The terrorist attack in Stockholm on Friday April 7, 2017 came as a shock, but by Monday the area around the Åhlens store where the attack took place was back to business as usual. Over the weekend and during the following week, passers-by and their children paid their respects by handing flowers to the expanded police presence.
Many of the police had tucked dozens of flowers into their belts, which provided a strange juxtaposition with their machine guns. If security levels were slightly raised, levels of solidarity, camaraderie and defiance had gone through the roof. These are some of the Swedish values you might have heard something about over the past few years, and Stockholm did not disappoint.
Over the past decade, Sweden's public diplomacy has been quick to affirm the low-hanging fruit of cosmopolitan global public opinion, which might be summarized as the belief that Sweden could well be the most fairly organized society in the world. It is the country that, according to the Good Country Index, makes the most prolific contribution to the global commons. Its feminist foreign policy is currently making waves at the UN Security Council. Sweden has come to represent the epitome of progressive liberalism for many in the Anglo-Saxon world.
This image has been so successfully cultivated that most Guardian readers and Democrat voters would declare instant admiration for the Swedish model, while the alt-right have been desperate to use it as a horror-example of where multiculturalism can lead. Sweden’s ability to brand itself so effectively has turned it into an essential point of reference in polarized domestic political debates on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Sweden’s problem is no longer invisibility, but rather the results of an enviably strong profile that has come to mean quite different things within polarized political debates all over the world."
Persuasive counter-narratives of the failures of multiculturalism, cities divided into immigrant ghettos and no go zones, and Sweden as a rape nation have indisputably taken root as a consequence of this new role. When President Trump talked and then tweeted about a non-existent terrorist attack in Sweden in February 2017, it reflected a predisposition to using Sweden as an example of naive generosity gone wrong among those who are ideologically predisposed against big governments and social welfare.
This negative image of Sweden has been bolstered by journalists using bribery to falsify stories, frequent "mythbusting" visits by foreign journalists to some of the more deprived suburbs in the country, as well as interviews with individuals such as self-styled security expert Nils Bildt, whose main qualification appears to be that he has the same surname as former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl. There is, in other words, a market in Sweden-bashing that has developed as a consequence of Sweden’s successes in raising its visibility. Last year, the Foreign Ministry was forced to develop a guide for correcting disinformation and fake news for its embassies.
Sweden's public diplomacy developed as a promotional strategy based on core social democratic values. The fear for this small exporting country was that it would not be sufficiently known or differentiated from its neighbors, and PD has contributed – in conjunction with the visibility of the country’s major corporate brands – to ensuring that will not happen. Sweden’s problem is no longer invisibility, but rather the results of an enviably strong profile that has come to mean quite different things within polarized political debates all over the world. It has become the example of liberal cosmopolitanism that the progressive left choose as their best illustration, and that the alt-right needs to prove is failing. April's terrorist attacks will be proof for some of the inevitable outcome of the most generous refugee policy in Europe, while others will perceive Stockholm’s response as the best evidence of these values' perseverance.
Sweden's public diplomacy has been remarkably successful, but it must respond to a challenging domestic and global political context.
James Pamment, Associate Professor in Strategic Communication at Lund University, Campus Helsingborg