The defense of constitutional monarchies goes something like this: the remaining royal heads of state in countries like Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Spain are so many harmless old duffers whose palaces and country homes bring in big tourist dollars for the national economies. They exercise no real influence, but act as gentle, apolitical symbols for national unity. They offer stability (and often pageantry and entertainment thanks to the antics of their legions of unemployed members) to a populace that might otherwise be inclined to view national life cynically.
But this rose-tinted view masks the latent conservatism of many of these monarchs, who glide in and out of limousines amongst their countries’ wealthiest citizens who have plenty of vested interests, often interests that run counter to those of the average citizen. Socialization alone make monarchs inherently conservative, although admittedly in some cases their paternalism can extend to a defence of now “traditional” elements of national society like the welfare states in which most of them reign.
I spent Sweden’s “National Day” in June in the company of Swedes, making, I am not very sorry to say, many deeply un-courteous comments about the country’s royal family, who looked jocular, if more than a little bemused at their good fortune at having been born with a surfeit of silver spoons on their collective palate.
My particular beef with the Swedish king was the manner in which he had been wheeled out during a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia as the voice of moderation and reason…and by “reason” I mean “conservative corporate power and the arms industry”.
It all began when Sweden’s foreign minister described Saudi Arabia’s flogging of blogger Raif Badawi as a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression”. A reasonable criticism, on the face of it.
The Saudis, perhaps accustomed to more genteel treatment at the hands of western powers like the U.S. and Britain, threw a fit and prevented the foreign minister from making a planned speech on human rights, her comments having perhaps clued them in that not everyone views them in the same addled light as the likes of Dick Cheney, George W Bush, and Hillary Clinton.
The Swedish government responded by refusing to renew an arms deal with the authoritarian regime. News of the existence of such a deal with a regime known for suppressing dissent at home and in neighbouring countries might come as a surprise to those who are familiar with Sweden’s self-description as a nation committed to an activist human rights-oriented foreign policy. But that surprise was nothing as to what the Saudis and their interlocutors in Sweden’s business community felt.
The dictatorship recalled its ambassador, persuaded its Arab League allies to condemn the Swedish foreign minister, and threatened to cut off business visas to Swedes.
Swedish business leaders, led by Saab, were defiant. The business community exports almost one and a half billion dollars annually to the regime in Riyadh and responded with a letter hammering the government for its decision, trotting out tired lines from the 19th-century liberal imperial playbook about the wonders of free trade (no matter how un-free citizens in one trading society might be) and the peaceful dividends to be reaped by selling weapons to a regime with a history of using them to squash democratic protest.
This is where the king stepped in, “obviously” anxious to “contribute to finding a solution to the situation”. Here he was following in the footsteps of his daughter, who some 10 years ago rode to the rescue of beleaguered Swedish weapons exporters who wanted to hawk their criminal wares to the regime in Saudi Arabia, the existence of which contributes to the instability and democratic deficits that plague the wider region.
This, of course, is the trouble with a constitutional monarchy, members of which seem intrinsically sympathetic to a definition of the “national good” scripted by particular classes and interests. Most people, having accepted the claim that the monarch is disinterested and apolitical, might also be inclined to accept that when the Swedish king offered to intervene, played up his “historic” relationship with the brutal dictatorship, and dispatched an envoy bearing an apology to the regime in Riyadh, he was acting in an apolitical fashion in the “national interest”.
While King Carl Gustaf would certainly not have taken an active role without the acquiescence of the Swedish government, he sprung into action because a particular community in Sweden—some members of which make their fortunes through the export of weaponry designed to enhance the security of one of the world’s worst dictatorships—raised a fuss. That they, and not other communities, with different concerns, can marshal the support of an un-elected, un-accountable individual meant to represent Sweden and its values, is deeply troubling.
This rather sorry episode should illustrate several things.
Firstly, that the claims of those interests in Sweden that undermine human rights through the sale of weapons to authoritarian regimes outweigh those interests which advocate for enhanced human rights.
Secondly, that those Swedes who take pride in the country’s human rights record, and see that as central to a 21st century Swedish identity, should be deeply disturbed by the subversion of their commitment to human rights by corporate interests, an antique institution that is anything but harmless (and which has become quintessentially modern by imbricating itself in corporate politics), and a national economy compromised by its dependence on dictatorships.
In a broader sense, it should demonstrate how much of foreign policy making in most countries—with all of its repercussions for moral economies and national security—is made not by elected representatives carrying out the wishes of their constituents, but by affluent interests operating under very different moral codes.
Moreover, it illustrates the difficulty of efforts in Sweden and elsewhere to tie exports to moral standards, when companies and politicians alike are easily able to expoit loopholes.
Finally, it is a reminder of the naiveté of assuming that a foreign policy based on the personal connections between global elites makes for intelligent or moral policymaking. Hillary Clinton recently trotted out her personal knowledge of Vladimir Putin as reason to assume that she will be better able to exercise powers of suasion. We should remember how her personal sympathy for Egypt’s President Mubarak, a vicious dictator who was using violence to remain in power, made the Obama administration take a weak and tentative approach towards encouraging a democratic fluorescence in the Middle East, leading to escalating violence.
Global royalty—whether the likes of Sweden’s king or the Clintons—are hardly the people who should be representing the global citizenry as it struggles to make a more peaceful, democratic, and equal world a reality.