Susan Glasser: “Donald Trump is probably one of the least popular American presidents on this side of the Atlantic for a very long time”
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That was Carl Bildt, our guest on The Global Politico this week. Carl is the former prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister of Sweden. Yes, that Sweden, the northern European country Donald Trump taunted in a series of Fox News-inspired tweets earlier this year, making it seem as though it was some sort of refugee dystopian hell. Well, Sweden is still a pretty great country and who better to talk about the Europe vs Donald Trump divide – a yawning gulf these days – than Carl Bildt.
Because clearly 100 days into Trump there’s a big rift that’s opened up between the United States and Europe, it’s one of the major new foreign policy realities of the Trump presidency. It’s so bad, Carl Bildt tells me in this episode, that it’s even worse than the USA versus Old Europe rift over the invasion of Iraq when George W Bush was president. Europe these days is scared of what’s going on in America, its biggest ally; it’s got its own wave of nationalist populism to worry about, and it’s been increasingly worried for the last few years about Vladimir Putin and Russia to the east.
What I heard over several days of meetings on a road trip to Berlin was a lot of anxious Trumpology—how to get inside the head of this unpredictable new president – combined with a lot of Putinology. Will Trump reconcile with Russia? Will he launch a new cold war?
We talked with Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister, for this week’s Global Politico.
This is Susan Glasser. Welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I’m delighted to be here with Carl Bildt. Carl, first of all, of course, this being The Global POLITICO but still American obsessed, we have to ask you about Donald Trump and Sweden. What was the reaction to the president of the United States, apparently hate-tweeting a whole country?
Carl Bildt: Well, people were appalled and then there was an element of sort of entertainment. They thought the man had gone bananas, the one way or the other. They couldn’t begin to understand it. But—so there was quite a big reaction to it and, of course, quite a big debate both concerning the relationships and certainly, the issues of substance that he tweeted about. But it was a somewhat unsettling thing to see the president of the United States without any factual basis whatsoever lunge out against a small country in the way that he did.
Glasser: Well, I mean, joking aside, in a way, it sort of suggests this culture clash that is happening where you have a real worldview of Donald Trump, which is so different than any politics of Sweden or of Europe more generally.
Bildt: That as well but it also illustrates the fact that we’ve been living with presidents of the United States of different sorts, different policies for ages. But we are used to the president of the United States being a person who is fairly well-informed and when the president of the United States says something, it is something of substance. It should be taken seriously.
And certainly, waking up here to a person who has sort of seen something on Fox News in this particular case and makes that the subject of the media, public insult, as a matter of fact, to a country. That is unsettling, to put it mildly. Apart from the issues of substance, which you can always discuss and the policies differences that are there. But the way of handling an issue was clearly upsetting, to put it mildly. And we have unfortunately seen a couple of other such cases as well.
Glasser: Do you—inside Sweden, was it—were there different viewpoints of people?
Bildt: Not really, not really. It has to be said, if you’re aware but Donald Trump is probably one of the least popular American presidents on this side of the Atlantic for a very long time — and there have been a couple of others as well.
Glasser: Well, and that’s right. We were just talking this morning at breakfast. We’re here in Berlin on this beautiful sunny spring morning and there’s a real sense of Europe spending its time like we Americans are these days, kind of trying to get inside the head of Donald Trump. But do you think he’s less popular than George W. Bush?
Bildt: I think it has to do quite a lot with the way he conducted the election campaign. Because he conducted the election campaign again, apart from the substance from what he was trying to say—he conducted the election campaign in a rather brutal and vulgar way. And that we don’t like in Europe. We want there to be at least an element of civility in the political discourse. So that was notably absent.
And that made him sort of from the European political point of view, a very foreign person. And that said, entirely different from or entirely connected from the policies that he represented but the way in which he did it caused, I think, a gulf to open up between us.
Glasser: You know, it’s very interesting. Yesterday, there was a debate in this conference that we’re at that to me almost seemed like you had the European taking what I would call the Barack Obama policy point of view about the Middle East and the people here from the U.S. trying to figure out what is the Trump policy first of all. Second of all, clearly, there’s a culture clash, and it feels like Europe is blue America and, you know, something pretty radically different. Can we still maintain our historic alliances?
