. 166).

Moving on from an analysis of the emergence of foreign policy in the 17th and 18th century Britain and France as its places of origin, Leira argues that the emergence of Norwegian foreign policy was the result of two-fold process of differentiation, between Norway and other countries, and between state and society, which manifested around the 1860s (p. 163/167). Important for this development were not only industrialisation, the emergence of modern states, and an ideologisation of politics, but primarily the emergence of a public sphere and a civil society, which could engage with politics by means of a free press (p. 165). At the same time, the emergence of Norwegian foreign policy was not only defined by the country’s relations to the world, but decisively by its own relation to Sweden, with which it had been in a union since the Treaty of Kiel of 1814 (p. 132). As such, Leira convincingly argues that the emergence of Norwegian foreign policy was not only a conflict between states, but first and foremost a “national struggle” (p. 165) of self-determination and recognition as a nation from abroad. While Norway would gain national sovereignty in 1905, the conditions for Norwegian foreign policy from the early 20th century onwards had already begun to emerge in the 1860s and been established by 1871 (p. 158).

The coherent analysis and the overall convincing argumentation, however, contain two problematic aspects. Firstly, while Leira criticises the focus on European powers such as Britain and France in existing research, his own analysis centres on exactly the same states, which are used here to represent what the title defines as ‘the world’. While this might be the result of the book being based on the most central findings of his PhD dissertation adapted for a wider Norwegian audience, the choice and selection of sources and examples nevertheless appear rather random. From this focus follows a second problematic aspect. While Leira convincingly criticises the widespread use of the term and concept foreign policy by Norwegian historians for periods prior to the 17th century, the definition of foreign policy applied in his own analysis builds on modern, Western understandings of states, and the distinction between state and society. As such, it does not manage to distance itself from contemporary understandings, despite its apparent aim to do exactly this when arguing to analyse the emergence of foreign policy. In fact, the book analyses the emergence and roots of contemporary foreign policy, which also explains why Leira considers it “plausible” to start such an analysis at the turn of the 17th century, as foreign policies seem “conceivable” given the historical developments during the Enlightenment (p. 46). Such a limited focus not only unfortunately trivialises contemporaneous understandings and definitions of foreign policy, but its definition as something “directed from one political entity to another political entity” (p. 25) could also very well be applied to political entities of the medieval period or political entities with absolute monarchies, such as 18th century Denmark-Norway.

Hence, whereas Leira dates the emergence of Norwegian foreign policy back to the 1860s and the year 1871, Carsten Staur approaches foreign policy history from an institutional perspective and sets the beginning of Danish foreign policy to the year 1770 with the creation of the Departementet for de Udenlandske Affairer, the predecessor of today’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Published in 2020 on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the ministry, Skilleveje (‘Crossroads’) is a history of Danish foreign policy and diplomacy by means of twelve decisive events between 1770 and 2020, with two-third of the selected events located post-1945. As a trained historian and an experienced diplomat in the Danish Foreign Ministry, Staur focuses on the actual diplomacy and negotiations between kingdoms and states, and thus emphasises the role and position of single diplomats like himself. It is therefore little surprising that his aim with the book is to highlight “crucial actors” (p. 23) during the twelve key events in particular, and Danish diplomacy in general, which, however, is a refreshing take on foreign history.

Structured along three analytical parts (1770-1945; 1945-2001; 2001-2020) with four chapters each, the book aims to nuance previous historical analyses and discussions by highlighting internal discussions within the Danish institutions at times of crisis that required “matter-of-fact analyses” (p. 22; 33). The focus on diplomacy enables Staur to combine events that appear to be rather distinct at first sight. Starting with the 1814 Treaty of Kiel, which forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden due to its alliance with Napoleon, and the loss of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg in 1864 that Staur describes as a political and diplomatic mistake, the book continues with following the development of the ‘international system’ and its emerging international organisations during the second half of the 20th century, as well as the ‘new world order’ of the 21st century, defined by crises such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2005 Muhammed cartoons, and the failed United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009. The two latter examples are particularly interesting with regard to Staur’s arguments on the atypical diplomatic practices in times of crisis and the failing diplomatic endeavours during international climate change negotiations, which he links to domestic policy discussions as well as difficulties in inter-ministerial cooperation.

