Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson.
Jan Eliasson has had a long and illustrious
career in Swedish politics and diplomacy.
For the past four years he has served as
Sweden’s Ambassador to the United States. Prior to
assuming this position, he was his country’s deputy
secretary of state for six years, a key position in formulating
and implementing Swedish foreign policy.
From 1988-1992, Eliasson was also Sweden’s ambassador
to the United Nations.
Sometimes jovially referred to by his family and
friends as “James Bond” for his charm, elegance
and rugged good looks, Eliasson is brilliant, serious
and dedicated to strengthening the role of the
United Nations, as well as improving the lot of man.
Ambassador Jan Eliasson graciously agreed to sit
down with Washington Life’s Editor in Chief, Nancy
Bagley to discuss foreign affairs and his time in
Washington Life: You went to high school in the
Midwest and seem to have a great love for the
American people. What do you enjoy most about living
Ambassador Jan Eliasson: I feel so much at home in
America generally, having graduated from an American
high school in the Midwest. I also lived here during
very dramatic periods of United States’ political life. I
was first secretary in Washington during the Vietnam
War and the Watergate crisis in the early 1970s. I lived
in New York for six years, and since 2000, my wife
Kerstin and I have been in this exciting city. The political
energy that you find in Washington is like a drug.
It gets into your veins. I really enjoy meeting the mix
of people in the administration, Congress, think tanks,
media, business and the diplomatic community. This
type of life fascinates me.
WL: Between 1980-1986 you assisted Prime Minister
Olof Palme in mediating the Iran/Iraq war, and after his
assassination you became his special representative.
During that time, you discovered the use of chemical
weapons by Iraq against the Iranians and reported it to
the U.N. Little was done then…why do you think that
JE: After the Iranian hostage situation, Iran was considered
by the international community to be a greater
evil than Saddam Hussein. The Arab world was fearful
of the export of the revolution. It was evident that the
Iraqis first used chemical weapons on the Iranians, who
were upset that the Security Council did not ask for
the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Iran. Tension was
high, but it was a disappointment that the Iraqi use of
chemical weapons in 1983-84 did not cause a stronger
reaction, because it was clearly a serious violation of
WL: After 9/11, world opinion and support was overwhelmingly
with the United States. Why do you think
that changed when we focused our attention on Iraq?
JE: Many in Europe and the world felt we should
have continued the U.N. road and waited for a U.N.
resolution. It was a diplomatic failure that we did not
act with a united front against such an obvious tyrant,
dictator and violator of international and human rights
law as Saddam Hussein. In the fall of 2002, there was
a period of great hope in the international community,
but the build-up of military forces and stronger rhetoric
heightened the tension, and members of the Security
Council made it clear that they would veto the resolution.
Hans Blix wasn’t given a chance to finish his
work, which might have determined whether Saddam
was defying the United Nations, as was the case [in his
invasion of] Kuwait. Surely a unified front in the international
community would have led to a legally-binding
WL: But it had already taken a long time for the U.N.
and Security Council to act against Saddam.
JE: The problem was that the moral dimension disappeared.
I regret that the United Nations could not
refer to serious violations of human rights as reason
[enough] for a Security Council resolution. Instead one
had to use the issue of weapons of mass destruction,
and for that you needed to have inspections which were
very technical in nature.
WL: If you could write the U.N. resolution yourselfwith regard to human rights violations, how would you
JE: We can and should act when we enter situations
that could turn into genocide. When it comes to serious
violations of human rights, there is not yet an effective
mechanism to respond. It is seen by many developing
countries as interference in their internal affairs. There
is a need to change that perspective and talk about the
right of protection. We should look at security from the
point of view of the individual and not only from that
of the state. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.
WL: Do you know if the U.S. or the world was ever in
any real immediate threat from Iraq before the U.S.
JE: Most of us believed there was an
immediate threat, or that we were close to
an immediate threat.
WL: More so than from North Korea, or
JE: No, but there was an international
mechanism, several U.N. resolutions in
place which required Iraq to cooperate. We
had the inspections that were based on binding
WL: Did you ever have any real knowledge
that there was a connection between
Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, before the
U.S. invaded Iraq?