Bildt: No, we can, but that particular—as you call it, culture clash has been there for a long time. And there is a difference. You see it perhaps more starkly in the case of the Middle East. If I give the European version of it, I think we take perhaps a somewhat longer and perhaps a likely more cynical view of history and the Middle East is a complicated place and Europeans have been around there for a couple of thousand years. And we perhaps, understand there are limits to our possibility to influence everything there. There are a distinct absence of quick solutions, even more, a distinct absence of easy solutions.
That’s sort of an extreme version of the European attitude. The American attitude was a very optimistic one. You can say short-sighted: There are quick solutions. There are quick fixes, you can do things in the Middle East and in other places where Europeans would say, “Ha ha, give it a try and you will see that it will backfire on you.” And that’s sort of a—it’s just like a different take on history and on our ability to influence history. That is there between the Europeans and the Americans.
Glasser: Well, and that’s a good point. I think, you know, what Trump or perhaps those around him, because he probably wouldn’t engage in this type of back and forth, would say is, “Well, hey, it’s not America’s fault if you look at history laughing at you Europeans in the face right now and that regardless of who is the president of the United States, this wave of populism and nationalism has hit here in Europe, at least in part because of the wave of refugees coming from the Middle East, coming from Africa into Europe.” This would be the argument. In Europe’s politics, that clearly is occurring. There is a division in the West today between those who see resurgent nationalism as the answer, and the European Union is under threat from this point of view.
We have the elections in France. It looks like the outcome will be pro-European but nothing is decided until it’s over in this post-Brexit, post-Trump world. What do you make of this?
Bildt: Again, a somewhat broader perspective on it. If you look at the politics of Europe inside the perspective of 50, 60 years, since 1945 or something like that, it was dominated for a very long period by the big political parties and the big political narratives and the big ideological confrontations. There was something called socialism, communism around that, if we go back to the ’40s and ’50s, were a very significant force in our respective societies, that was the Soviet Union. Those were the days of the great ideological battles that shaped the politics of virtually every European country.
What we’ve seen since then, sort of the last 25 years, the last quarter of a century or something like that, is that those narratives, big narratives have faded away. The ideological battles aren’t there to the same extent. Accordingly, the big political parties have been losing in power. We have seen a fracturing of the political scene. We are now talking about the nationalist parties and the populist parties. We had the Green parties. We had the pirate parties. All over the politics of Europe looks different and the big visions aren’t there any longer, the sort of European unification to create peace or the unification of Europe.
That’s also faded away. And this has created space, both these developments, for, in this case, the politics of identity in terms of anti-immigration and the politics of blaming everything on Brussels. I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to dominate the politics of Europe but that’s something that is clearly shaping the politics of Europe at the moment. And it’s a reflection of the somewhat longer historical trends that we see in the political environment.
Glasser: Well, do you have concerns about the long-term viability of the EU as a result of this new—
Bildt: No, I don’t. Because at the same time as I’m saying that the European vision has of course—you can argue it’s faded somewhat. If we go out and talk to young people about creating a European Union to safeguard peace, they say, “We’ve got peace. It’s done. Move on.” So that has faded, but at the same time, if you look at what I call the Europe of Necessity. The fact that last year, we had—in contrast to what we’re having, the treaties, we have four European—EU Summit meetings every year. We had—I think it was 12 summit meetings. And that is not because the leaders of Europe are fond of going to Brussels and seeing each other. They have other things to do.
Glasser: Well, they do seem to spend a lot of time—
Bildt: They spend a lot of time together. But that is the recognition of the fact that all of the nations are too small to deal with issues. They really have to come together. If it is a crisis somewhere, if it is migration, if it’s the economy, it’s the digital reshaping of our societies. Even the biggest country, we’re sitting in Germany, considers itself too small to handle it on his own. So the Europe of Necessity is that we are too small nation-states in order to—we are 7 percent of the global population. We are heading to 4 percent of the global population. We have to work together.
Glasser: So security is something that you have spent a lot of your time on in these various roles. President Trump first said that NATO was “obsolete.” Now, he says NATO is no longer obsolete. It’s unclear exactly what’s changed from his point of view. Sweden has an unusual perspective on this, being a key member of the European community but not in NATO. Is this something that you’re thinking about doing now as a result of resurgent Russia in the neighborhood?
