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Stockholm Embassy cultivates 'Special Friendship' in standout Scandinavian capital.

On bright summer mornings in Stockholm, the enticing aromas of freshly baked cardamom buns and strong espresso waft out from bakeries and restaurants lining the cobbled streets of the city's historic old town, Gamla Stan. Located at the heart of modern-day Stockholm, the 13th-century city center is a popular destination for tourists and locals, who flock to its crowded corridors seeking culinary and cultural treasures.

Gamla Stan is just one of numerous distinct neighborhoods spread across the 14 islands that comprise modern-day Stockholm, Sweden's capital and the most populous city in Scandinavia. The city, on the country's southeastern coast, was founded in 1232 and throughout the centuries has grown into a hub for business and academia in the Nordic region. Home to numerous world-class institutions, including the Nobel and Vasa museums, as well as several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Stockholm is also highly regarded as one of Europe's top cultural centers.

"Sweden is an incredibly developed country," said Steven Giegerich, former consular chief at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm. "It's a very liberal country so people can really live as they see fit. It's very healthy and outdoors oriented, and Stockholm is a very cosmopolitan city, so the quality of life here is really excellent."

Due to the city's northerly latitude, summers are short and mild, with long days where the sun barely dips below the horizon before quickly rising again. Conversely, the "twilight" days of mid-winter are dark and cold, and test the resolve of those who thrive on sunshine. The Swedes have adapted by embracing outdoor activities throughout the year. Residents are particularly fond of winter sports such as skiing and ice hockey, and top athletes from the region routinely excel in these events during international competitions.

Swedes strive for balance in their everyday lives, a concept referred to as lagom (roughly translated, "just the right amount"). This is evidenced by a broad cultural emphasis on cultivating harmonious interpersonal relationships and sustainable connections between humans and nature. Swedish society also values work/life equilibrium, with many businesses offering generous leave and flexible work opportunities that allow employees to spend more time at home with their young children and elderly family members.

"I couldn't think of a better place to have a family," said Michael Layne, Embassy Stockholm's economic unit chief, whose four children go to one of the city's highly touted international schools. "I especially appreciate that my kids can go out anywhere; it's a very safe atmosphere."

As springtime temperatures rise, residents emerge from under their heavy winter garb and head for the city's sunny promenades, vibrant waterways and bustling cafes. While the spring thaw heralds a re-emergence of the life-giving sun, Stockholm truly blooms during the warm summer months, with myriad outdoor shopping and dining options in the city center and an abundance of activities available further afield.

"During peak summer season, as soon as the cruise ships start arriving (late May through early October), we get an influx of about 200,000 Americans," said Giegerich. "Of course anything and everything can happen during that time: lost or stolen passports, deaths, medical injuries ... things like that. Our primary function is the protection of American citizens overseas, so that's probably our greatest challenge."

Since 2011, Embassy Stockholm's consular section has been a regional hub for immigrant visas for much of Scandinavia, overseeing approximately 600 applications each year from Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Although Sweden participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), the embassy processes more than 18,000 nonimmigrant visas annually, about 75 percent involving Swedish citizen applicants or third-country nationals participating in educational exchange programs.

"There are some unique challenges in terms of the complexity of the applicant pool here," said Giegerich. If there were no VWP, they estimate, there would be about 1 million [NIV] visits from Sweden each year, which is amazing for a country of about 9 million people."

Sweden, historically a haven for immigrants, has opened its doors to diaspora communities around the world and to those displaced by political turmoil. In recent years, as an influx of refugees from war-torn areas of North Africa and the Middle East have poured into the country, Swedes have had to balance national security concerns with a desire to maintain an open and welcoming society.

The United States, an immigrant-rich nation facing similar challenges, has fully embraced the dialogue about changing demographics in Sweden. Embassy Stockholm has partnered with Swedish authorities on immigration-related best practices as well as programs aimed at countering violent extremism and addressing concerns about foreign fighters.

"Sweden has a very diverse population. It is bringing in a lot of immigrants, a lot of asylum seekers. There's an interesting constellation of issues that we deal with at the American embassy," said Robert Gilchrist, charge d'affaires. "On one level, we can share our experience with diversity, and how important it is to American democracy. It's something that the Swedes, no matter how tolerant they are as a society, are still wrestling with to some degree, and I think we have an interesting model for them."

Embassy officials say they have a seamless partnership with the Swedish government, praising their counterparts as "sophisticated and competent" colleagues who continuously seek to be a part of the solution to mutual challenges. Underpinning this solid partnership is a suite of shared values between the nations on social and gender equality, environmental sustainability, economic development, international aid and security.