JE: Very few experts believed there was
any connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
WL: Weren’t there also indications that there was very
little if any connection between Al Qaeda and Iran as
JE: I don’t know about that.
WL: Iran had been funding the Northern Alliance,
which was the enemy of Al Qaeda. Therefore it is reasonable
to assume that Iran was Al Qaeda’s enemy.
JE: I want to be cautious with this because there is an
intelligence area which I am not privy to.
WL: You have been to Iran many times, yet few
Americans have traveled there. Many Americans may
think of the government, and thereby, the people of
Iran, as part of the axis of evil. What is your impression
of the people?
JE: I helped mediate the Iran-Iraq conflict between
1980 and 1992, so for twelve years I was constantly
working with Iran and Iraq. I also visited Iran in
the 1990s when I was Deputy Secretary of State of
Sweden. I am very impressed by the potential of that
nation, both in terms of resources and in terms of the
people. I think the country could be a great asset to
international security if it develops in the right direction,
and if the outside world carries on policies which
encourage that process. I have no illusions about some
of the present leadership. But there are very strong
elements within the Iranian society, which are very
WL: How did the Iranian press receive you?
JE: I gave speeches and spoke freely about human
rights at the University of Tehran. I even got questions
about Salman Rushdie, and my answers were relatively
well-recorded in the press the following day. There
are few countries in the region where that would happen.
I think Iran in the future could be a very positive
factor both for the region and internationally. But the
situation right now is troublesome. There is frustration
in Europe as well about the nuclear issue and although
the human rights situation is probably better than in the
1980s, it is also complicating the picture.
WL: You have great faith and belief in the relevance of
the U.N. and the need to find global solutions to problems.
Are we in a crisis with regard to the U.N.? If so,
what can be done about it?
JE: There is a deep paradox in today’s international
situation. On the one hand, practically all issues have a
global dimension: the environment, refugee problems,
and diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.
Trade, investments, and the media are becoming more
and more global. There’s a tremendous surge of internationalism,
but the democratic mechanisms that we
have in place are based on the nation state. We desperately
need a strong international structure because our
problems in reality are global and we can not get anything
better than the United Nations. We are at a very
difficult juncture in time. If we choose to build security
looking inward and not looking outward, I think we
are making an historic mistake. The United Nations is
what the member states make of it. I think it is not only
in the interest of the small and medium sized countries
to support the United Nations, but also in the interest of
the larger countries like the U.S.
WL: You have said the U.N. Security Council should
be a negotiating body, by developing a veto-free culture.
What are the obstacles and how do we achieve
JE: There are so many areas where you can easily
develop the United Nations into a stronger organization.
Refugee issues and the environment are obvious
areas. When it comes to the issue of war and peace, the
Security Council is the key factor. Personally, I think
that the veto-right should be used only in exceptional
cases. If we develop a veto-free culture we would have
to develop a negotiation culture inside the Security
Council and consistently strive for consensus.
WL: The U.S. has refused to sign or adhere to a number
of international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, the
International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test
Ban Treaty and the Child Convention. What is your
understanding of why the U.S. is having disputes with
each of these treaties, and does Sweden, and perhaps
many other countries in the world think these issues are
JE: I regret that we do not all recognize the long-term
advantages of adhering to these conventions. A wellfunctioning
international system is also in the interest
of the U.S. It is crucial to have the United States on
board. For instance, the Kyoto Protocol will not turn
into a valid treaty until a certain number
of countries have adhered to it. Right
now we are waiting for Russia to sign it
and if the U.S. would adhere to it, then
you can imagine what a positive impact
it would have. When it comes to the
International Criminal Court, I think it
is very important for all of us to send
the message that we must bring the war
criminals to trial as soon as possible.
Evidently, this is a very sensitive issue
WL: Is it sensitive because certain
American politicians might be put on
trial in an international criminal court?
JE: I don’t want to go into that.