Bildt: Yes, well, that’s a vigorous debate back home and why this was a subject that wasn’t really on the agenda some years ago. It is now something that is very much on the agenda. It is—
Glasser: And the change there is Russia, to be clear. Not the United States.
Bildt: And the change there is Russia. No question about that. The change here is undoubtedly what we’ve seen primarily since 2008. I think there’s unlikely to be any quick changes because it’s still a polarizing issue. The Social Democratic Party in power at the moment, in coalition with the Greens, they are distinctly against joining. They are, strangely enough, in favor of very strong security with the United States. And you might ask yourself, “What’s the logical explanation for that particular policy?” There is no logical explanation.
You have remnants of old feelings that were there from the years of the Cold War and the old neutrality that was engraved into the DNA of a particular part of the Swedish political environment. Then we are very much—if you go back in history, you can ask yourself—go back to the 1940s, late ’40s when NATO was formed, why didn’t Sweden join? Well, in short, Finland, which had a very exposed position at that particular time. We tend to forget that and it was the belief, I think, that the Swedish membership of NATO would have exposed Finland even more, so we stayed out.
That means that there’s still security relationships, indirect between Finland and Sweden. So that has been added, of course, and that’s become an increasing problem with the security relationship between Sweden and the three Baltic states. They are members of NATO and we’ll see how this debate and these relationships play out in Northern Europe over the next few years.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting, in many ways, the Baltic states have become sort of the flashpoint or the trigger for this debate about, “Well, will NATO really live up to its commitments as it expanded east?” And of course, under Article 5 of NATO, in theory, the United States and all members of NATO are obliged to come to the defense of the Baltic states and that may well be why Vladimir Putin and Russia have not moved more aggressively against them. Do you think, first of all, that that is the case? Do you imagine that Donald Trump would roll in the tanks to block Russia in Latvia if he had to?
Bildt: I don’t think that is anything that is under active consideration in the Kremlin at the moment.
Glasser: Yes, but let’s knock on this wood conference table.
Bildt: Yes, you never know. What we have learned about Mr. Putin is that he is unpredictable. We have learned that he is fairly opportunistic in his policies. If he sees a weakness, if he sees an opportunity to move, he can be tempted to move. That was clear in the case with Crimea. That was clearly the case with Syria. I don’t think those moves were moves that had been planned years in advance. Opportunities opened up and he moved quickly and he had the military resources to do it.
It’s a question of offering assurances to countries, blocking options, seeing that there are no opportunities for him to move into weak spots or weak points or weak situations. And it has to be said. That’s a positive thing with the Trump administration, that the decisions that were taken at the NATO Summit in Warsaw last summer, Obama administration at the time, to move towards—I think it’s called “enhanced forward presence” or something like that. NATO always has complicated words with these. But anyhow, deploying limited battalion battle groups, but still headed by the Brits, I think, in Estonia, the Canadians in Latvia, the Germans in Lithuania and the Americans, fairly big, in Poland.
Nothing of that has been changed. It’s moving forward.
Glasser: Yes, and that’s the biggest change since the end of the Cold War.
Bildt: That is absolutely—during the Cold War, it was a divided Germany and big U.S. military presence in West Germany and the Fulda Gap and all of those things. All of that disappears and what was left—I remember the last U.S. tank was taken out of Europe in 2013 and what was left was really—had been left also was really U.S. forces geared more to operations in Afghanistan or Iraq or Africa. The U.S. Africa command is in Germany, strangely enough.
But suddenly, European security issues came back, the core issues of NATO. And this is the biggest change in the history of NATO since the big mission of dealing with the Soviet Union faded away.
Glasser: Right, well, and the huge ongoing debate about the expansion of NATO to the east in the 1990s.
Glasser: Do you think that was a mistake in hindsight?
Bildt: No, I think it was absolutely essential that it was done and for the purely sort of political reasons at the time because if we go to the Baltic states, which I dealt with and still deal with quite a lot. When they were coming out of the Soviet Union, they had nothing. They were absolute nothing. They had to be in states from ground zero. Of course, history haunted them and they were afraid of Russia, which I could understand with the history. Not only the Soviet Union. There was some prior history. So NATO membership and membership of the European Union was important in giving them the reassurance that was necessary in order for them to have a good and normal relationship with Russia as well.
