True North

By Chad Galts / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
A millennium ago, Iceland, which lies several hundred miles northwest of what are today the Scottish Hebrides, was one of the most powerful countries on the planet. Today, says its president, lafur Ragnar Grmsson, people too often refer to it as "an endless wilderness of snow and ice, where a monotonous whiteness covers everything in every direction." On campus in early November, Grmsson reminded listeners that America's first "discoverer" was Leif Eriksson. "It is indeed a pity that he decided to leave," he said, "otherwise we'd all be speaking Icelandic."

A tall, angular man with a stylish swoop of bright blond hair, Grmsson is a farmer and former political science professor. He thinks his country, which is home to the oldest democratic body in the world (the Iceland parliament first convened in 930), might have a few lessons for other nations - especially those struggling with democracy for the first time. "The end of the Cold War led to a thawing among the relations of the northern countries," he told a Salomon Center crowd attending his Stephen A Ogden Jr. Memorial lecture. The Baltics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - which were formerly under the control of the Soviet Union, have recently teamed up with Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, and opened joint embassies in Berlin.

One of the northern countries' first priorities, Grmsson said, is to beef up protection of the environment, especially the sea. "The motor driving the world's oceans lies around Iceland," he said. "It is where the northern ice meets the warmth of the Gulf stream." The dependence of Iceland - which is the size of Kentucky and has a population of 270,000 - on this ocean was evident in the country's refusal to join the European Union, a step Grmsson says Iceland took to protect its fishing territory. Another environmental concern, he added, is the Cold War nuclear installations scattered around the northern regions of the globe. Grmsson said he believes that the United States and Russia have a responsibility to help pay for the cleanup of these now-underutilized sites.

Grmsson was elected president of Iceland in 1996, after a stint in the country's parliament and an appointment as finance minister. His Brown lecture was prefaced by the American premiere of The Vinland Sagas, a musical storytelling of the original discovery of the Americas by Leif Eriksson. The music was performed by the Baltic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra and written by Gerald M. Shapiro, chair of the Brown music department.

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January / February 2000