Why Nordic nations are a role model for us all
February 11th, 2013
09:05 AM ET

Why Nordic nations are a role model for us all

By Fabrizio Tassinari, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Fabrizio Tassinari is head of Foreign Policy Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. His next book is ‘Polaris: How to Advance when the West Fades.The views expressed are his own.

Scandinavia is officially hot. In a recent issue, The Economist crowned the Nordic economic experience as a “supermodel.” Last month, the New Yorker celebrated Denmark’s hugely successful noir fiction and the egalitarian society behind it as something of a “post-modern” paradise. While these characterizations may be accurate, America and other advanced democracies can be forgiven for dismissing the case of these small, wealthy economies in a remote corner of Europe as an extravagant exception. Not so: the real secret of the Nordic performance is applicable to all, for it is a paradigm of enlightened self-interest at its finest.

The haggling over the fiscal cliff was only the latest iteration of America’s partisan gridlock at its most destructive. Every European summit of the past three years has delivered half-baked results, in the hope that things will sort themselves out in the end. This systemic paralysis is bound to make Western decline a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nordic countries are anything but declining, and they have their mindset to thank for it. While Scandinavia typically features among the best governed, least unequal, and most competitive countries in the world, the Nordics’ legendary modesty would prevent them from describing this extraordinary record as superior. Yet, any non-Northerner such as myself living in these virtuous lands cannot help being captivated by the consensus, cohesion and, indeed, the dullness that is behind this region’s success.

Nordics are masters in keeping their friends close and their enemies closer: from their flexible labor-market policies to comprehensive environmental legislation, social and economic stakeholders grasp that long-term interests are best served not by opposing adversaries but by joining forces, adapting to and, if necessary, compromising with them. People here seem to intuitively realize that in a complex and deeply interconnected global environment, you are better off pursuing incremental cooperation rather than shooting for grand bargains.

More from GPS: Exploring the Scandinavian model

The poet Paul Valery once wrote that: “we hope vaguely, we dread precisely;” if Nordic people are, by some measure, among the happiest on earth, it may be because they have found a way to hope very precisely. Just as for their trademark minimalistic architecture and design, the Nordics start out from a narrow focus on specific issues of strategic relevance, in order to attain ripple effects that are beneficial to the community as a whole.

Consider energy policies: after the debacle at the U.N. Climate Summit of 2009, “Copenhagen” has become a byword for world disorder. But ever since then, and with broad bipartisan support, the Danish government has adopted a strategy which, among other things, pushes its target for carbon emissions reduction for 2020 from 20 percent to 40 percent, with the ultimate goal of making the country carbon neutral by the year 2050. For anyone objecting that such strategy is only possible in a small and homogenous country, in 2011 Denmark launched together with Mexico and South Korea a Global Green Growth Forum, aimed at marrying bottom-up ideas from corporate and research actors with top-down government support. The only compass guiding these measures is not starry-eyed altruism; it is the realization that the individual need to be safe and secure is best pursued through a single-minded focus on collective action.

Just like the rest of us, the model is not perfect. After all, what makes Scandinavian fiction popular is precisely the combination of institutional clockwork and chronic social maladies. These open societies are also home to some of the best organized populist parties, which in recent years have proven viciously intolerant in relation to immigrants. As someone hailing from the profligate South of Europe, I can testify that ever since the credit crunch a distinctive form of parochialism has resurfaced, even though it is often camouflaged by these nations’ extraordinary civility.

Whereas libertarians would claim that these are all the side-effects of a Leviathan state, Nordics would probably retort that perfection has never been the goal.

The moderation, caution, pragmatism, and even patience characterizing these societies are not an end in themselves – they are a means to attain objectives that are common to all mature democracies. One may not be able to wire the Nordic political culture into other political and economic systems. But in these times of rigid ideological posturing and short-term thinking, we should all heed the advice that accepting our imperfections is the most serious way to salvage our way of life.

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Topics: Culture • Economy

soundoff (249 Responses)
  1. Dark Horse

    Snark and sarcasm. What a bunch of fun and likeable people on this post!

    February 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  2. EldRick

    Meanwhile, back in reality, the main factor in the Scandinavian countries' success is their cultural unity, whcih is simply not possible in any country with significant immigration or emphasis on "diversity".

    February 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  3. Bill

    Um... Norway simply has oil wealth. Their productivity is low, but they have a small population with high incomes. If you have oil wealth, then that is the end result. Take it away, and they would be Greece.

    February 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  4. jack

    Maybe I'm missing something, but I fail to see why we should hold nations with such high suicide rates up as role models.

    February 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Reply
    • Jonas

      Oh my Lord, the myths about the Nordics just never stop...

      This idea of high suicide rates in Scandinavia is nothing but a myth with no basis in reality. Denmark and Sweden have the same suicide rates as the U.S. (actually a tiny bit lower).

      South Korea has the world's highest suicide rates with 31.7 suicides per 100,000 people and year. At place 34, you'll find the U.S. (12.0), at place 35 Sweden (11.9), and at place 36 Denmark (11.9). If you look at all the Nordic countries, Finland has the higest suicide rate and rank 19 in the world with 16.8 suicides per 100,000 people and year. (Finland is Nordic, but not Scandinavian).

      Source: Wikipedia "List of countries by suicide rate". Google on "suicide rates countries".

      February 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  5. Brian

    What's there effective tax rate in those countries. Take a look.

    February 13, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  6. Jonas

    Immigration to Sweden in 2010 by country of citizenship:

    Returning Swedes: 19 765
    Somalia 6 819
    Irak 4 534
    Polen 4 414
    Danmark 3 437
    Kina 3 186
    Iran 2 820
    Thailand 2 775
    Finland 2 300
    Turkiet 2 232
    Tyskland 2 202
    Indien 2 150
    Norge 2 070
    Afghanistan 1 920
    Rumänien 1 726
    Eritrea 1 604
    Pakistan 1 575
    Storbritannien och Nordirland 1 435
    Litauen 1 370
    USA 1 329
    Ryssland 1 221
    Others: 27 917
    Total: 98 801

    February 13, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  7. nejtysk

    The part about immigration populist is just lol because they are very tame and very unpopular compared with Southern republicans who want to build a wall 😀

    February 14, 2013 at 5:32 am | Reply
  8. NeoGraphix

    Anyone who thinks America is number 1 in anything but number of overweight people and people in prison are sadly out of their minds.

    February 15, 2013 at 9:47 am | Reply
    • Anton

      Aircraft Carriers
      The USA is number one there and it's funny people never mention them, because they're the reason so much trade flows unhindered around the globe.

      February 16, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
  9. Jarl Ulfric


    February 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  10. Lauren Fox

    The Scandanavian model is very humane compared to the USA. There is an emphasis on the well being of all it's citizens and they value their children as their future. Daycare, education and healthcare are all provided to support families. The taxes are not any higher than in America after you factor in all the preceding (daycare, education and healthcare costs. The equality that exists there is also another sign of prosperity because when a country eliminates poverty you have improved outcomes for your people. Here in the USA you have people who are selfish and bitter and would rather people starve and live in poverty than pay a little extra tax to help create an equal society. The 1% are living here in America.

    February 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Reply
    • Itscrap

      " and they have their mindset to thank for it"


      September 29, 2013 at 1:39 am | Reply
  11. Herewe Goagain

    Its because they didn't allow themselves to become flooded with 3rd world immigrants like the rest of Europe.

    March 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • shan

      smell of racism

      September 7, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Reply
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