Universities can be essential partners in democracies
and an increasingly internationalized Emory can play a major role
in the world, according to the president of Iceland, Ólafur
Ragnar Grímsson, who visited the Emory campus and Atlanta
for several days in mid-November.
"Universities have a great role to play," Grímsson
said to a audience of more than 100 in Winship Ballroom, Monday,
Nov. 17. "They have been historically and must be in the future
centers of democratic dialogue. If we see an evolution of democracies
where universities do not play an aggressive role in democratic
dialogue, I think our democracies will lose a very crucial element."
The luncheon speech capped a long weekend of activity for Grímsson
who, in addition to meeting with Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin,
visited the Carter Center (and met with former President Jimmy Carter),
dined with members of the Scandinavian/American Foundation of Georgia,
spoke to several groups of students (including a political science
class and at the Center for International Living) and even dropped
by the EmoryGives holiday party at the Phipps Plaza Parisian on
Grímsson, who was elected to his first term in 1996, holds
a Ph.D. in political science from Manchester (U.K.) University.
Prior to being elected president, he served as a member of parliament
and leader of the People’s Alliance Party. From 1988–91,
he was Iceland’s minister of finance.
Joining Grímsson at Winship, as well as several other destinations
along the way, was his wife, Dorrit Moussaieff, and his chief of
staff, Örnólfur Thorsson, director of the Office of
the President of Iceland. The presidential party was brought to
Emory under the auspices of the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global
Learning, and institute Director Holli Semetko handled the introductions.
While touting the importance of internationalization in the academy
in general, Grímsson specifically complimented Emory’s
strides in this area. Grímsson noted that Emory already has
research ties to his country—primarily in medicine—and
added that he looks forward to more collaborations in the future.
"Iceland’s relationship with Emory has formed a fascinating
basis for follow-up business with concrete projects," Grímsson
said. "Not just in genetics, but we could develop some interesting
projects in other fields."
The core of his 30 minutes at the podium, though, was a discussion
about the future of democracy around the world. In his lecture "The
Future of Democracy and Human Rights," Grímsson touched
on several challenges facing not only new democracies outside of
northern Europe and North America but also those where democracy
has thrived for more than a century (Grímsson noted that
the United States and Iceland are part of a very small club of nations
that have enjoyed a democratic system of government for more than
100 uninterrupted years).
He listed several challenges facing democracy in the coming years.
One was the globalization of markets and the deregulations of economies.
Grímsson said many people say these are good things, but
added that putting more power in the hands of corporations reduces
the scope of democratic decision-making.
Along that line, Grímsson said the creation of European Union
(EU) has transferred power from nation-states to international institutions
such as the United Nations. "Unfortunately, they are not organized
to provide democratic voices," Grímsson said.
Grímsson expressed concern about the future
of political parties, whose membership is declining in the face
of an "overbearing" media and a plethora of good careers
outside public service. "[Politics] is almost a taboo,"
he said. "How do we find good, capable people to serve in elected
Finally Grímsson questioned the responsibility of the media
and whether the modern media landscape sufficiently allowed the
expression of multiple points of view. "What will be the responsibility
of the media when television clearly wants to entertain instead
of inform?" he said. "We must make sure everyone has access
or the media will develop in a way as to reduce essential dialogue."
One of the subjects discussed during a brief question-and-answer
period was why Iceland has not yet applied for membership in the
EU. Grímsson gave three reasons. One was that he did not
want Iceland’s fishing industry—the country’s
most important—to be run by outsiders. The other reasons had
to do with the EU’s structure.
First he said the EU’s bureaucracy goes against Icelandic
tendencies to solve problems face to face. Grímsson also
said he wasn’t sure of the effectiveness of the current European
model, which eliminates competition among states, versus the American
model in which individual states have "organized competition"
for goods and services.
"Quite frankly, I think the jury is still out on the American
model versus the European model," Grímsson said. "Europe
has a history of failures when creating big structures." He
gave the Soviet Union as an example, quickly noting that he was
not directly comparing the EU to the USSR, but simply stating that
the Soviet Union represented a large bureaucratic entity.