I think if we hadn’t had NATO and EU membership for them, they would not be—they would be afraid. And that would perhaps have driven their policies in less rational directions and would have given room perhaps for very nationalistic, anti-Russian feelings that I think would have been to the detriment of the stability of the countries and their ability to find their place in the European family. So I think it was a very wise move.
Glasser: Well, they’ve been real success stories, no question.
Bildt: They have.
Glasser: But let’s go back to Russia itself and first of all, obviously, there are two figures in the world today we all seem to spend a lot of time on: you know, there’s Trumpology and then there’s Putinology. So both are important subjects. But how much have you followed the political debate over Russia in the United States? It’s an amazing thing that we’re 100 days into the Trump presidency and either he’s going to be launching a major reconciliation with Russia and reaching out to Putin in the way that he clearly has expressed a preference for or we’re on the brink of a terrible, even bigger rift in our relationship. So these are pretty diametrically opposing possibilities. Do you have a thought on which possibility is the more likely one?
Bildt: Go back to during the campaign and immediately after the election when Europeans were listening to what he was saying and the people around him were saying as well, which is even more pronounced. You can say, there was the fear that he was heading for something—kind of a new Yalta Agreement dividing Europe or something like that and there were fears in Europe that that was going to happen.
Glasser: And the Russians were going around talking about this, right? Do you—
Bildt: And the Russians were clearly hoping that that was going to be the case and evidently, they had enough contacts in the Trump entourage in order to believe that that was a realistic expectation. I never thought that was very likely for the reasons that—the fundamental issues, the fundamental problems. I found it difficult to see. For example, Ukraine, which there was speculation about. Trump can’t deliver Ukraine. He can say whatever he wants but he can’t deliver any agreement that he wants to make about Ukraine.
Ukraine is dealt with by the Ukrainians primarily, with help of Berlin and Paris, by the way. But anyhow, the U.S. doesn’t really—it can’t deliver a deal on that, even if he wanted. So I never believed that was going to be that much of a possibility. And I also said at that time that I thought when sort of—the face of failed expectation sets in—in the U.S.-Russia relationship. That was an increasingly danger for actually entering a period of confrontation. I don’t think that we are there yet but it could well happen. Clearly, Syria is a bone of contention that is serious.
Glasser: You know, it’s interesting. When I landed here in Europe yesterday, I looked at Twitter. I will admit that I do and I know you are a huge tweeter. But I saw that Aleksei Pushkov, who had been the chairman of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, tweeting, “There’s an article in the Washington Post that says Trump’s foreign policy is back to normal. Well, I guess normal for Americans means the brink of war with Russia.” Which I thought was really hyperbolic but it was interesting to me that this is the framing. The Russian media has gone from lavishly praising Donald Trump to knocking him down and criticizing him.
There’s—also, there’s the personalities of these two leaders, which suggests neither one likes to back down and—
Bildt: No, particularly, Mr. Putin, of course, and Putin is, of course, a somewhat more, to put it mildly, a somewhat more experienced player and that makes still for sort of an interesting to see when the two men, at some point in time, meet for the first time — probably in Germany with the G7 Year 20 Summit in Hamburg in July –whether Putin will take Trump for a ride. That is not to be excluded. I think one of the more amazing things that Trump has said lately was when he met President Xi Jinping. Evidently, it took Xi 10 minutes to give Trump some sort of lesson in Korean and Chinese history that was some of the sort of earth-shattering revelations for him.
And Putin clearly going to try to do the same in trying to influence a man who doesn’t have very many core convictions. So that is still a point of worry where that ends up.
Glasser: Well, and also there’s the back and forth on NATO.
Glasser: What do you think Europe’s approach is to Trump at this point? You see Angela Merkel trying to go through Ivanka Trump and, you know, sort of make friends with the family. What have you seen has been the response as you have talked to your colleagues around Europe?
Bildt: The main emphasis—and there have been approaches, of course, to try to reach to him and give him the facts. I mean, he’s—there’s an understanding that he has far more knowledge than those European leaders about properties in New York and a couple of other places. And golf courses in Dubai and whatever. But it’s fairly obvious that the level of knowledge about global affairs and European affairs is distinctly limited.
