Iceland’s president outlines a clear vision for his country
Learn from the past, look to the future
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
Business and Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
Dr. Guðni Jóhannesson, president of Iceland, took out his iPhone, and said, “Hey, Siri, do you know Icelandic?” And Siri said, “I don’t have an answer for that.”
“Siri and her friend, Alexa, and that wonderful group that helps us in our daily lives, don’t understand Icelandic,” he said. “Our mission here is to make sure that soon we will work together and teach Siri and Alexa, not just for the benefit of ourselves, but for others, too. No language will be left behind in the universal translator.”
Jóhannesson was the keynote speaker at the Nordic Innovation Summit at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle on May 19, speaking on “Innovation, Independence, Interdependence,” often lacing the talk with humor.
Jóhannesson is a historian. Iceland, as well as the other Nordic countries, is steeped in history.
“It is my passion to emphasize we need to learn from the past as we look toward the future,” he said. “I’m going to talk about innovation, independence, and interdependence. I want you to go with me on a journey. I’m going to give examples of five innovations, how they affected us, and how we can learn from them to make this world a better place. They connect with Iceland in some way.”
The president outlined the topics as the Viking long ships; calfskin paper; coast guard wire cutters; geothermal energy, and the future of Iceland in the digital age.
Viking long ships
Based on archeological findings, the long ships date back to at least the ninth century. They were a major—if not the— technological advancement of their time.
“The people developed these smart, fast-sailing ships that could take you over the open ocean,” said. Jóhannesson. “So, they traveled the north on these vessels, the long ships from Scandinavia, from Norway over to the British Isles, almost to the Faroe Islands, to Iceland, and finally to this great continent in which we find ourselves.”
Leif Erikson, or Leifur Eiriksson for the Icelanders, is feted as the discoverer of America, or more precisely, Newfoundland. What has happened over time was multiple countries, mainly Norway, claiming Erikson as their own. What Erikson discovered was land where people had already discovered it.
“Since the 1960s, on the 9th of October every year, the United States has celebrated Leif Erikson Day,” said Jóhannesson. “The president of the United States issues a proclamation declaring this to be Leif Erikson Day. In 1975, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation noting Erikson as a ‘son of Norway.’ There was already tension in the relationship between Iceland and the United States. The Cold War was brewing. There were fishing disputes between Iceland and Britain. The Icelandic ambassador in Washington demanded an apology.
“The United States needed to keep the Icelanders happy. So how do you solve this? A diplomat’s job is to find solutions, compromises, reduce tension. The next presidential proclamation on Leif Erikson Day, and ever since, has contained these good words: ‘We celebrate the achievements of the Norse voyagers and especially, Leif Erikson, a son of Iceland and grandson of Norway.’ Talk about diplomatic smartness.
“We know for a fact that Leif Erikson, or Leifur Eiriksson, moved from Iceland to Greenland at the age of 3. So if we want to issue Leif Erikson a passport, it might as well be a Greenlandic one. We should celebrate these stories of daring voyages across uncharted waters, but we need to avoid the temptation of claiming that these good people from well over 1,000 years ago, discovered a new continent where nobody lived.
“We want to be able to celebrate achievements of the past, but we must never be arrogant. We must never be negative. The kind of nationalism we want to develop must be without those aspects. We need to celebrate diversity, plurality, and respect for others. The long ships were one innovation that connects in this manner with independence and interdependence.”
Calfskin paper for sagas
Iceland knows its history because of the passing down of the sagas, poetry, and stories telling of everyday life, voyages, battles, and feuds, but love as well, the honor and bravery of the kings of Norway, the ancient faith stories of Odin and Thor and all the parts of this Scandinavian region.
When is a volcanic eruption a lucky incident? One of the main figures in Icelandic literature, who also collected the ancient stories, was Snorri Sturluson. In the early-mid 13th century, a volcanic eruption near his home killed his livestock.
“What did he do with the dead calves?” said Jóhannesson. “He took the skins and wrote these tales on them. So, every cloud has a silver lining. These stories were not written in isolation. Yes, they are unique. They are Iceland’s contribution to world civilization, along with skyr, the yogurt drink, and fermented shark.
“These stories are unique, but they’re also based on a common European heritage. So it’s a perfect example of the combination of independent and interdependent. What we need to be aware of as we applaud this national cultural heritage is to guard it against people who are willing to abuse it for their extremist purposes, who misinterpret the sagas and our cultural heritage as a demonstration of supremacy of one group of people over another. We need to defend Asgard against those extremists.