WL: For years, many U.S. politicians
have been ignoring scientific research regarding global
warming, arguing that there is no evidence of the
problem or that it is not a man-made environmental
problem. Recently, 4,000 of the nation’s top scientists,
including 48 Nobel Prize winners, put their names on
a full-page newspaper ad lambasting the Bush administration
for its anti-science policy and for skewing
research to promote a political agenda. Recently there
have been reports that the ice in Antarctica is melting
[and that icebergs the size of Rhode Island have broken
off] at such a rate that the fisherman can’t fish because
they are falling through the ice. Do you think global
warming is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed?
JE: Certainly we think the problem is a real and pressing
one, although I can not put it in terms of years. I
also think that even if the disaster is not immediately
looming, we need to apply cautionary principles to
avert a potentially disastrous global situation. The
right thing to do, therefore, is to take this problem very
seriously. By doing so, we will also reduce the use of
energy, develop new consumption patterns, preserve
nature, and finally do something substantial for the next
generations. Since I believe there is a real environmental
global danger, we should act as soon as possible.
WL: The world has sat by idly and watched as genocide
was occurring in Rwanda, Cambodia, and even
Iraq. Millions of people were ethnically cleansed
which you have said could easily happen again. What
do you think the world can do to prevent these kinds of
atrocities in the future?
JE: We have to have an effective early-warning system.
The media plays an important role because even
the most hardcore tyrants don’t like bad publicity. I
think we should send and sponsor fact-finding missions
into areas by the U.N., NGOs [non-governmental
organizations] and the others. We need international
eyes and ears in the conflict areas before the situations
get critical. We should also offer the message of
peaceful settlements to disputes. Chapter Six of the
U.N. Charter, which is the bible for Swedish mediation
efforts, calls for specific pacific settlements of disputes.
We could also use sanctions, preferably smart, targeted
sanctions, not sanctions that hit the whole population
and allow for the dictator to place blame for misery
elsewhere. There should be sanctions that stop the flow
of dictators’ money, and stop their relatives from traveling
to Paris or London, for example. Saddam Hussein
used the sanctions to his advantage.
WL: Do you think there is a difference in
the way the U.S. media covers the news
vs. the Swedish or European press as a
whole? And if so, can you give examples?
JE: Yes, I think there is a difference. I
have had visitors to Washington who have
been struck by the difference in coverage
of the Middle East, both of the Iraq and
the Israel/Palestine issue.
I would hope that the press would faithfully
mirror the realities in the world. I
think people can understand those realities,
seen from different directions. While
it would be unacceptable not to condemn
the Palestinian suicide bombers, it is also
necessary to point out the plight of the
Palestinians. You risk demonizing if you
only show one side of a situation.
WL: What are your greatest failures and successes of
JE: I will start with success, otherwise I’ll get too
depressed. There are three things that come to mind.
When I was Under Secretary General at the United
Nations in the early 1990s, there was a drought after
three years of no rain in Southern Africa. Eleven million
people were in desperate need and at risk of famine
and disease. We mobilized $700 million and opened
up the ports in South Africa, which at the time were
under sanctions. We had an exception made, and food
and drilling equipment for water were shipped at great
speed with no corruption. We saved hundreds of thousands
of lives. It was never heard about because the
disaster did not occur.
Another good thing was the opening of humanitarian
corridors in Southern Sudan in 1993, where many
thousands of people were in danger of starving to death
because of a civil war. We could not get a cease-fire,
but by changing the semantics and asking for a humanitarian
corridor instead, we were able to get 31 landing
fields opened and the people were reached with food
In Sweden, I am most proud of the work my government
did to develop an action program of prevention
together with Anna Lindh, our former foreign minister
who was assassinated in September 2003. Realistically,
an action program in Sweden alone does not have
an impact. But during our [Sweden’s] presidency of
the European Union, we turned that program into a
European Union program of prevention. This was in
fact useful in the Macedonia situation in the spring
of 2001 when civil war was avoided with the help of
the plan. It was also a perfect example of European
/American cooperation. And I think our program was
the theoretical background for that action. So I am
very proud that I took a year off after my time at the
U.N. to develop those ideas. I won’t prolong this list
because it would sound like bragging on Sweden’s
WL: But you have so much to brag about. But okay,
what are your greatest regrets or failures?
