Collaborative power: The case for Sweden

Two weeks ago in Stockholm, half a dozen technologists hunkered down for a whole-day workshop with Sweden’s foreign-facing government agencies (the usual suspects: The Swedish Institute, VisitSweden, the Swedish Trade Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

The assignment: Brainstorming the future of Sweden’s digital public diplomacy.

Part of my presentation looked at the evolving nature of the power wielded by states as societies get networked digitally, and how a new theoretical framework might be needed to explain what has been happening in the Middle East and elsewhere this year. Intriguingly, a recently proposed network-centric theory of power appears to favor Sweden’s open and collaborative nature as a multiplier of its influence globally.

Soft power and hard power

The now well-known notion of soft power as a success factor in international affairs was first introduced by the noted political theorist Joseph Nye as recently as 1990, just as the end of the Cold War broadened opportunities for states to pursue goals by means other than the coercive “hard power” embedded in military might and financial means. Soft power works not through coercion but through the attraction derived from positive perceptions of a nation’s cultural and social institutions; states will often attempt to manage such goodwill to shape preferences internationally so that they align with their own interests. (It’s called “nation branding” for a reason.)

Within this soft power/hard power conceptual framework, some states are clearly superpowers. The US has long been one in both dimensions, with military and financial supremacy as well as the lure of its world-beating universities, blockbuster movies, music industry and (until recently) openness to immigration. (Hard and soft power can work at cross-purposes, however: Nye in 2004 argued that the hard power expended on an elective war in Iraq was poisonous to America’s soft power.) Japan is a soft superpower but not a hard superpower. China is a hard superpower but not a soft superpower — its immense social and cultural capital is hobbled by an authoritarian state’s predilection for internal stability and a growing regional hegemony that breeds mistrust among its neighbors. Sweden’s small size and limited resources disbar it from superpower status in either realm, but it does manage to punch above its weight in the soft power stakes, not least because it often inhabits the positive extremes of global indices measuring innovation, economic equality, quality of life, creativity

Power in the networked century

In an oft-quoted article in Foreign Affairs from January 2009 (direct PDF download), Anne-Marie Slaughter — a professor of international affairs at Princeton and an old student of Nye’s — began updating this framework to incorporate the rise of the Internet and the digital networks it affords:

In this world, the measure of power is connectedness. Almost 30 years ago, the psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote about differences between the genders in their modes of thinking. She observed that men tend to see the world as made up of hierarchies of power and seek to get to the top, whereas women tend to see the world as containing webs of relationships and seek to move to the center. Gilligan’s observations may be a function of nurture rather than nature; regardless, the two lenses she identified capture the differences between the twentieth-century and the twenty-first-century worlds.

Slaughter sees the rise of digital networks as fundamentally positive for American power — hence the title of her piece, “America’s Edge: Power in the networked century”:

In this world, the state with the most connections will be the central player, able to set the global agenda and unlock innovation and sustainable growth. Here, the United States has a clear and sustainable edge.

Collaborative power

Since then, her thinking has evolved. Back in 2009, she did not explicitly refer to the hard power/soft power framework of her mentor, but in a new article published a few weeks ago in The Atlantic, she contends that Nye’s framework lacks analytical clout with the kind of power that dramatically upended a slew of regimes in the Middle East this year.

Her main point is that Nye’s concept of power is limited to that of “power over” others, whereas the new kind of power mustered on Tahrir Square and in Tunisia is “power with”. The former is top-down, defined in terms of relationships between groups (“relational power”), while the latter is bottom-up, guided and enabled by the logic of informal networks, including digital ones. The term Slaughter settles on for this new power varietal is “collaborative power”.

Briefly, (do go read her piece), Slaughter juxtaposes some key traits of relational and collaborative power. While relational power is wielded by a specific group to command action, collaborative power can be mobilized by calls to action from any number of connected groups with an urgent need. While relational power aims to control agendas and hierarchies so as to better shape the preferences of others, collaborative power is all about broadening access to the network, and adapting one’s own preferences to better communicate with it — to better “move to the center” of the network. Collaborative power “is an emergent phenomenon — the property of a complex set of interconnections. Leaders can learn to unlock it and guide it, but they do not possess it.”