Foreign policy has never been his thing and his presidency is primarily domestic, economic policy presidency. They’re trying to reach him with the information, facts, assessment from the European point of view. That’s the main emphasis in order to try to influence him. On NATO, that clearly has had some sort of impact. NATO is no longer obsolete. I think he now sees NATO as a sort of anti-terrorist machine. That is not the core function of NATO but anyhow, if he believes that, fine. Let’s go along with that for a while. And then, of course, he is obsessed with—and he’s not entirely wrong on that, the need to increase defense spending.
Slightly ironic because if NATO is such a nice country—oh, sorry, Russia — is such a nice country and Putin is such a nice man, why should we increase defense spending? So there is a contradiction in his policies. Either Russia is benevolent and fine, in which case, defense spending is not the number one priority for NATO—or Russia is quite a threat, in which case, we do need the tanks and the bombs. But anyhow, defense spending is going up in most of the European countries. We do see NATO proceeding with the reinforcements in the east that were decided under the Obama presidency. And if there’s anything that can be done more on the terrorist front that is of relevance from the NATO point of view, let’s do it.
Glasser: A lot of people would say that if you strip away the bombastic rhetoric or the confusing, contradictory statements, that actually Trump, at least on a foreign policy front, represents a longer-term trend in American political thinking. That actually, Barack Obama was the one who was critical of NATO and the fact that member states were not contributing the amount of their GDP they said that they would, that they had committed to. That many of these concerns about the ongoing U.S. role in the Middle East was something that Obama shared and that are clearly held by a broad view, a broad swath of the American people—do you see anything to that, that Trump might represent more continuity than we had thought on American foreign policy?
Bildt: In some sense, yes, if you go back to again, campaign rhetoric. It takes away the ugly part of it. A recognition of the limits of American power, which is not necessarily the thing that has dominated the debate in D.C. normally. But clearly, the United States was a more dominant global player for all sorts of reasons, 10, 15, 20 years ago. We now have the rise of China. We have a more assertive Russia. We have a more complex situation in X numbers of cases. So the relative strength—not the absolute, but the relative–strength of the United States is less and I think there was a recognition during the Obama years of this and if you listen to the Trumpism that is coming out of him and some people around him, there are elements of the same.
“We can’t do everything. We shouldn’t do everything.” But where this ends up, we don’t know. At the same time, we see very aggressive rhetoric against the—now, it’s sorting out North Korea within a couple of weeks. They chose—strategic impatience is over, I understand. Or the age of “strategic patience” is over.
Glasser: Right, now it’s “strategic impatience.”
Bildt: Now it’s strategic impatience. I’m not quite certain strategic impatience is that good, I have to say. And 97 cruise missiles into Syria, I think that was an understandable reaction, by the way. So I support that. But 97 cruise missiles is not a policy. And that remains to be seen.
Glasser: Yes, the level of confusion, I think, and in particular around the foreign policy remains really very high. But there is this question about the relative American power. You put it that way. I’ve never heard more conversations over the last few months about the liberal international order and whether this is the death throes of it. You know, you go to a million conclaves like this.
Bildt: True, yes, yes.
Glasser: You’ve also seen a sharp spike up in the level of hysteria over the—is this the dying moment of an order?
Bildt: Yes, if you were to take Trump on his words, campaign again, then it would be the end of the liberal global order. Because he is really—he was really against alliances and thinks allies is a nuisance or said that the allies were a nuisance, NATO was obsolete. He doesn’t like multilateral institutions. He is against the [inaudible] slightly, but not much. He’s against trade agreements. And he doesn’t want to have the United States engaged in other military ventures in the world. Well, those are—I mean, what is the liberal global order? It is a number of multilateral institutions on trade and on conflict resolution and alliances and free-trade arrangements. If all of that is in question, then the liberal global order is under threat.
Now, will this be in that extreme version of U.S. policy? Unlikely, I would say. But it’s worrying itself that things could be trending in that direction and that is unsettling and that is also encouraging perhaps other actors to be opportunistic in this particular situation.
Glasser: Doesn’t it really force Europe in a way to get its act together? I mean, it—
Bildt: It does, it does. And I think we see tendencies in that direction, a recognition that we have to do more together. I mean, there’s European defense meetings, some meetings now and then, we have a new European global strategy. This is very much in its infancy. It’s small steps. But it’s things that were really not on the agenda two years ago.