“How do we do that? We do it by demonstrating and proving that the cultural heritage is not about that. Look at the gods in detail. You’ll find one of the gods enjoyed cross dressing for instance. The stories emphasize honor and dignity, not violence, not hatred toward others.
“The Nordic model, in essence, is individual responsibility, individual freedom, collective duties. This is how we should work things. This is the message from the Nordic region to everyone who wants to hear us. It’s based partly on our common Nordic Icelandic cultural heritage. We can also quote our wisdom from the Nordic sagas, from the sayings of the old gods. ‘Cattle die, kindred die. Everyone is mortal, but the good name never dies of one who has done well.’ This is what we can bring from the Nordic heritage to our contemporary world.”
Iceland gains sovereignty
Iceland became a republic in 1944, and there were doubters if this small country would survive on its own. There were no demarcations of Icelandic waters and the British, among others, were capturing the Iceland fish.
“We did survive, but we needed to gain sovereignty over our natural resources around the island,” said Jóhannesson. “We needed to get control of our fishing grounds, and that we did in a series of steps, expanding the fishery jurisdiction around Iceland first from 3 nautical miles to 4, 4 to 12, 12 to 50, 50 to 200. We’re there now for the time being.”
Though, Britain and Iceland are “mates” now, they waged a David vs. Goliath battle over several years. Iceland relied on its coast guard against British fishing trawlers and the Royal Navy every time Iceland expanded its fishing domain. David won again.
Jóhannesson told how the Icelandic coast guard was limited to telling the British, “‘You are fishing illegally. Leave immediately.’ The British trawler men, rough as they were, were very kind people at heart. They would just say, ‘Bugger off!’”
Iceland’s secret weapons
The coastal skippers turned to wire cutters, snipping the British trawler nets, freeing the fish. In addition, the United States had a NATO base in Iceland and threatened to remove it if the British continued their actions.
“This changed completely the dynamics of the situation,” said Jóhannesson. “We were able to do this on a multitude of occasions and the British frigates, the British warships up there tried to intervene, but they were not built for that. Ultimately, after a dispute over 200 miles, there was a full Iceland victory. This is Iceland’s contribution to modern warfare.
“We need to, again, acknowledge the bravery of the Iceland coast guard captains and their crews who managed to do this. The nations of the world were also moving in this direction before Iceland moved its water borders to 200 miles. Americans said unless the British back down, we are closing down the base. Priorities here put strategic security above fishing interest. That was also our weapon, the wire cutters and the presence of a military base in Iceland.”
Norway uses water to develop hydropower to heat homes. Iceland uses geothermal energy, commonly used in swimming pools and hot tubs, to warm almost all its homes.
“It is the cleanest energy you can wish for,” said Jóhannesson. “Now, it’s not our innovation. Others have done it before us, but in Iceland, we have a mass of knowledge and people who know a lot about how you can use geothermal energy.
“So, this is an innovation that is more forward looking perhaps than long ships, calfskin, and wire cutters. I encourage you to have a close look at the development and use of geothermal energy in Iceland and how we can use it on our necessary journey toward a world full of clean energy and where we manage to combat climate change and reduce CO2 emissions. Furthermore, we know how to drill CO2 underground.”
Getting Siri to learn Icelandic is a project that rests in future generations maintaining the language’s uniqueness at the same time as young people anglicize Icelandic through absorbing words from video games, YouTube, the internet, and TV shows.
“We need to help people and make technology an asset in that,” said Jóhannesson. “Icelandic is a thriving language. We write crime novels. Let me reassure you that way more crimes are committed in books and on pages than in reality. Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world. We want to be cosmopolitan. We need to learn other languages.
“At the same time, we want to make sure that we can still maintain, from generation to generation, [that] Icelandic continues to be understood because we can understand texts written from thousands of years ago. But if we are not careful, Icelandic will suffer from the influx of the wonderful English language.
“It’s not a negative. It’s just work to be done. We’ve created a database of recorded Icelanders. We can bring this to the table for these big companies and tell them, ‘Here’s our stuff. Can you put this into your hardware and software? We will both benefit from that.’ I’m very optimistic that this work will be achieved.”
“We will continue to innovate, to be proud Icelanders, Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, Finns, Greenlanders, Faroe Islanders, Sámi, proud entities who have their own culture, language, and past. At the same time, we want to keep this cultural heritage in a positive manner, be global citizens, and use history to foster friendship, plurality, diversity, not hatred, bigotry, fear, or hatred toward the other. This is our task.”
To listen to President Jóhannesson’s keynote address at Nordic Innovation Summit, visit:
This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.