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Palme's Legacy 15 Years On

STOCKHOLM: Olof Palme, Sweden's then Prime Minister, was assassinated 15 years ago on February 28th. His death shocked millions everywhere. The murderer has still not been found, at least he has not been convicted. The crime was an attack not only on Palme, but on democracy itself.

Murdered, Palme is now part of history. But history is something that must be freely analysed, not silenced out of deference. So, as we recall Palme's assassination we should also remember how he behaved and what he represented. What, for example, is Olof Palme's legacy in foreign policy?

Palme was a powerful, eloquent critic of the US and the war in Vietnam. He cursed Soviet oppression in Czechoslovakia and General Pinochet's murders in Chile. Because of these stands, Palme has often been portrayed as a consistent adversary of tyrannies. But this is not quite true. In fact, Palme systematically refrained from criticizing many oppressive regimes and, indeed, embraced some of the cruelest dictators, or at least tried not to offend them.

Do not "vilify" the Soviet Union, said Palme, Chairman of Sweden's Social Democratic Party for 17 years and Prime Minister from 1969-1976 and, again, from 1982-86. Do not engage in "anti-Soviet agitation" or "the business of anti-Sovietism," he declared in 1984, a typical neutralist stand in Palme's Sweden.

No doubt, Palme reflected the spirit of his times. The West's Marxist revival after 1968 deeply impressed journalists and socialists, not least in Sweden. The Vietnam War changed the world view of many young people. Palme, however, carried this spirit forward so long after many others had seen the liberal light. "Neither communism nor capitalism represents a dream of liberty for the peoples of Europe," he said only a few years before the peoples of East and Central Europe freed themselves from Communism to embrace democracy and capitalism.

Palme also exploited ideological differences over diplomacy to wound other democratic parties in Sweden. The conservatives were lapsing into "the crusading spirit, aimed at the liberation of Eastern Europe, which prevailed in conservative quarters in the West during the Cold War," he said in 1983--a moment of heightened tension between the West and the USSR. Eventually, Sweden's Liberals and Conservatives, after 44 years of Socialist rule, came to power in 1976. None of the threats to Sweden's foreign policy, which Palme confidently predicted, materialized in their nine years in office during the last quarter century.

Divisive at home, Palme tried hard to divide the West at a critical moment. In the 1980s Social Democrats in Sweden and Germany developed a close ideological collaboration in foreign affairs. The so-called "Palme Commission" (including the influential Egon Bahr) suggested a policy of "common security" between East and West, and nuclear weapon-free zones instead of NATO's policy of deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles to counter the Soviet advantage in theater nuclear weapons.

This alliance between the two parties led to serious distortions of fundamental Western values. Palme and Oskar Lafontaine, then one of the leaders of the opposition in Germany, did not see the Cold War as primarily a conflict between freedom and tyranny. When Palme visited East Germany in 1984 he never criticized repression there, nor the Berlin Wall. Instead, Palme praised East Germany's leader, Erich Honecker, underlining shared goals and the mutual struggle for peace and development. Palme's main speech mentioned "détente," "trust,"and "friendship," but never "freedom".

Much the same happened when Palme visited Cuba. He shared a podium with Fidel Castro at a mass rally in Santiago de Cuba. Palme spoke appreciatively of "socialist revolution," never mentioning his own party's conviction that "revolution" should take place only after free and honest elections. Indeed, Palme used Marxist slogans, but said nothing about human rights and political freedom, giving the impression that Sweden and Cuba embraced similar ideologies.

In a joint statement with Castro, Palme claimed that the two men were united in all the areas they had discussed. They even confirmed their happiness that the struggles for freedom of "the Vietnamese and Cambodian peoples have been crowned with victory." This was said in the summer of 1975, two months after Cambodia's Khmer Rouge embarked on a genocide that killed two million of the country's seven million people.

Was Olof Palme unaware of Pol Pot's massacres? Newspapers in almost all democracies, including Sweden, were informing us of the Cambodian horrors. Palme, however, thought it more important to present a united front with Cuba's tyrant than to worry about atrocities committed by Communists in Indochina. Palme, indeed, seldom condemned oppression in Third World countries. He constantly condemned apartheid in South Africa, yet he never criticized Mao's China, the most murderous regime to arise after World War II.

This double standard was particularly pernicious in the Middle East, where Palme never censured an Arab country, regardless of its corruption or cruelty. The only nation in that region he repeatedly attacked was its only democracy, Israel. He even equated the Israelis with the Nazis.

Fifteen years after his murder, Sweden and the West must grapple with what Palme left behind, his anti-Western agitation and his willingness to see fundamental ideals of freedom as merely relative values. For people seeking or defending democracy and human rights, Palme was an unreliable partner. It is that aspect of his moral "example" that should be recalled.