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Europe: Analysis From Washington -- When Small Differences Grow Large

Washington, 10 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The collapse of a communications deal between Norway and Sweden highlights the ways in which cultural differences that appear small to outsiders can quickly become the basis for powerful nationalist feelings on both sides, particularly when the countries involved are neighbors that had earlier been part of a common state.

Over the past few weeks, a $50 billion merger agreement between Norwegian and Swedish telecommunications companies collapsed largely because each side came to view the other as seeking to promote its own national interests over the common good. Norwegian officials derided Swedes as illiterates and liars, while one Swedish minister suggested that Norway was "the last Soviet state."

Few business people or international financial observers expected this turn of events from two countries many see as sharing a common Scandinavian heritage. Indeed, one American journalist this weekend suggested that "this is just the sort of thing the new age of globalism is said to be rendering obsolete."

But in fact, it is precisely this new globalism that is driving the emergence of such supposedly atavistic feelings.

First, the new globalism is bringing people into contact who might otherwise have quite happily lived apart. As long as Norway and Sweden had separate communications systems, there was little or no reason for either of them to worry about what the other was doing. Only when the two were forced to deal with each other in this new and psychologically smaller space did the differences begin to matter so much.

Nearly a century ago, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, spoke about the "narcissism" of small differences, about the ways in which superficially minor distinctions among individuals can become the foundations for hostility among them. As he pointed out, it is precisely because the differences are so small that individuals are able to place them on their own mental maps and thus view them as significant.

The same principle appears to hold for larger human communities as well. Groups similar in many respects may view their remaining differences as more significant than they might if the groups involved were less alike.

Second, the new globalism is bringing countries together which broke apart only relatively recently. Norway became independent of Sweden only 94 years ago, and as Norwegian writer Tor Bomann-Larsen has observed, "Norway still defines itself in terms of its relationship to Sweden. To be free and independent means to be rid of the Swedes."

The Swedes in turn, as one Stockholm ethnologist has noted, "think unreflectively that Sweden is the biggest and most advanced and most creative of the Scandinavian countries. When they talk to Norwegians about how things are done in Sweden, it is like a schoolteacher telling how things are done in the grown-up world."

In short, because of their respective national histories, Norwegians tend to be suspicious of the Swedes whenever they have to deal with them; and Swedes intentionally or not tend to behave in ways that have the effect of feeding such suspicions.

And third, the new globalism means that countries may react to any setback of this kind by turning inward or turning to other partners, thus reinforcing rather than overcoming these historically-based feelings.

Many observers suggest that Norway will become even more inward-looking as a result of the collapse of this business deal with Sweden. Norway has already voted twice against joining the European Union, and Oslo's latest experience with Stockholm appears likely to make Norwegians even less willing to cooperate with a group in which Sweden plays an active role.

And these same observers have indicated that Sweden may now seek to make a telecommunications deal with Finland to compensate for its inability to reach accord with Norway. Because Finland was also once part of Sweden, such a turn appears likely to have two consequences, each of which will have been set in train by the new globalism.

On the one hand, Norwegians will almost certainly see this as yet another example of Swedish efforts to play one former colony off against another and thus find in Stockholm's moves more reasons to avoid entanglements with it.

And on the other hand, Swedes, if the deal with Finland works out, will likely be reinforced in their view that Helsinki can be a reliable partner for the future while Oslo definitely is not, an attitude that by itself will reinforce Swedish and Norwegian attitudes rather than change them.

None of this is to say that globalism will not ultimately bring people closer together both practically and psychologically, but it is to argue that the path to a state of universal understanding and cooperation may be rather more convoluted and lengthy than has been suggested by the self-celebratory predictions being made by some world leaders at this dawn of a new millennium.