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US Ambassador: ‘I’m always impressed by just how engaged and candid Swedes are’

In the last of our current series, we sat down with United States Ambassador Erik Ramanathan to talk about everything from trade ties, military support and taxation to how much he has come to appreciate Swedes’ candour.

US Ambassador Erik Ramanathan
US Ambassador Erik Ramanathan. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/ TT

When US President Joe Biden appointed a new ambassador to Sweden he chose a man who’d already been visiting the country on and off for more than three decades. As a young backpacker, Erik Ramanathan stayed at af Chapman, Stockholm’s floating hostel; now, he’s happily ensconced in Villa Åkerlund, the US Ambassador’s residence, with his husband of 32 years and their teenage daughter.

Unlike many of his counterparts in Stockholm’s diplomatic quarter, Erik Ramanathan is not a career diplomat. Before becoming ambassador in January 2022, he was chairman of the board of a national public health organisation, Heluna Health, while his other previous roles include board chair at Immigration Equality, a legal services group for LGBTQ and HIV positive immigrants.

‘A whirlwind year’

At the height of the Covid pandemic, the health organisation he chaired was busy on multiple fronts including running vaccine clinics, distributing protective equipment, and supporting clinical trial work. Given that he arrived in Stockholm after the worst days of the pandemic were over, the new ambassador might have been forgiven for expecting a quieter life. But then Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s long-standing opposition to Nato membership evaporated almost overnight.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind year, but it’s really an exciting time to be here, and there’s really a lot of important work to be done,” Ramanathan tells The Local.

With a Nato application in the works and worried about how Russia might respond, Sweden required security guarantees, and countries including the UK, Germany and, crucially, the United States were quick to step up.

“All the time we’re doing military exercises together in the region. We have interoperable militaries. Sweden’s already an invitee to Nato. So we’re working together in many contexts already within the Nato framework,” says Ramanthan.

He adds that Sweden’s “moral authority” already sees the two countries working frequently together on multinational issues, and when it comes to trade too Sweden punches above its weight in the US.

“There’s over 1,200 American companies here in Sweden and there’s over 1,100 Swedish companies in the US. So there’s a lot of people with different business connections and business interests trying to figure out how to take our relationship to the next level,” says Ramanthan.

“Altogether, the foreign direct investment between Sweden and the US is higher than it’s ever been, over $30 billion, and Sweden is the 13th largest foreign direct investor in the US.”

Listen to more from US ambassador Erik Ramanathan in the Sweden in Focus podcast

The depth of the countries’ relationship is rooted in nearly 400 years of friendship, says Ramanathan, also pointing out that almost four million Americans trace their lineage to Sweden.

‘I have heard concerns expressed about taxation’

As for Americans in Sweden, nearly 25,000 people born in the US called Sweden home in 2022, according to official statistics. And when US citizens get in touch with the embassy it’s generally for things like renewing a passport or registering a childbirth. But when asked about FATCA (​​Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), Ramanathan says that the embassy does also get asked about these kinds of taxation issues too.

FATCA is a law that was intended to target tax evaders, but many Americans see it as an unnecessarily high burden.

“This is not really something that I was familiar with before I took up my post, but I have heard concerns expressed about taxation, generally, and on FATCA in particular,” says Ramanathan, noting that embassies around the world report back these concerns.

But, he adds: “Tax policy ultimately comes from Congress. So our recommendation to folks who are experiencing challenges in this area is to engage with their senators and representatives in Congress to seek changes that would make that an easier system to navigate.”

‘It’s really nice to be able to have honest discussions’

Now well into his second year in Sweden, Erik Ramanathan says he is “enjoying every second of it” and is finding his hosts refreshingly well-informed and straightforward.

“I’m always impressed by just how engaged and candid people are. That’s from the woman on the street to ministers and parliamentarians and others. People are very, very engaged,” he says.

“It’s really nice to be able to have these honest discussions and talk about what people are hearing. I learn so much by doing that, and can really, of course, share about US policy as well.”