Glasser: Although lots of skepticism whether that can really happen. I mean, you really see that it’s much easier to criticize the United States for failing to live up to the leadership role that it had played.
Bildt: It’s not a question of replacing the relationship with the United States. I don’t think anyone believes that is possible. But it’s a question of being able to do certain things on your own, where the Americans are simply not going to be interested or would have another agenda, which is, I think, a rather healthy development that we are—we should not be over-dependent upon the United States. At the same time, it’s a fundamental security relationship. It’s fundamental.
Glasser: Well and, you know, I—I do want to turn back to Russia for just one second because when you talk about the fundamental security relationship, of course, the reason for that is there’s another big power on the—right here, on the continent, that has shaped the context for all of this. It’s not just about trade. It’s not just about the economic relationship with the U.S. It’s very much in the context of Russia and whether it’s genuinely a threat to other parts of Eastern Europe or even Central Europe. What do you make of that?
I mean, people are still struggling to understand—is Putin primarily motivated still by maintaining control inside Russia? Has it become a revisionist, aggressive power? I think that’s usually the language.
Bildt: Well, I would say—I would say all of the above. His primary intention is to control the situation inside Russia. And, amazingly enough, he seems to be somewhat nervous about that. He is now heading towards his election, the presidential election, in March of next year. I think it’s a safe guess that he’s going to win, to put it mildly. But they seem somewhat nervous about that and domestic—domestic trends are not particularly good. He was surfing on the wave of increasing economic well-being for 10 years and now the economy has stagnated. I mean, that is well before Crimea, well before sanctions. It is due to the internal contradictions of the economic model that he has. So he can’t deliver the economic goods to people.
At the same time as the issue of succession is going to be there at some point in time. So he is concerned about that. He’s openly revisionist when it comes to the European security order. They make no particular secret about that. I guess he’s worried about Ukraine and I think in the historical perspective, he would go down as the Russian leader who lost the Ukraine and he’s meddling in the Caucusus and in other places. He’s meddling in the politics of Europe by his media and other operations in a way that is more aggressive now than it has been for a very long time. It’s not something that is entirely new. But it’s more aggressive now.
Glasser: On the meddling in Western elections in the United States, in Eastern Europe, the former vice president, Dick Cheney, called the Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. elections as akin to an “act of war.” Do you agree with that?
Bildt: No, it’s not an act of war but it is not what you’re supposed to do, to put it mildly. Then, it has to be said that if you look at what they did, the DNC hack, what they then exposed through [Wikileaks] primarily. I mean, the most significant revelation that came out of that was that Hillary Clinton had said something favorable about free trade at a speech in Goldman Sachs. I didn’t consider that to be the most outrageous scandal I’ve ever heard of but then the outrageous thing was—apart from the hacking, was the use that Donald Trump made of it during the election campaign. Because in every single speech, he used this particular information to portray it as having disclosed horrendous scandal, horrendous corruption. There was nothing of that sort. That was exposed by—
Glasser: But it did seem to act in concert with his campaign themes, right? Interestingly enough.
Bildt: It did, it did, it did. That doesn’t imply that they planned it together, but he clearly used it.
Glasser: But interestingly, some of their interventions, the Kremlin’s interventions in Eastern Europe had been much more significant in the outcome of actual politics.
Bildt: And some of them have been backfiring. I mean, we are sitting in Berlin. They made a couple of things here in terms of media operations that have backfired very, very badly. Because when they go out with the information, that sort of normal media and normal politicians can immediately say, “This is wrong.” Then it backfires and I would say if you add everything up on the Russian operations of the assault in Europe, I think there are more minuses from that point of view than pluses so far. Because when it’s exposed, and it is often exposed, then it backfires.
Glasser: There are also more homegrown threats, though, to democracy here in Europe you have in Hungary.
Glasser: The leadership of Viktor Orbán and he calls it quote-unquote “an illiberal democracy,” and you have on the borders of Europe and Turkey, a real turn away from democracy towards authoritarianism with President Erdogan. You know, how much do you see this as Europe, the challenge from within as well?
