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.
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.