Diplomatic Encounter: Sweden

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Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter.

Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter is no stranger to the United States, to Washington, D.C., or, for that matter, to Georgetown. Comfortably sitting in her corner office overlooking the Potomac at House of Sweden, a stunning architectural addition to the Georgetown waterfront, she feels completely at home.

Olofsdotter has lived in the United States before: once, in her late teens as an exchange student outside Atlantic City; the second time as a student at UCLA for one year when she was 26; and the third time from 2008 to 2011 as deputy chief of mission. Her office then was just across the corridor from where she now sits as ambassador of Sweden to the United States.

She finds the location on Georgetown’s waterfront an ideal spot for the embassy. Light, airy and providing ample space for the many art exhibitions, seminars and various other programs, the architecture and interior design represent the best in Sweden’s values and taste.

Olofsdotter presented her credentials to President Donald Trump on Sept. 8. Before taking up her post in Washington, she served as chief of staff to several foreign ministers, as director of the ministers’ office in Stockholm and as ambassador to Hungary. Her first posting was to Moscow (she has a B.A. in psychology, economics and Russian).

We discussed the large population of Swedes and Swedish Americans in the U.S. Between 1860 and 1900, one million Swedes, one quarter of the country’s population, left Sweden for the U.S. In addition to the consulate general in New York, there are currently 30 honorary consuls throughout the United States.

“I feel I know Washington and really enjoy it,” she says. “This is the place to be at the moment. Washington is the capital of the world. Political decisions taken in this town have a global impact.”

Asked what changes she has noticed in Washington since she was here seven years ago, Olofsdotter didn’t hesitate to mention the explosion of vibrant restaurants. She also observed that Washington is a work-oriented city and that, while people work extremely hard during the week, weekends are apt to be free — a not unappreciated fact.

The ambassador sometimes has a chance to get out of Washington and meet people in other cities. She particularly enjoyed a recent trip to a small town outside Pittsburgh, where she was able to meet and talk with locals.

With a very full schedule — 450 guests in five days last week — she doesn’t have much time to pursue her personal interests, such as golf, jogging and seeing an occasional movie. She is also a single mom for the moment, accompanied by her 13- year-old daughter. Her husband and son will arrive later on.

“I am a young woman of 51 and really love my job,” Olofsdotter says with a big smile. She attributes this to coming from a family in which everyone has always loved their jobs. Her mother owned an exclusive shoe store, which explains why the ambassador has at least 60 pairs of shoes. “Even if many are over 20 years old, they always come into style again!”

She smiled when I referred to the legacy of legendary Swedish ambassadors in Washington, such as the well-loved Wilhelm Wachtmeister (called Willy by his friends), Rolf Ekéus and Jan Eliasson. In fact, Ekéus, in Washington on a nuclear project, was just about to come into her office as I was leaving it.

The many programs the embassy offers are based on a single theme each year. Seminars bring in American experts to work with their Swedish counterparts to focus on current global problems, including migration, human rights, economics, trade and health care. Next year, there will be a strong focus on job creation: what will the future economy look like and how will it be affected by climate change, women in the workforce, automation?

The issues most important to the ambassador, on which she intends to focus, are trade — she espouses an open and free trade policy — and defense. In respect to the latter, she hopes to deepen the cooperation between Sweden and the United States. This past September, Sweden held one of its largest defense exercises in 20 years, with 20,000 troops, including 1,500 from the United States.

Given a certain amount of unease in the region, Sweden will resume mandated military service, discontinued seven years ago, in 2018. This does not send people off to war, but provides military training should it be necessary. About 100,000 persons are eligible for the draft, but only four to six thousand will be called.

Since 2014, Sweden has adopted a feminist foreign policy, the first country in the world to do so. This includes peace, security, trade and development efforts where a systematic gender perspective will be applied. Currently, the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for EU Affairs and Trade, and the Minister for International Development, Cooperation and Climate are posts all held by women.

Most exciting locally is the upcoming celebration of the Ingmar Bergman centennial. A collaboration with the Kennedy Center, it will include discussions, seminars and film screenings. On Dec. 4, there was a special event with Liv Ullmann at House of Sweden. The stage adaptation of the 1996 film “Private Confessions,” both directed by Ullmann, will be presented at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 6, 7, 8 and 9.

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