December 1, 2003

Icelandic president spends weekend at Emory

By Eric Rangus

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 Nov. 16.

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 positions?"

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.