How is the United States positioned to “unlock and guide” this collaborative power so it aligns with its own interests? How is Sweden positioned?

Advantage Sweden

In her 2009 essay, Slaughter lists a series of cultural, social and demographic traits the US possesses which give it an edge in this “networked century”. In most cases, to the extent that these traits favor the US, they also favor Sweden. My hypothesis is that Sweden is very well positioned to become a collaborative superpower, in some case more so than the United States — especially in the Middle East.

Small population

Slaughter posits that in the networked age, a small population is an asset: While territory and population are certainly resources that have contributed to hard power, global trade now ensures that a state’s wealth is no longer tied to the size of its internal market. Smaller populations are more manageable, politically, in part because they are less prone to secessionism. Slaughter considers the US, with its 300+ million people, to have a limited population, at least when compared to that of China or India.

At 9.4 million, Sweden’s population is similar to that of New York City, and over an order of magnitude smaller than that of the US. And while the US is not riven by secessionism (pace Alaska and Texas and Puerto Rico and Hawai’i) its political system is besieged by an increasingly ideological intransigence that has some regional bias. In Sweden, meanwhile, mere policy tweaks separate the left from the right, and the electorate resolutely favors technocrats over populists.


Immigrants are an asset in the networked age, because they contribute strong trusted connections back to their country of origin, facilitating trade and the spread of ideas. (The Economist most recently chimed in on the benefits of diaspora networks.) America’s famed heterogeneity is rightly tagged by Slaughter as a magnet for the world’s creatives and entrepreneurs, no matter what their origin.

But while the US has always been attractive to immigrants, America’s immigration policy is no longer requiting their overtures. Post 9/11, there’s been a turning inward, a hardening towards the notion of immigration. Slaughter acknowledges this, calling for US immigration reform that recognizes the positive impact of diaspora communities.

Sweden, in contrast, is often perceived as a homogeneous nation of blue-eyed gentle giants. But the numbers tell a different story. 14.7% of its population is foreign-born, a percentage that is rising. The US foreign-born population stands at 12.5% of the total, and is stagnant or declining in absolute terms. Granted, a portion of Sweden’s foreign-born population, like myself, hails from the rest of Europe, but that is the case for the US as well.

Sweden has long had a generous asylum policy, welcoming Chileans fleeing Pinochet, Iranians fleeing the mullahs, and most recently, Iraqi Assyrians fleeing religious persecution in the aftermath of the Iraq war. One town alone in Sweden took in more Iraqi refugees than all of the United States combined.

And alone among its Nordic neighbors, Sweden appears to have inoculated itself against immigration fatigue; the anti-immigrant Sverigedemokraterna party remains on the fringes, with a stagnant 5-6% support in opinion polls.

Immigrants, then, are set to remain a strong asset for Sweden in forging trusted networks with the rest of the world.

Global engagement

Another competitive advantage, according to Slaughter, is that America’s youth is increasingly seeking international exposure.

John Zogby, the influential pollster, calls Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 “the First Globals,” a group he describes as “more networked and globally engaged than members of any similar age cohort in American history.”

The problem is that global engagement has historically not been America’s strong suit (with a notable and appreciated exception in WWII). It’s great that this latest cohort of Americans to deserve a moniker are using their passports “far more frequently” than older generations, but the historical comparisons are not that hard to beat.

It’s safe to say that nothing comes close to the Swedish zeal for global immersion. Swedish backpackers swarm the hostels of the world, while Swedish families lord it over the slopes and beaches. The evidence is not just anecdotal: Some rather gruesome statistics for the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami list casualties for countries that lost citizens travelling abroad in the region. Sweden suffered 543 casualties in that disaster, second only to Germany’s 552, and compared to 51 American deaths. The casualty rate per million inhabitants is truly shocking: Sweden lost 58.1 citizens per million, followed by Finland’s 33.4 and Norway’s 17.3. The United States, in comparison, lost 0.2 citizens per million. In terms of global engagement, the First Globals have a lot of catching up to do.