JE: I still have great sadness looking back at the situation
in Somalia. We came in too late. I will never
forget those refugee camps, in the fall of 1992, where
the adults and children were dying in front of me.
They were in such poor shape by the time they got
to the camps. Several thousand people died. That’s
where I possibly got my mental energy for prevention,
because I felt it was such a humiliation and shame that
we woke up too late. I came in like a fireman working
day and night shifts, but the house had already burned
down. I was not involved in Rwanda because I had
left the U.N. by that time. But that was an even bigger
tragedy because 800,000 people were slaughtered in 90
days. Another regret was the Balkan situation. Europe
should have taken a stronger position in the beginning
by acting more decisively, with more diplomatic skill.
It is a tragedy to have allowed such a brutal war in the
European continent so soon after the Holocaust and
WWII. But it strengthened my conviction that Europe
must develop a common security and foreign policy.
WL: Let’s change the subject, do you have any hobbies?
JE: Tennis, tending to our farmhouse on the island of
Gotland in Sweden. And I collect magnifying glasses.
My father and grandfather had bad eyes, so I thought I
would prepare myself for that. I read a lot, and want to
read and write for a long time.
WL: Your wife Kerstin is now serving as Deputy
Minister of Education and Science in Sweden. How are
you surviving in Washington without her?
JE: It is not easy. I am very proud of my wife, and I
am very happy that a modern diplomatic service makes
it possible for spouses to have their own careers. It
was a personal sacrifice for both of us to decide to do
cross Atlantic commuting. We are very happy that
she can perform her role in Sweden, and I can hopefully
continue to perform my role here. There are few
capitals where it’s more important to be a team than in
Washington. So it is of course a handicap for me, but
I do my best. In Washington, you have to be active
both professionally and socially, which is why we diplomats
actually work harder than most people believe.
You have to be very good on the substance and work
with very skilled counterparts in the State Department,
White House, Congress, the think tank community, and
so forth. And at the same time, you cannot
sit in your office and read papers. You
have to meet people. Personal relations
mean so much. I enjoy this Washington
life tremendously, as long as it lasts.
WL: What do you wish to accomplish
before your return to Sweden?
JE: Apart from dealing with daily crises
that fall in my lap, and the improvement
of a strong transatlantic relationship which
I believe in fervently, I am intrigued by
the importance of science and research,
inspired by my wife and perhaps by the
fact that Sweden is the country of the
Nobel Prizes. Another area of interest is
Swedish-Americans. Close to four million
Swedish-Americans live here and if
you count the families to which 3.9 million
Swedish-Americans are connected,
you might end up with up to 10 million
people, which is more than Sweden’s population. Many
of those Swedish-Americans are connected by the
traditions of Midsummer, such as dancing around the
Maypole, eating Swedish salmon, drinking Swedish
drinks, singing Swedish songs, mother’s meatballs, and
all that. But the next generation of Swedish Americans
should be connected to modern Sweden and vice versa.
We have common interest in Swedish music, design,
architecture, etc., and that could strengthen the transatlantic
relationship in a time when Europe and the U.S.
may be drifting apart. The more we show that the U.S
and Europe have a common heritage and a common
destiny, the more we may be reminded that we have
common interests and common values. And I would
say that the quality of the European/American relationship
will affect the quality of the situation in the entire
WL: The House of Sweden and the new Swedish
Embassy will be completed in the next few years. Can
you talk a little about that project?
JE: We are very proud and happy to be the first to
build an embassy on the Potomac. I am a former Navy
officer and so it is very exciting to be on the water.
With the terrorist threat, embassies tend to be fortresses
today. We have seen violence in my own country. But
we still want to be open and transparent and not be provoked
by violence from terrorists. Having our embassy
on the water is perhaps a risk, but it’s important to send