"America and Sweden are very special friends," said former U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Mark Brzezinski. "Sweden is delivering in terms of the challenges of our time and its relationship with America like never before. That is the product of the hard work of the team at Embassy Stockholm."

The enduring bilateral relationship includes one of America's most robust trade and investment partnerships in Europe. Sweden has the largest population and economy in the Nordic and Baltic region, and is the highest per capita contributor to direct investment in the United States.

"Sweden is the 11th biggest investor in the United States; that means a lot of jobs for U.S. citizens," said Layne. "I think what sticks out about the relationship is the trust the Swedes have and how they feel very comfortable in doing business with the United States, and that can be enhanced even more when we have a trade investment agreement through Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)."

The Swedes have been outspoken in their support of TTIP, an ambitious American-led trade and investment agreement being negotiated between the United States and the European Union (EU). The embassy has sought to parlay Sweden's favorable outlook on free trade into momentum for TTIP in other EU countries.

"The Swedes are very important advocates for [TTIP] because they have a prosperous, modern economy that is almost entirely based on exports and trade," said Brzezinski. "Sweden understands the benefits of trade and exports, and how that prosperity can be widely shared in society."

Highlighting that fact is Sweden's remarkable engagement in international development and humanitarian assistance. Sweden is a global leader in aid contributions, allotting 1 percent of its GDP annually to overseas assistance. The country has a unique partnership with USAID, wherein the agency helps the Swedish government facilitate a number of development and relief efforts. One notable example of Sweden's cooperation with USAID is the country's commitment of $1 billion in 2014 to the White House's Power Africa initiative, which aims to provide electricity to millions of sub-Saharan Africans.

"Sweden and the United States are very close," reiterated Mark Cameron, Embassy Stockholm's public affairs officer. "The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Swedish USAID equivalent, is USAID's largest partner, so we've been doing a lot of programs to highlight that aspect."

Sweden boasts a burgeoning tech industry and one of the world's most well-connected, media-savvy populations. Thus, the embassy's communication of American priorities to Swedes is more about participating in a two-way discussion than trying to control the message. Public affairs officials tackle this task through a variety of traditional public diplomacy programs and innovative social media campaigns.

"It's a really active environment," said Cameron. "There are a lot of brilliant people here. For us to be relevant, we have to be part of that conversation."

The embassy engages with the Swedes on a wide variety of topics, but has focused on a few key areas such as economic partnerships, immigration issues and global climate change. Sweden is a member of the Arctic Council, and both countries have a vested interest in policy related to the region. Reflecting this, the embassy has conducted a well-received social media campaign that uses the hash tag #oursharedarctic to highlight discussions about the joint efforts there.

One topic that has dominated the recent dialogue is security cooperation. Since the 19th century, Sweden has maintained a policy of neutrality in armed international conflicts. The nation is not a member of NATO, despite its strong international peacekeeping work and military training partnership with the United States. The embassy has worked with Swedish officials to bolster that cooperation and to identify areas where both countries' armed forces can work together to promote regional security. Following an uptick in aggressive posturing and unannounced military incursions by neighboring Russia, the Swedes participated in the NATO Response Force for the first time in 2014.

"Russia's aggression against Ukraine has altered the security context for all of northern Europe, including Scandinavia and Sweden," said Brzezinski. "Sweden is directly impacted by Russian overflights without transponders, invasion of Swedish air space and other activities in the surroundings that can be attributed to Russia, with an assessment that this may be even some form of message-sending or intimidation."

The potential for greater bilateral security cooperation is only one of many areas where the two nations' flourishing relationship continues to evolve. The dynamic diplomatic environment and high standard of living in Sweden make Embassy Stockholm an attractive professional opportunity for Foreign Service officers looking for a rewarding assignment.

"There are lots of issues here, and with the Swedes we really have world-class interlocutors," said Gilchrist. "[Embassy Stockholm] is the kind of place where you can look at what you do and almost reach infinity in terms of how to develop your portfolio."

Story and photos by Isaac D. Pacheco

At a Glance

Sweden

Capital: Stockholm

Government Type: Constitutional monarchy

Area: 450,295 sq km

Population: 9,801,616

Pop. growth rate: 0.8% Country comparison to rest of world: 139

Languages: Swedish (official), small Sami- and Finnish-speaking minorities

Religions: Lutheran 87%, other (includes Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist) 13%

Export partners:

Norway, Germany, U.K., Finland, Denmark, U.S., Netherlands

Import partners: Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, U.K., China, Russia, Finland

Currency: Swedish kronor

Internet country code: se
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Title Annotation:Post of the Month
Author:Pacheco, Isaac D.
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Feb 1, 2016
Words:1791
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