Slaughter argues that the United States is far more innovative than China, because innovation requires a cultural inclination towards “constructive conflict”, the kind that drives creative destruction and which is found “on American playing fields, in American courtrooms, and in the American political system.” Innovation requires not just critical thinking but the challenging of authority, says Slaughter, and that is a trait China’s rulers are simply not willing to encourage.

The comparison to China is understandable, in view of the oft-proclaimed trope that this is Asia’s century. But the conflict model of innovation is not the only model available to the Chinese as they seek to emulate western success in the information economy. The Swedish innovation model, much admired by visiting Chinese dignitaries when it was the centerpiece of the Swedish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, stresses a catalytic role for the state in fostering collaboration between companies, universities and research institutes. A Swedish governmental agency, VINNOVA, actively searches out societal challenges to prioritize, then sets about building broad consensual alliances to tackle them. Its strategies include:

Promoting new, cross-sector collaborations to find solutions to needs; solutions to social and societal challenges are rarely found in one traditional sector or a single research field. New collaboration patterns are emerging between actors in different value chains; for example ‘green urban transportation’ is being developed at the interface between energy, automotive engineering and ICT.

Hints of this kind of strategizing can be found in how China has begun promoting industry alliances around emerging green technologies.

Different innovation models suit different national temperaments born of historical contingencies — Sweden and the US should under no circumstances switch models. Two observations are worth making, however: First, conflict-driven innovation is not as network-friendly as collaborative innovation — the former is firmly rooted in the dynamics of relational power. Collaborative innovation is far better suited to the projection of collaborative power, according to Slaughter’s own network-centric theory of power. Second, global innovation metrics show that while both Sweden and the US do well in global rankings (Sweden comes second after Switzerland, the US is in seventh place, vs 29th place for China) most other countries in the top 10 have innovation models similar to Sweden’s. America may be exceptional, but it is not peerless.

Trust and transparency

Slaughter writes in her 2009 essay:

Although trust and transparency are not unique to the United States, it is still one of the most open societies in the world. The Internet world, the wiki world, and the networked world all began in the United States and radiated outward.

The US sets the gold standard for its embrace of open government data, especially after the initiatives by Obama’s administration over the past few years. Most NGOs that embrace networks to mobilize for government accountability, net freedom or democratization have American roots, a marriage of America’s talent for civic-mindedness with a vibrant can-do hacker culture. The academic institutions studying Internet and society are also predominantly American. Events such as the Personal Democracy Forum in New York are a Mecca for networked activists the world over. Such thought leadership is a great asset in the networked era.

But hard power prerogatives can and do undercut this reputation. The US government’s reaction to the Wikileaks diplomatic cable dump betrayed a controlling muscle reflex over American companies such as Mastercard, Paypal and Amazon that worked against the public interest. America’s hard superpower legacy requires it to adopt all kinds of realpolitik-al stances that are inimical to the ideal of openness and transparency. The public airing of such machinations through Wikileaks led to a hypocritical and extrajudicial response that even Slaughter was caught up in.

Sweden’s diplomacy is a far more open book, with a foreign minister that tweets from the hip, and where the electorate expects public positions on international issues to match what is privately communicated. Of course there is secrecy, but it is in the service of discretion, not conspiracy. I suspect an equivalent leak of Swedish diplomatic cables would be far less damaging to Sweden.