While these twelve events can arguably be singled out as crossroads of Danish foreign policy as well as of Denmark’s engagement in international and global developments, Staur fails to critically discuss and reflect on his choice of cases and the periodisation, which is merely explained by the 250th anniversary of the Foreign Ministry. This leaves decades unexplored, such as the periods between 1770 and 1814, and 2009 and 2020, respectively. Furthermore, as the book builds on secondary literature with only limited and not further defined use of primary sources and thus does not contribute to historical research with an analysis of previously unscrutinised source material or oral history interviews, it remains unclear how the book is to achieve a nuanced narrative of Danish diplomacy over the past 250 years. As such, Staur does not manage to uncouple his analysis from the established small state-narrative of Denmark and its engagement within international politics, but rather reinforces it. In addition, the focus on the diplomats and diplomacy made the actual institution, the Danish Foreign Ministry, fade from the spotlight, which is unfortunate, as the book would have benefitted from a more systematic discussion and analysis of the role of the ministry in general and the relation between diplomats and ministry in particular.

Similar problems deriving from the lack of (a) specific research question(s) and source material are also present in the book Swedish Foreign Policy, 1809-2019: A Comprehensive Modern History by Graeme D. Eddie. In contrast to Leira and Staur, Eddie proposes a third periodisation for the emergence of ‘modern’ foreign policy specific to the national context: 1809 as “Sweden’s ‘year zero’” (p. 1). The loss of Finland to Imperial Russia in that year not only led to a coup d’état and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, but also the policy of neutrality as envisioned in the new king Karl XIV Johan’s ‘Policy of 1812’ as the basis for more than two centuries of peace, which the book aims to cover.

A central theme in Eddie’s book is thus the concept of neutrality. While the concept itself is intrinsically linked to times of war and conflict, he argues that neutrality during war times has to and is prepared for and achieved by a ‘policy of neutrality’ in peacetime. Over the span of ten chapters, Eddie follows this policy of neutrality in Swedish foreign policy, focusing in particular on international developments concerning market integration and security alliances. A main argument in this book is that until 1990 Swedish foreign policy has to a large extent been defined by neutrality, with Sweden’s membership in the European Union (EU) of 1995 representing a shift towards what Eddie terms “post-neutrality” (p. 6). The actual focus of this book appears therefore to be on Sweden’s relation to the European Communities and later the EU, which is why the book ends with the 2019 election of the European Parliament. As such, the book is aiming at two different, though not mutually exclusive aspects: on the one hand, the policy of neutrality, and on the other, how the economic and political alliances have challenged and eventually altered this policy of neutrality.

Unfortunately, however, the book lacks a critical discussion and reflection of not only methodology, periodisation, and (source) material, but also a summarising chapter, thus leaving it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions from this narrative. In particular the examination of the concept of neutrality and its standards as introduced in the second chapter would have allowed for an interesting systematic analysis. As such, however, it appears to the reader that the book’s aim is to illustrate the long history of Swedish neutrality, not to critically analyse whether Swedish foreign policy in fact followed a neutral and non-aligned path, as is generally claimed, or how the standards of neutrality were altered. It is telling for this deterministic perspective that for instance an analysis and discussion of Swedish policies of neutrality during the Second World War is completely absent. Furthermore, for a comprehensive review, one would expect the work to be built on the most recent state of the art, which is unfortunately not the case as the great majority of the referenced literature is dated to the previous century, and strongly rests on research within political science and international relations.

While the reviewed books may not offer new impulses on how to write the history of foreign policy in Scandinavia nor innovatively contribute to this field of research, it is to acclaim that they all emphasise the historicisation of contemporary foreign policies and thus its longue durée. They furthermore show that, when it comes to the history of foreign policy in the Scandinavian countries, one not only has to consider several histories but also consider multiple periodisations, which do not necessarily follow the established caesuras, arguing at the same time that the respective national foreign policies have been characterised by a rather long continuity. In fact, the shared history of Denmark-Norway and Sweden-Norway still offers promising approaches of entanglements and changing perceptions of the foreign in the histories of Scandinavian foreign policy. More so, however, the books’ omissions point to the need for a critical engagement with the dynamics, tensions, and interests of the individual countries’ foreign policies, as well as the Scandinavian region in general, in order to critically scrutinise and challenge their special position in international politics and the prominent narratives of for instance multilateralism, peace, and neutrality.

[1] On gender equality, see e.g. most recently Eirinn Larsen / Sigrun Marie Moss / Inger Skjelsbæk (eds.), Gender Equality and Nation Branding in the Nordic Region, London 2021.
[2] E.g. Mary Hilson, The Nordic Model: Scandinavia since 1945, London 2008; Johan Strang (ed.), Nordic Cooperation: A European Region in Transit, London 2016; Haldor Byrkjeflot / Lars Mjøset / Mads Mordhorst / Klaus Petersen (eds.), The Making and Circulation of Nordic Models, Ideas and Images, London 2021.