Explaining Clean Hands Branding and Displacement: Norway, Sweden and the USA

By Jonathan M. Feldman


Countries tend to clearly identify problems with other nations which they use to displace attention to their own problems. They attempt to give their citizens the idea that they have “clean hands,” i.e. that they are politically innocent. This innocence becomes part of a brand which the country uses to market itself. More importantly, the country’s brand is often tied up with some positive aspect of the country that they want to convey which is often the opposite of the country’s actual practices in other aspects. The positive aspect is part of the process of marketing the country having clean hands.

For example, Norway is often regarded as one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. They promote electric cars and the government of Norway has announced plans “to ban cars fueled by petrol or diesel by 2025,” setting an example for “several other countries in Europe are formulating similar programs to phase out fuel-powered transportation.” The irony or contradiction is that Norway is a major oil exporter. As a Norwegian oil website explains: “The export value of crude oil and natural gas in 2016 was about…350 billion [Norwegian crowns]. This amounts to approximately 47% of the total value of Norway’s exports of goods…Oil exports increased for the third consecutive year, but…the value decreased compared to 2015 because of lower average prices.” In this example, the efforts to support an ecological transportation system should not be treated with any suspicion. Rather, the problem is how this information can be appropriated by the state to legitimate its inability to desist from the development and export of oil to other nations.

Essentially Norway engages in a kind of pollution imperialism. The state’s sanction of oil exports are displaced in the way Norway is perceived as stories about its dirty fuel ban are circulated throughout the electronic and social media as well as policy groups. Let us look at just one example. A blog discussion in 2016 by Bertelsmann Stiftung on “Sustainable Government Indicators,” makes the following claims: “With a strong focus on renewable-energy production, Norway’s environmental policies are deemed among the best worldwide (rank 3).” Nevertheless, the very same blog later states: “the Norwegian government promotes itself as a lead actor in international environmental efforts and climate negotiations. As an oil and gas producer, it is also a substantial emitter of CO2. Norway is involved in the United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD). However, the country has also been criticized for buying itself out of burdensome domestic environmental obligations by purchasing international CO2 quotas instead of reducing emissions.”

This sequence of quotes shows us that Norway is using its wealth to look good, very similar to the notion of displacement identified earlier. Nevertheless, Norway still gets good grades on its participation “in global collective activities to protect the climate and preserve natural resources.”

Norway is not the only nation to engage in this kind of “clean hands” branding. For example in 2014 one widely circulated argument was that Sweden had been at peace for 200 years. This is technically true in the sense of Sweden not being directly engaged in war with another country. The problem is this truth helps mask another. Sweden has engaged in a morally deficient arms export policy for decades and decades, essentially exporting militarism to other countries. Like its neighbor Norway, Sweden exports problems to other countries and then claims that it lacks the problem which it exports (or—in Norway’s case—will eventually eliminate the problem). Norway exports oil, but claims to be ecological. Sweden exports weapons, but claims to be peaceful. These claims, offset by pronouncements about ecological or peaceful diplomatic moves, are part of the clean hands branding process.

In the case of the United States, a major claim made is that the country has helped “to promote democracy.” One academic study published in 2005 explains that “democracy promotion has been an element of US foreign policy for over five decades.” Key champions have included Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. A Congressional Research Service report written by Susan B. Epstein and colleagues explains Bush’s advocacy as follows: “One of President George W. Bush’s stated reasons for starting the war in Iraq was to bring democracy to that country. He stated in December 2006 that ‘[We] are committed to a strategic goal of a free Iraq that is democratic, that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself.’ More broadly, the Bush Administration has viewed democracy promotion as an instrument for combatting terrorism.”

In “The Democracy Bureaucracy, The Infrastructure of American Democracy Promotion,” published by The Princeton Project on National Security, September 2005, Thomas O. Melia argues: “[T]he rhetorical conflation by the Bush Administration and its allies of the war in Iraq and democracy promotion has muddied the meaning of the democracy project, diminishing support for it at home and abroad…Some of those opposed to the invasion of Iraq, Americans and others, appear to have been alienated from democracy promotion more generally and this is to be regretted.”

In the U.S. case we see again how realities are distorted during the branding process, with one U.S. brand being democracy promotion. This distortion was self-evident during the Clinton administration which aggressively promoted arms exports even though these breed conflicts and often promote economic underdevelopment and centralization of military power that constrains democracy. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was based on disinformation, false claims which misled the public about threats and thus helped distort the truth and information which citizens and political representatives used to ratify or oppose presidential foreign policy decisions. Such disinformation was essential for Bush’s “democracy promotion” effort in Iraq. False claims about weapons of mass destruction helped convince legislators and the public to support the war, with Judith Miller of The New York Times being a significant conduit and circulator of lies.

In sum, in the cases of Norway, Sweden and the United States, we see how clean hands branding is used by elites associated with national policy makers, and potentially extending into other actors be they foundations, the media, and others, helps distort realities about these states. The realities associated with the destruction of the environment, militarism, and post-truth politics are displaced by a focus on achievements associated with ecological sustainability, peace and democracy. In some cases the achievements are real. In others these achievements are false or misleading. In either case, the selective use of facts and portrayals of reality help inflate the nation state, key policy decisions and practices which help elites accumulate and maintain power.

Photo By Paolo Villa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4