Middle East politics

In the Middle East, America’s legacy of hard-power politics interferes with the trust-building needed to direct collaborative power. US-funded initiatives to promote Internet freedom and digital activism are seen as tainted with murkier US policy goals. Tunisian blogger Sami ben Gharbia spelled out the problem at length in a much-noted essay from 2010, when the US still counted Mubarak and Ben Ali as allies:

I don’t see the new [US] Internet Freedom policy as independent from the broader and decades-old US foreign policy, which has been based on practical rather than ethical and moral considerations such as the support for human rights. As we all know in this part of the world, in the name of a short-termed realpolitik, the US has been supporting all kind of dictatorships at the expense of democratic and reformist movements and aspirations.

Over the past four years, Sweden has funded an initiative in the Middle East to build trusted networks between young activists and opinion leaders, both across the region and with their Swedish counterparts. Each year, participants in the Young Leaders Visitors Program (YLVP) are invited to Sweden for a few weeks of networking, training, seminars and internships. Some alumni have ended up among the youth leaders of the Arab Spring. (Full disclosure — I have been involved peripherally with training and reporting.)

Sensitive to the possibility that Sweden sponsoring such a program might be characterized as outside meddling in the internal affairs of another state, we surveyed YLVP alumni for feedback in May 2011. A large majority said that such a characterization would be unfair. Surprisingly, to the extent that some felt YLVP did amount to “outside meddling”, they were in favor of it.

We then asked how they would feel if YLVP were funded by a country such as the US, UK or France. A larger group was wary. Polled for their reasons, here are some typical responses:

“It’s a Swedish initiative and so it should stay. Sweden is perceived as being neutral while if France or the US started to sponsor such programs, we would start to question the neutrality of the program.”

“Having the UK, US or France organize any event targeting youth will definitely raise red flags, which means they might be perceived as holding a different/unknown agenda to take advantage of the fragile situation in the Middle East. I dont think any Jordanian, as a result, would participate.”

In fairness to Slaughter, she was well aware in early 2009 that President Bush’s disastrous Middle East policies would take some time to recover from:

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will set about restoring the moral authority of the United States. The networked world provides a hopeful horizon.

But the networked world has not so much served as a tool in this restoration as an autonomous organism highly attuned to discrepancies between words and deeds. In the Middle East, Obama’s two inspirational speeches on US diplomacy in the region were no match on Twitter for his administration’s subsequent inability (or unwillingness) to hold its closest allies — Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain — to account for their continued flouting of human rights laws.

In her Atlantic article from two weeks ago, Slaughter’s case study on the effective use of collaborative power narrates the recent spontaneous Twitter initiative to press for the release of the Egyptian-American journalist/activist Mona Eltahawy after she was detained by Egyptian security forces near Tahrir Square. I do not however see this as an example of the state mobilizing a networked collaboration of activists to achieve a positive outcome — rather, the reverse: Activists successfully mobilized America’s hard-power influence over the Egyptian military regime via Slaughter’s State Department contacts.

Horizontal societies for horizontal networks

Slaughter’s 2009 essay also identifies a social trend in the US that impedes it from benefiting fully from the horizontal nature of networks:

A networked world requires a genuinely networked society, which means fostering economic and social equality. The United States has never been as egalitarian as it imagines itself to be, but this divide has worsened in the past decade, as the rich have become the superrich.

While the Kingdom of Sweden is also not as egalitarian as it imagines itself to be, it is by at least one major measure the world’s most egalitarian society: Sweden’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, is the world’s lowest at 0.23. (The US, at 0.45, ranks 100th out of 140, according to the CIA World Fact Book). Other more offbeat pointers to a deeply horizontal society include sky-high choral participation rates, near-universal Internet access, the concept of “lagom“, and the invention and embrace of the ombudsman.

A division of labor?

At the risk of having been long-winded, I hope I’ve made the case that Sweden is well positioned to thrive in the networked century. A nimble, innovative and open society such as Sweden has all the right qualifications to mesh itself deeply within trusted networks that are able to mobilize collaborative power.

The notion of Sweden as a collaborative superpower can sound boastful to modest Swedish ears, but it is important to remember that collaborative power is not the ability to command a network; rather it is the ability to align with a trusted network so that common ideals can be fought for and achieved far more effectively.

