When US President Joe Biden appointed a new ambassador to Sweden he chose a man who’d already been visiting the country on and off for more than three decades. As a young backpacker, Erik Ramanathan stayed at af Chapman, Stockholm’s floating hostel; now, he’s happily ensconced in Villa Åkerlund, the US Ambassador’s residence, with his husband of 32 years and their teenage daughter.
Unlike many of his counterparts in Stockholm’s diplomatic quarter, Erik Ramanathan is not a career diplomat. Before becoming ambassador in January 2022, he was chairman of the board of a national public health organisation, Heluna Health, while his other previous roles include board chair at Immigration Equality, a legal services group for LGBTQ and HIV positive immigrants.
‘A whirlwind year’
At the height of the Covid pandemic, the health organisation he chaired was busy on multiple fronts including running vaccine clinics, distributing protective equipment, and supporting clinical trial work. Given that he arrived in Stockholm after the worst days of the pandemic were over, the new ambassador might have been forgiven for expecting a quieter life. But then Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s long-standing opposition to Nato membership evaporated almost overnight.
“It’s been quite a whirlwind year, but it’s really an exciting time to be here, and there’s really a lot of important work to be done,” Ramanathan tells The Local.
With a Nato application in the works and worried about how Russia might respond, Sweden required security guarantees, and countries including the UK, Germany and, crucially, the United States were quick to step up.
“All the time we’re doing military exercises together in the region. We have interoperable militaries. Sweden’s already an invitee to Nato. So we’re working together in many contexts already within the Nato framework,” says Ramanthan.
He adds that Sweden’s “moral authority” already sees the two countries working frequently together on multinational issues, and when it comes to trade too Sweden punches above its weight in the US.
“There’s over 1,200 American companies here in Sweden and there’s over 1,100 Swedish companies in the US. So there’s a lot of people with different business connections and business interests trying to figure out how to take our relationship to the next level,” says Ramanthan.
“Altogether, the foreign direct investment between Sweden and the US is higher than it’s ever been, over $30 billion, and Sweden is the 13th largest foreign direct investor in the US.”
Listen to more from US ambassador Erik Ramanathan in the Sweden in Focus podcast
The depth of the countries’ relationship is rooted in nearly 400 years of friendship, says Ramanathan, also pointing out that almost four million Americans trace their lineage to Sweden.
‘I have heard concerns expressed about taxation’
As for Americans in Sweden, nearly 25,000 people born in the US called Sweden home in 2022, according to official statistics. And when US citizens get in touch with the embassy it’s generally for things like renewing a passport or registering a childbirth. But when asked about FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), Ramanathan says that the embassy does also get asked about these kinds of taxation issues too.
FATCA is a law that was intended to target tax evaders, but many Americans see it as an unnecessarily high burden.
“This is not really something that I was familiar with before I took up my post, but I have heard concerns expressed about taxation, generally, and on FATCA in particular,” says Ramanathan, noting that embassies around the world report back these concerns.
But, he adds: “Tax policy ultimately comes from Congress. So our recommendation to folks who are experiencing challenges in this area is to engage with their senators and representatives in Congress to seek changes that would make that an easier system to navigate.”
‘It’s really nice to be able to have honest discussions’
Now well into his second year in Sweden, Erik Ramanathan says he is “enjoying every second of it” and is finding his hosts refreshingly well-informed and straightforward.
“I’m always impressed by just how engaged and candid people are. That’s from the woman on the street to ministers and parliamentarians and others. People are very, very engaged,” he says.
“It’s really nice to be able to have these honest discussions and talk about what people are hearing. I learn so much by doing that, and can really, of course, share about US policy as well.”
As for what the future holds, Sweden might well remain home for many years to come.
“I serve at the pleasure of the President. So I expect I’ll almost certainly be here as long as his first term in office and there’s a very decent chance I’ll be here beyond that.”
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