On his way to the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, President Barack Obama stopped in Stockholm on September 4 to visit Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. During their joint press conference, Reinfeldt in his opening statement summarized the issues being discussed in their private meeting and said this about the situation in Syria: “Sweden condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria in the strongest possible terms. It’s a clear violation of international law. Those responsible should be held accountable. Sweden believes that serious matters concerning international peace and security should be handled by the United Nations.” Obama tried to gloss over the apparent differences in his own opening statement: “I respect–and I’ve said this to the prime minister–the U.N. process.”
Later, Obama explained his views in response to a question on Syria to both leaders. Reinfeldt responded to Obama in this unexpected way: “Just to remind you, you’re now in Sweden–a small country with a deep belief in the United Nations.” While expressing understanding for Obama’s position, he added a little later: “But this small country will always say let’s put our hope into the United Nations.” Why did Reinfeldt remind Obama that Sweden was a small state, and what was the real message he had for Obama?
Throughout history, small states routinely disappeared from maps or became client states of larger neighbors—the history of Poland or the fate of small states in both World Wars could serve as examples. Ironically, the two World Wars (and de-colonization) triggered an unprecedented proliferation of small states which was followed by equally unprecedented political protection of small states anchored in international law and guaranteed by international organizations, particularly by the United Nations which has served as a de facto accreditation agency for small states.
Since 1945, power relations have been primarily regulated by international organizations rather than by armed conflict. Small states profited from the rise of multilateralism as it reduced the power differential associated with smallness and offered them agency and disproportionate political influence in an increasingly globalized world.
The events leading to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 offer a textbook example of how this dynamic can play out in an international conflict. The United States preferred a unilateral path by building a “Coalition of the Willing” that constituted a community of values promoting “freedom” and “democracy.” President George W. Bush’s phrase “You’re either with us or you are against us” symbolized the ideological polarization his brand of unilateralism fostered–which created great anxiety in small states who wanted to sit out this conflict.
Small states, on the other hand, insisted on building a community of laws and thus creating a multilateral path, based on resolutions passed by the UN Security Council–a step that would be elusive in the brewing conflict over Iraq, as it appears to be in the Syrian conflict now. Small states want actions by the international community to be based on laws and on treaties and to be embedded in the framework of the United Nations—an approach that has served well to protect small-state interests since 1945.
So Reinfeldt’s unusually blunt comment was a history lesson to remind Obama how American unilateralism spectacularly failed in the past—particularly in Iraq. It also was a reminder that small states think and act differently and prefer a multilateral conflict resolution within the framework of the United Nations—even though both Reinfeldt and Obama agree that President Assad’s horrendous crimes against his own population constitute a violation of international law. This reminder must have stung as Obama is the most multilateralist president in recent memory. Not surprisingly, the only reference to Syria in the official Joint Statement was that “we strongly condemn any and all use of chemical weapons.”
Reinfeldt in the press conference quickly moved on from this point of discord and instead focused on humanitarian aid–an area on which this small Scandinavian state has built part of its reputation and which is an important source of national identity: “You’re also in a country where, I think yesterday or the day before, we took the decision that all the people that are now coming from the war in Syria are allowed to stay permanently in Sweden.” Humanitarianism is a proven safe ground for small states that want to make a mark in a globalized world.