Many of these ideals — open societies, democracy, Internet freedom — are shared by the US, Sweden and by the Arab youth at the vanguard of the Arab revolutions. But if a lack of trust is preventing US-funded initiatives from effectively connecting with the networks driving these revolutions, then perhaps the best solution is for the US not to spend more resources knocking on locked doors. Leave the job of networked collaboration in the Middle East to countries not afflicted with hard power, such as Sweden.

The distinction between soft power and collaborative power can be blurry at the edges: Much of what contributes to soft power can also position a country for collaborative power. But soft power is often a resource-intensive pursuit — money does buy brains, build research institutes, and feed starving artists — whereas collaborative power is relationship-intensive — its currency is trust, which enables collective action towards a common goal. And Swedes are easy to trust, in part because they are always seeking consensus: It is what knits together their choirs, what underpins their collaborative innovation processes, and what drives their diplomacy.

Digital public diplomacy strategies for Sweden

The ideas brainstormed at the workshop on the future of Sweden’s digital public diplomacy are still far too tentative to sketch out, but it’s worth musing on some general strategies for Sweden that a network-centric world implies.

In a collaborative power dynamic, the network quickly disseminates best practices for the good of all, with a concomitant boost to the reputation of the originator. In this context, gaining reputation is akin to “moving to the center” of a network, improving both the quantity and quality of connections. This should be Sweden’s aim in its digital public diplomacy.

Sweden has plenty of best practices to share with the world — and the world has plenty to share with Sweden. For Sweden’s foreign-facing government agencies, the challenge becomes ever tighter integration and interaction with the networks along which these ideas travel.

Where networks are scarce, it is in Sweden’s interest to build up their physical capacity. As a nation-state, Sweden has considerable resources available (when compared to NGOs and civil society actors) to build the foundations for networks that can grow autonomously around prioritized issues. Both YLVP and She Entrepreneurs, a network connecting young female social entrepreneurs in the Middle East with mentors in Sweden, are great examples of such capacity building.

Finally, even open networks need to be trusted before they can be used to build trust. For digital networks, this means they need to be safe and secure for users, regardless of where they live. Power attracts attention, and the collaborative power residing in a network is no different. Digital natives cannot afford to be digital naïfs about the fact that censorship, surveillance and cyber-attacks constitute a real systemic risk to networks. The Swedish state should not be responsible for securing such networks but it can work with others do get the job done. Fortunately, Sweden has recourse to some great hacktivist talent.

So: Build networks, secure networks, engage networks. These are three useful motifs around which Sweden can structure its future digital public diplomacy efforts. The devil is of course in the details.

2 thoughts on “Collaborative power: The case for Sweden”

  1. Wow! An excellent piece. A couple of thoughts though:
    First, Slaughter must be right that the original soft power definitions are too simplistic – but perhaps it is wrong to ignore completely the interrelationship between ‘relational power’ and ‘collaborative power’. Old fashioned ‘relational soft power’ still has latent influence over the latter, but the loop back the other way is less convincing in my mind. (Nor do either really explore how the shifting alignment and/or conflict of interest may plays a role: please refer to Steven Lukes bible ‘Power’ on the subject.)
    Immigration: this is an advantage depending on the extent to which immigrants are successfully assimilated, and the US may do a better job on this score than Sweden.

  2. Yes, there are a lot of aspects of this theory of collaborative power that still need to be nailed down. How is it different from previous popular movements and mass protests, such as the civil rights movement? And how do different types of actors have access to it?

    Institutional actors very different from individuals. States nominally operate with many degrees of freedom (international law is still very geared towards sovereignty) but in actuality there are plenty of constraints. Corporations too have considerable resources at their disposal to influence preferences, but must obey national laws. And all institutions are ultimately comprised of people, the atoms of all popular movements.

    Also, people can feel Swedish while not working for the Swedish state or a Swedish corporation. So what is “Sweden” when it is referred to in the article above? How and to whom are the benefits of “Sweden” being at the center of a network accrued?

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