The Swedish government this week decided to scrap an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, effectively bringing to an end a decade-old defense agreement with the kingdom. The move followed complaints made by the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom that she was blocked by the Saudis from speaking about democracy and women’s rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo.
This is worth sharing for two reasons:
1. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to watch as wholly unlikeable a group as the Saudi leadership get it in the neck.
2. I’m not really 100% convinced that this is all about saving poor opressed Saudis, or even about diplomatic offense-taking. I think this is about The European Model.
With an economy in terminal decline, the nations of Europe only really have two assets worth promoting to the rest of the world: their tax havens and their reputation for niceness.
Attend any political conference, be it in ever so repressive a regime, and you will hear the ‘soft power’ of the European model praised to the skies. Obviously, the people doing the praising have no intention whatsoever of actually copying more than the barest trappings of said model (I frequently hear the concept of the separation of powers lauded by high-ranking Asian officials who don’t have the faintest idea of what it was originally supposed to do), but the fact of its existence is an obscure source of comfort.
I guess you see a similar phenomenon in the Catholic Church: you wouldn’t want to become a priest yourself, but the fact that other people do is somehow reassuring.
Sweden makes excellent weapons, and will be able to find a market even without the Saudis, but they also appear to believe that in coming years they will be trading increasingly on their reputation as the go-to guys for any regime who wants to learn to be (or look) a little less nasty (but not all that much less, let’s not go overboard here). A sort of Kitemark for moderate authoritarians.