In this exclusive interview with the ECSSR Website, His Excellency Dr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, President, Republic Of Iceland, shares his views on the crisis in Ukraine, his country’s cooperation with the UAE on green energy and the future of Europe. The interview was conducted on the sidelines of Dr. Grímsson’s lecture – The Clean Energy Economy: A Road to Recovery from a Financial Crisis – delivered at the ECSSR on 05 March 2014. Following are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: Your Excellency, you are currently serving fifth term as President of Iceland. Your country has witnessed several ups and downs during your presidency. What have been your biggest achievements over the years?
A: When I reflect on what I have learnt through my long public career, there is a very simple truth that to me becomes more self-evident as the years go by. I first became politically active in the mid-1960s. I entered Parliament in 1978. I have been privileged to work internationally both with elected leaders and others. I have been through many different political and economic crises. So when I look back on the challenges and decisions, the most important conclusion I have drawn is very simple. It is actually only three words in English – trust the ordinary people. Trust the people who work in factories, on building sites, in schools and hospitals, those who come together in every community every day. Trust their inherent wisdom and their sense of fairness.
Q: But is that the way governments work in the West today?
A: Too much of modern politics, especially in the Western world, has moved towards this endless cycle of public relations or spin as it is sometimes called. They assume that if you are clever enough in your spin, you can take the people anywhere. When I look back at the various crises in my own nation and also internationally it is very interesting to see how often the right view was held by the ordinary people and not by experts or so-called sophisticated public relations spin-doctors. Abraham Lincoln said it in his very elegant manner, you can fool some people some time but you cannot fool all the people all the time. That is as true in the 21st Century as it was in his day.
Q: How do you look at the progress made by your neighborhood, the Nordic countries, in recent years?
A: First of all, let me emphasize that the five Nordic countries – Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland – constitute a very interesting and successful model of democracies, welfare economies and successful business environment. We have a visionary view of the importance of the environment and equal right of people everywhere. The Nordic model symbolizes this kind of success. But it is important to remember that, although we come together in this Nordic family of success, we are different. Some Nordic countries are in the European Union while some are not. Some of them are in NATO, some are not. Together we prove that even if you have different histories, even if some ruled others – like Sweden or Denmark did in previous centuries – and even if you belong to different alliances, you can still come together in one of the most successful democratic, economic and social models that the 20th century witnessed.
Q: What about Europe as a whole?
A: Europe has nations with many different histories. There are different religious backgrounds and different experiences of Communism, Nazism and Fascism. I sometimes remind people that during the first years of my life, there were only six democracies in Europe. When I started as a Member of Parliament in the 1970s to cooperate with the political leaders of Spain, Portugal and Greece, they had all either been in exiles most of their lives or imprisoned by military regimes. However, the vision of Europe as an area of peace is extremely important because the two world wars created dramatic and tragic consequences. In that sense you could argue that the last few decades have been successful for Europe.
Q: But would you call the European Union project successful?
A: I have personally often thought that the success of the so-called European project will depend on whether the European leaders are wise enough to limit the project and not to be always ambitious. If it was simply an area of economic cooperation it could be very successful. If you then want to add political ambitions to that and foreign policy dreams of being a major power, and comparing yourselves to the United States or China, you are in a risky territory. Is Europe for the ordinary people and for their better way of life or is it a grand power project? If it is mainly for the ordinary people and their way of life, then it can be very successful. But the more it moves toward being a grand power project it is doomed to fail sooner or later like almost all such projects.
Q: We have seen dramatic scenes on the streets of Ukraine in recent weeks. As a founding member of NATO, do you see Russia’s growing assertion in regional and international affairs a sign of things to come, may be beginning of a new Cold War?
A: First of all, I don’t have detailed knowledge of the recent events in Ukraine. You have the aspiration of the people, the difficulty of creating democratic structure of power, different histories, and different religious practices. Also the history of Eastern and Central Europe in the last 400 years has shown that it is very difficult to create harmonious democracies out of these components. But I don’t think that we will see another Cold War. The reason for that is the success of the so-called Arctic nations in replacing the military build-up, which took place in our part of the world during the Cold War, with a very successful and peaceful cooperation among Russia, United States, Canada and the five Nordic countries. In the last 15 years or so the rest of the world has been so preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq and in the Middle East – and more recently in Libya, Egypt and Syria – that most people have not been able to have it on their radar.
Q: What makes you optimistic that the situation in and around Ukraine wouldn’t deteriorate?
A: This was the most conflict-ridden militarized region of the world for over 50 years. This is where the Soviet Union and the United States faced each other with every military hardware invented – submarines, missiles, aero planes, military bases were all there. My generation was used to thinking this conflict will always be there. But then the Cold War ended and in the last 15 years what is called the Arctic region – Russia, Nordic countries, Canada and the US – has succeeded in coming together in a very harmonious relationship dealing with the part of the world, which is increasingly becoming important in terms of resources, new shipping lines and other components of the 21st century global economy. So to me it would be perplexing if this transformation of the Arctic from hugely militarized conflict-ridden status to a harmonious area of peace and cooperation is reversed.
Q: Your Excellency, you have championed the cause of sustainable management of natural resources for a number of years. The UAE in particular and the Gulf region in general, have been trying to move away from oil dependence. How does that match up with your country’s progress in this domain?
A: That is the inspiring vision that brought me to Abu Dhabi and the UAE in the first place. About eight years ago, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber [Minister of State and CEO of Masdar] came to my country and talked about the vision of Masdar taking the leadership in explaining to the world that long term clean energy was not only necessary but also doable as a good business. Iceland is a very important model because we have in one generation moved away from imported oil and coal over to 100 percent clean energy in terms of electricity and house heating. For us it has become an extraordinary good business. So Iceland is the proof that a clean energy transformation is not only environmentally responsible it is also good business and a strong pillar for financial recovery.
Q: What brings countries such as the UAE and Iceland close together?
A: I find it very interesting for the rest of the world that here you have in the last 6-7 years, Abu Dhabi and the UAE on one hand and Iceland on the other cooperating in a more intensive way on bringing the message of a clean energy future to the rest of the world. I have said this to many colleagues in Europe, the United States and in Asia, that if my country and the UAE can cooperate in this way, then everybody can. Ten years ago, if you had said that the UAE and Iceland start cooperating on anything, everybody would think it was a joke. But now it has become a pillar of our diplomatic, political and business cooperation.
Q: ECSSR is marking its 20th anniversary this month. What are your first thoughts on think-tanks such as these and what role they can play in outlining and providing perspectives on the strategic contours of the world?
A: To me the Center is a very inspiring example of how the leaders of this country see the search for knowledge, the ever growing attempt to bring forward research as the necessary basis of successful policymaking. Too much of what we see in other parts of the world is based on outdated assumptions, ignorance and lack of proper research on the decisions you have to make. So therefore I find it [the ECSSR] yet another inspiring example of how the leadership of the UAE acknowledges that any wise leader has to make knowledge the fundamental component of the decision making process. Therefore I accepted with pleasure the invitation to speak at the ECSSR.