As for what the future holds, Sweden might well remain home for many years to come. 

“I serve at the pleasure of the President. So I expect I’ll almost certainly be here as long as his first term in office and there’s a very decent chance I’ll be here beyond that.”

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For members


Democracies like Sweden and Taiwan ‘should support each other’

In the latest of our interviews with international envoys, we catch up with Klement Gu, Taiwan’s representative to Sweden, about his impressions of Sweden, healthy trade ties, and how Sweden can support Taiwan amid tensions with China. 

Democracies like Sweden and Taiwan 'should support each other'

Klement Gu enjoys playing with words and has hit on what he thinks is a fitting acronym for his host nation. 

“Sweden is a Smart, Wise, Efficient, Democratic and Equal Nation,” the Representative of the Taipei Mission in Sweden tells The Local. 

Having previously served in Germany and Switzerland, he’s also well versed in German and Nordic-language translations of the word democracy. 

“I’ve always said that in Taiwan we have very good tea. We have very good black tea, green tea, high mountain tea, oolong tea, bubble tea, even our guarantee. However, the best tea in Taiwan is our demokrati.” 

It’s a theme he returns to often over the course of our conversation: although very few countries have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, democracies all over the world have a duty to stand up for each other in the face of threats like those levelled against Taiwan by its authoritarian neighbour China. 

One way countries like Sweden can support Taiwan is simply by sending more political delegations, Gu says. Another is to push for Taiwan to be granted observer status in international organisations. Last year, for example, ten countries including the US, UK, and EU members Germany, France and Lithuania gave their backing to Taiwan’s bid for inclusion in the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. Klement Gu would like to see Sweden lend its voice to similar calls when the WHA convenes again this May. 

“Hopefully the representative of Sweden can use this opportunity to speak up,” he says. 

“Democratic countries should support each other and sit together and do some common action.”

Hear more from Taiwan’s representative on how Sweden can aid Taiwan in the Sweden in Focus podcast (18:08 minutes in).

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Like many other countries, including the US, UK and the entire EU bloc, Sweden follows a One China Policy. This means Sweden accepts Beijing’s claim that there is only one China but rejects China’s territorial claims to Taiwan. 

However, a lack of formal diplomatic relations does not preclude thriving business ties. Trade volumes between Taiwan and Sweden now amount to $1.7 billion, says Gu. Also, last year Sweden’s parliament took the “very good initiative” of voting by a large majority to institute a House of Sweden in Taipei, similar to the Washington DC building that’s home to the US embassy and was designed to nurture cultural and commercial relations between the US and Sweden.

The Social Democrats, who led the government last year, were the only party to vote against the plans for a House of Sweden in Taipei. By contrast, the centre-right parties now in government were all in favour. And in a further sign that Sweden’s new government could potentially strengthen relations with Taiwan, Sweden last month appointed a new representative to Taipei, Anders Wollter. The government stressed that Wollter would be based in Taiwan full time, unlike his predecessor who reportedly raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles by spending most of his time in Sweden. 

Taipei’s representative in Sweden meanwhile says he is “very satisfied” with his life in a country that is home to an estimated 2,600 Taiwanese people. The Formosa cultural association helps bring the community together and the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce facilitates trade. 

A few cultural quirks have surprised him since coming to Sweden, he says. For instance, after a stint in Germany, where cash is still king, Sweden’s near cashless society came as a shock. “Everywhere you just use your card”. He also wasn’t expecting the uniformity of Swedes’ winter clothing. “On the street most people’s coats are either black or grey”. 

Before we part, Klement Gu stresses how determined he is to build bridges between Sweden and Taiwan and how he wants more Swedes to discover Taiwan. To help make his case he pulls out a final acronym, this time for Taiwan. 

“Traveling Around Is Wonderful And Necessary. Therefore we sincerely welcome all of you to come to Taiwan.”