Bildt: They are, I think if you take these three examples and there are others as well. I mean, they’re all sort of specific explanations and specific national circumstances in each of these cases at the same time of the strength of the democratic freedom way that we had a couple of decades ago. That has sort of faded. That means that we can’t count on the tendencies that are there with certain countries of the same strength, the same conviction, and the same sort of soft powers as we used to be able to do. And that is worrying.
Glasser: Well, do you think that is—
Bildt: Be that Poland, be that Hungary, or be that Turkey.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. I mean, in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Eastern Bloc. It’s been 25 years already and I guess one thing is to have some reflection. Did it turn out not as we expected? You know, we saw the march of history as being in the direction of democracy at the time. It seemed like an almost—such an incredible event, right? And you were in the middle of it.
Bildt: No. Both yes and no. Longer historical perspective, it turned out for better than history would have told us it would. Because, take central Europe: central Europe has always been a problematic place. It’s always been a bone of contention between German and Russian interests. It’s always been unstable. It’s never been particularly economically successfully if you look at it in the longer sweep of history. With that perspective, what has been achieved is amazingly successful in terms of stability, in terms of economic growth. That’s the one perspective. The other one is that, “Well, perhaps expectations were too high.” I mean, the slogan in those countries in those days, particularly East Germany, perhaps, was “Return to Europe”.
And “Return to Europe” for them meant the same living standards in Western Europe, quickly. Within half a generation or something like that and for a decade or two, they went forward very fast. And I think we’ve had what we can call transition fatigue. They said, “Why should we continue to make all of these changes in our societies when things are going slower than we expected?” And accordingly, we’ve seen slowing down of the transition. The reform impetus. And that is fed off the wave of disillusionment, which also is playing into the hands of those who are saying, “There’s another way. Let’s go nationalist instead.” And that, to a certain extent, is one of the things that we see in these countries.
Glasser: Well, I want to ask you just—when we’re finishing up here just to give our listeners a sense—you are one of the most indefatigable travelers, a person who believes in showing up in this European conversation, in this global conversation more than anybody. Do you have any fatigue with this at this point? Do you feel like this is a project running out of steam? Are you still willing to climb on the airplane it seems like every day? [LAUGHTER]
Bildt: Not every day, but I’m heading to—headed to Brussels later today.
Glasser: You’re going to Brussels later today? Literally, if you follow Carl’s Twitter feed, you will see every day—first of all, you’re great at documenting it. So you can see the pictures.
Bildt: I have pictures of aircraft, yes.
Glasser: Yes, how many days a year do you travel?
Bildt: I don’t know, but too many. But even in this age of Twitter and podcasts and whatever, social media and with the net, of course, you can access information in a way that is mind-bogglingly important. But still, you need to go to places. You need to smell them, I say. I mean, to take that concrete example, one of the big problems, I think, that are there between Europeans and Americans at the moment is that there’s one country that we can go to and smell and you can’t, and that is Iran. Americans can look at intelligence reports and overhead imagery and whatever. But for me, I’ve been there a number of times. It’s a very complicated place. But if you don’t go there and smell it and talk to the people in place and see it, you can never understand the places.
And that applies also to going to Berlin or to Brussels or to Madrid or to Stockholm or to Belgrade. You need to be there now and then to see the context and to smell it.
Glasser: I think you’re almost one of the original global nomads, you know? The man with no address who—
Bildt: Well, I live at home. Stockholm is a very nice place.
Glasser: Yes, well, you should invite Donald Trump to come visit.
Bildt: I’m not quite certain. I think we’ll take him at some point in time.
Glasser: Well, that would be great. You know, if you’re trying—you said that your strategy for dealing with Trump is to give him the facts.
Glasser: Sweden clearly is a place that he needs the facts. Stockholm is a gorgeous place.
Bildt: It is a nice place. When he made that sort of rather outrageous comments about Sweden, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post and what I said to him as well was that he could skip one of the golf weekends and come to Stockholm and we’ll show him around. But I think the golf weekends are more tempting for him.
Glasser: Well, we’ll see. So I guess we’ll—we’ll end where we began: on the topic of Sweden and Donald Trump, an unlikely partnership. But thank you so much, Carl, and that you to all of you listeners for The Global POLITICO. You can listen to us on iTunes or whatever your favorite podcast platform is. I hope you’ll subscribe, rate us, give us feedback. You can email me anytime at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. Thanks again, Carl.
Bildt: Thank you.