Europe’s Northern Lights
Looking to Scandinavia to regain our universal attractiveness
"The Northern Lights" was the title of a major painting exhibition in Paris a few years ago, dedicated to Scandinavian masterpieces. But "northern lights" may also correspond to what Europe, if not the entire West, needs nowadays: a political, economic, social, and ethical model. Indeed, in becoming the first center-right leader in Sweden to win re-election in modern times, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt not only ended the centre-left’s electoral hegemony in his country, but revealed that the modern Scandinavian model of governance is relevant across Europe.
At a time when budget cuts are the order of the day, political power in Scandinavia is modest and generally honest. Women play a major role in society and politics, and have for a long time. Scandinavian capitalism has been traditionally more humane, and social injustice, though it exists, is much less destructive than in southern Europe, for example. Moreover, immigrants are generally treated with a greater sense of respect for their dignity.
To be sure, many other Europeans recognize these "virtues." But their natural reaction is to say, "It’s not for us." In order to practice Scandinavian virtues, many believe, you must come from a cold-weather country with a small, homogeneous population that accepts high taxes without grumbling.
One can behave in such a manner, many Europeans outside of Scandinavia say, only if one has been raised according to the Protestant ethic. For Greeks, Italians, and many French evading taxes is a kind of national pastime, which some even perceive as a moral duty. Politics is a game, and power a drug that allows you to rise above ordinary citizens. And the temptation to consider oneself the incarnation of the state, rather than its servant, is often irresistible among southern European politicians.
Of course, it is dangerous to idealize the Scandinavian model. Scandinavian countries have their share of problems, such as Denmark’s significant xenophobic extreme right and Norway’s occasional bouts of provincial puritanism.
But the difference between these countries and their southern counterparts in terms of economic performance, social climate, and political culture are plainly visible. The weak and sick men of Europe – from Greece to Spain – are to be found in the south, not the north.
The Asian challenge, particularly from China, should encourage us to reconsider the validity of the "Scandinavian model." The Chinese example represents for Europeans a dual opportunity to moralize our capitalism and reinvent our democratic practices. We cannot continue to preach to others values that we no longer practice with rigor. To play the moral high ground, we must deserve it.
Moreover, we cannot simply wait for the Chinese "other" to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Of course, these contradictions are real, but our main source of strength cannot be their weakness. The Chinese model – inspired nowadays not by Lenin but by Singapore’s decades of disciplined economic success – has called into question the traditional linkage (made since Adam Smith) between capitalism and democracy.
In China, capitalism prospers without democracy. In fact, a contemporary Chinese joke is very indicative of how the country perceives its role in today’s world. "In 1949, communism saved China; in 1979 capitalism saved China; and in 2009, China saved capitalism."
In the aftermath of a major financial and economic crisis – which may yet be far from over – Chinese and Asians in general ask Europeans rather bluntly how we dare try to teach them lessons in financial capitalism. After all, during the Asian financial crisis in 1998, "we" did not come to their aid; ten years later, "they" saved us.
China today is increasingly becoming for Europe what the United States was yesterday – a mirror reflecting our weaknesses and our strengths. We are too few to become anything other than a "niche of excellence" in the character of our capitalism and our democratic practices, both of which are endangered above all by ourselves.
Nothing incites failure more than success. Since the end of the Cold War, we Europeans have lost the incentive to demonstrate the superiority of our systems. We have become complacent and lazy.
In this context, looking north is essential if we want to regain our universal attractiveness and defend our "democratic" comparative advantages. There is more rigor and openness under the Northern Lights, and this is precisely the combination we need, with its mixture of modesty towards others and ambition towards ourselves.
Dominique Moisi is the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010