Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson (left) and Prof. Peter Katzenstein (right) at the "Can Small States Make a Difference? The Case of Iceland on the International Scene" lecture in Klarman Hall, Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium on Nov. 10.

November 14, 2022

President of Iceland Speaks to Cornellians Regarding the Country’s Global Influence

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President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson visited Cornell on Thursday and gave a talk titled “Can Small States Make a Difference? The Case of Iceland on the International Scene” to the University community. Addressing a packed Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium, Jóhannesson  discussed Iceland’s international impact, climate change and his thoughts on pineapple on pizza.

Jóhannesson took office after winning Iceland’s 2016 presidential election. He ran for reelection in 2020, claiming 92.2 percent of the popular vote. 

Unlike many heads of state around the world, Jóhannesson did not have a political background prior to his election. When he ran for president, Jóhannesson was a history professor at the University of Iceland. He has also taught at Reykjavik University, Bifröst University and the University of London.

The lecture began with introductions from Prof. Rachel Beatty Riedl, government, who is the director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, who moderated the question and answer session later in the event.

Jóhannesson introduced his philosophy on the limits of a president’s power, as well as his experience of constant media attention as president, through a lighthearted story about pineapple on pizza.

He recounted visiting a high school in Akureyri, Iceland in 2017, where a student asked him his opinion on pineapple on pizza. Jóhannesson sarcastically responded that he disliked the topping and wished to ban it in Iceland. While he thought the joke would stay within the classroom, a local newspaper picked up the story, presenting the proposed ban as a serious policy position.

Jóhanneson said that in the following days he received media requests from global news outlets such as BBC and CNN, which prompted him to eventually release an official statement to clarify the situation.

“While I do not like pineapple on pizza, I do not have the power to ban that ingredient. Furthermore, I would not want to live in a country where a president can ban pineapple on pizza,” Jóhannesson said. “Presidents should know the limits of their powers. That’s how democracy works.” 

Though Iceland is one of Europe’s smallest countries — with a population of 380,500 and land area of just under 40,000 sq. mi — it is also the most peaceful, having held the top spot in the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index ranking since 2008. On the 2022 list, the United States earned 129th place.

On the topic of peace, Jóhannesson spoke about gun laws, contrasting Iceland’s gun culture with laws in the United States. He cited the recent arrest of four men who had amassed a vast collection of firearms in their conspiracy to attack the Icelandic parliament.

“This came truly as a shock to us all, because we happen to think that we live in a very peaceful country where something like this would be practically impossible,” Jóhannesson said.

Jóhanneson noted that many Icelanders own guns, though they almost exclusively use the weapons for sport. He said that Icelanders are not worried about guns being used in criminal activity, in contrast to the gun control issues that the United States faces. 

The proportion of Americans and Icelanders who own guns is nearly identical — 32 and 31.7 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, there are four deaths per 100,000 people in the United States, whereas Iceland only sees 0.061 deaths per 100,000 people. 

“While many people in the United States cherish the right to bear arms, we cherish the right not to be shot at,” Jóhannesson said.

Jóhannesson also emphasized the danger into which the Icelandic language has waded in recent years, especially due to rapid developments in technological communication. 

“Siri does not understand Icelandic,” Jóhannesson announced to the audience, after asking Siri for the number of students at Cornell in his native language. “Neither does Alexa. This is a challenge in the digital generation.”

Jóhannesson noted that the lack of linguistic representation on global digital platforms presented a major challenge to the survival of the Icelandic language. For this reason, promoting Iceland to educational institutions and academics around the world is a part of his work in expanding the influence of the state, he said.

In his discussion of Iceland’s international presence, Jóhannesson considered the coexistence of independence and interdependence in establishing national identity and capability.

“Independence is nationalism,” he explained. “Nationalism is an admiration for one’s culture, country [and] heritage.” 

Jóhannesson explained that independence alone does not have the capacity to maintain a country, stressing the role of interdependence in a state’s formation of an international identity. 

“Political independence is not enough when you don’t have control over material resources. Economic independence, you need that as well,” Jóhannesson said. “Interdependence is the state of being a global citizen… A global citizen is someone who understands and enacts universal codes of morality.” 

Finding a balance between the two, he said, allows even the smaller states to have a voice on the global scale. With Iceland’s focus on maintaining its fishing industry, setting an example through its achievements in gender equality and reinforcing themes of sustainability, Jóhannesson said he hopes that the country can continue its positive global influence.

“Iceland is small, but it is also very young. This is one of the reasons why I am here, at Cornell, and why we have an impact on the international scene,” Jóhannesson said. “We are young, we are lively and we are hot!”