On March 30, 1949, the day Iceland’s parliament voted 37-13 to join NATO, pro-Soviet protesters as well as locals opposed to the presence of foreign troops rioted in Reykjavik, pelting lawmakers with eggs and smashing every window of the parliament building with rocks. Police assaulted the rioters with tear gas, and more than a dozen people were injured, some seriously.
The violence was unusual for Iceland—known as one of the world’s most peaceful countries—and for much of the Cold War, Iceland was a reluctant member of NATO. Strong domestic opposition to the US Naval Air Station at Keflavík persisted from 1952 until the Pentagon’s withdrawal from the air base in 2006.
Yet today, in the wake of Russia’s current destruction of Ukraine, there seems to be little doubt whose side Iceland is on.
“As the only NATO member without a military, we have a special status,” Bergdís Ellertsdóttir, Iceland’s ambassador to the United States, told us recently. “But we are very strategic to the alliance. We speak with one voice, with our partners in NATO, and there aren’t strong enough words to say this: we are totally behind our allies and friends, the Ukrainian people.”
That support is crucial as two of Iceland’s Nordic neighbors, Finland and Sweden, move ever closer to joining the 30-member military alliance after decades of official neutrality.
On July 5, Canada became the first NATO country to formally approve membership applications by the two Scandinavian countries, now that Turkey has dropped its objections over their alleged support of Kurdish groups and arms embargoes.
The parliaments of each individual NATO country must ratify the alliance’s additions of Finland and Sweden, though NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last week to offer a precise timeline on when the two will officially join the club.
“We very much support Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members. For us, it’s just like bringing the family together. They will add so much to NATO,” Ellertsdóttir said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Diplomat at her official residence. “We cannot send Ukraine any weapons, but we’ve assisted our allies in transporting necessary equipment to Poland and elsewhere.”
100% literacy, few murders, gender equality for all
Iceland is about the same size as Virginia, but has only 350,000 inhabitants, making it Europe’s least densely populated country. It’s also one of the best places to grow up. In the latest United Nations Human Development Index, Hong Kong and Iceland tied for fourth place (with a score of 0.949), topped only by Norway (0.957), Ireland (0.955) and Switzerland (0.955).
Iceland also has the world’s highest literacy rate (effectively 100%), its longest life expectancy for men under 60, and its lowest homicide rate—less than 1 per 100,000 inhabitants—and its people consistently rank among the happiest on Earth, despite the long hours of winter darkness.
“We remember every murder,” quipped the ambassador, noting her country’s strict gun laws which require any Icelander wanting to buy a weapon to obtain a doctor’s certificate and take a course on marksmanship.
“Language and literature are very important to us,” she said. “In Iceland, our culture is based on the written word. Our cultural heritage is the sagas written in the 13th century, so our language has changed much less than other languages. It’s a very important part of our identity, to try to safeguard this language, which is becoming more and more of a challenge.”
Iceland also scores near the top globally when it comes to gender equity. Women comprise nearly half of the 63-member parliament, and after all, it was the first country in the world to elect a woman, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, as president in 1980. Finnbogadóttir served for 16 years, and at 92 remains UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador for languages.
“It makes economic sense for all societies to have women active in the labor market,” she said. “In Iceland, around 80% of women are employed. In order for this to function, some things need to be in place: affordable child care for everyone, fair and paid parental leave, and an acceptance that if you do hire a young person, they receive one year of paid leave. It’s a good investment.”
Ambassador: ‘It was my dream to be a diplomat’
Ellertsdóttir herself made history in 2019 when she was sent to Washington as Iceland’s first female ambassador to the United States.
“When I was growing up, it was my dream to be a diplomat,” said Ellertsóttir, 59 and the mother of four children. “I worked as a journalist and a tour guide, and did a lot of other things. One day I applied for a job at the Foreign Ministry, and when I got it, I was thrilled to pieces.”
The ambassador, who studied political science, English and history at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Heidelberg, Germany, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in English from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik in 1987. Two years later, she got a master’s degree in European studies from England’s University of Essex.
Ellertsdóttir began her diplomatic career as first secretary in the trade department of Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1991-95), later becoming deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Iceland in Bonn, Germany (1995-98).
From 1998 to 2000, Ellertsdóttir was a political officer at NATO headquarters in Brussels, then became deputy director of the Iceland Foreign Ministry’s political department. Later, she became foreign affairs advisor to the prime minister; deputy secretary-general of the based European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in Brussels; chief negotiator for the Iceland-China free trade agreement; head of Iceland’s mission to the EU, and finally permanent representative of Iceland to the UN in New York.
As ambassador, Ellertsdóttir supervises a small embassy located along the K Street waterfront in Georgetown. Established in 1941, the mission employs three diplomats and also represents Icelandic interests in Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay; in addition, it oversees a network of 18 honorary consulates, not including Iceland’s United Nations mission in New York.
Iceland belongs to EFTA and NATO, but not EU
Iceland isn’t a member of the EU, but it does belong to the Geneva-based EFTA, along with Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
“This agreement serves us well. Icelanders can go to Germany or Italy or wherever and work there,” she said. “There are no barriers to trade with the EU, but we don’t use the euro, and we don’t have a seat at the table in Brussels.”
The reason for this is quite simple: control over Iceland’s own resources.
“Our fisheries are very important for us, and we manage this industry based on scientific advice,” the ambassador explained. “Because of this, it needs to be sustainable. We cannot just fish all we like for quick profit, like we did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Now we have a very elaborate management system. In joining the EU, our quotas would be decided by Brussels, and this is something people did not want to see.”
“Apart from the war in Ukraine and despite rising food prices, we are generally in a very good place,” she said. “What has helped us through covid is tourism. It has now outgrown all other industries, and what’s really important for our economy is tourism from the United States.”
In 2019, prior to the pandemic, some 800,000 Americans visited Iceland, generally via the national airline, Icelandair, which serves a dozen US destinations. Ellertsdóttir hopes the industry will rebound quickly. The government’s top priority, however, is confronting the world’s climate crisis—with the goal of Iceland reaching carbon neutrality by 2030.
“Our reliance on fossil fuels is mostly in the transport sector, so we’ve introduced tax incentives to buy electric cars, and our fishing fleet is being converted into alternative fuels,” she said. “There’s a lot going on, and lots of startup companies with great ideas. On the whole, we’re doing well, but we need to do better.”