Eliasson was nominated President of the United Nations General Assembly in November 2004 and formally and unanimously elected on June 13. The assignment commences with the U.N.’s 60th session on Sept. 1, 2005, and extends for one year. Eliasson’s previous international posts include State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to the U.N. He also served as Under Secretary General at the U.N., with responsibility for disaster relief and humanitarian affairs. (See “Memories—and Lessons—from Somalia” for more on Eliasson’s time there.)
Eliasson, who had served as Swedish ambassador to the U.S. since 2000, replaces Jean Ping of Gabon. He accepts the new job at a time of great challenge for world body, but his time in Washington was no less demanding, according to the seasoned diplomat, only demanding in different ways.
“To be elected America’s Swede of the Year is to me a great honor after the last five years in Washington,” Eliasson says. “And yet, [these years] have been my and my wife, Kerstin’s, most rewarding during our entire professional lives… At this point in time and with this new assignment, I feel more like a ‘world citizen’ than ever before.”

AUSPICIOUS TIMING
The Eliassons arrived in Washington on Sept. 13, 2000, and the timing could not have been more auspicious for a newly landed diplomat, he says: “The combination of the change in the administration in D.C. along with the Swedish [European Union] presidency gave us unprecedented access to the capital’s policymakers.”
We are talking on route to a meeting with Ambassador Eliasson’s top contact in the U.S. cabinet, General Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State. As we pass through the inner sanctums of U.S. government on our way to Powell’s office in Old Town Alexandria, Eliasson reflects on the dramatic key events of his time in Washington: the Swedish EU presidency, the terrible events of 9-11, and the planning and groundbreaking of the House of Sweden, the Embassy’s new chancery building.
The position of being the Swedish Ambassador at the time of Sweden’s EU presidency clearly had its benefits.
“Representing a nation like Sweden in possibly the world’s largest powerhouse can be utterly frustrating at times. Representing 15 nations instead of one during the EU presidency, which coincided with the new administration in D.C., made so many things so much easier,” Ambassador Eliasson says.
At the time of our first interview with Eliasson, after the EU presidency but less than a year into his post, he stressed how he had “met with Colin Powell and Condi Rice several times and people are actually returning my calls.”
Eliasson arrived in New York on July 1 to get a head start on discussions on U.N. reform and prepare the General Assembly’s review in September of the Millennium Development Goals on sustainable and equitable global development.
He brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience with him. Before taking on this latest assignment, Eliasson was a visiting professor at Uppsala University in Sweden. He was Sweden’s ambassador to the U.N. in New York from 1988 to 1992; served as the U.N. Secretary General’s personal representative on Iran/Iraq in 1990-1991; was vice president of the Economic and Social Council in 1990-1991; and served as chairman of the U.N. General Assembly’s working group on emergency relief in 1991.
In 1992, Eliasson was appointed the first Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs of the U.N. During his diplomatic career, Eliasson has been posted in Paris, Bonn, Washington and Salisbury, Zimbabwe. He served as first diplomatic advisor to the Swedish Prime Minister in 1982-1983 and as Director General for Political Affairs in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs from 1983 to 1987.
The election of Eliasson to the presidency of the General Assembly is a clear recognition of Swedish diplomacy. Before the nomination of last year, Eliasson was considering returning to Sweden.
“I am delighted, at my age—I am 65 this year—to be offered as important and interesting an assignment as this. As far as my family goes, it means a sacrifice on the part of Kerstin and myself. Before the nomination, I was considering returning to Sweden this autumn. But even Kerstin, who is State Secretary at the Ministry of Education and Science, felt that it was important not to pass up this opportunity. I would probably spend many years regretting it if I didn’t accept this exciting challenge.”

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THE HOUSE OF SWEDEN
Before leaving Washington, Eliasson was also guiding the execution of plans for the House of Sweden, a new Swedish chancery building to be located in the Georgetown area of Washington and inaugurated in the fall of 2006.
“The House of Sweden [represents] the first time a House of this magnitude is erected abroad, [and it] will have an enormous effect on our presence in Washington [and] the U.S.,” according to Eliasson.
“The building will house the embassy but will also be an event center, while also offering corporate suites for a select few companies or figureheads with a strong Swedish connection,” he continues. “The award-winning architects of the building are Gert Wingårdh and Thomas Hansen, internationally renowned names that ensure the building’s position as a lighthouse for Sweden in more ways than one.”

THE FUTURE OF THE UN
2005-2006 will be a session of reform for the U.N. This fall’s summit will not be able to resolve every issue, but Eliasson hopes for a new basis for multilateral cooperation and understanding after his year as president of the U.N. General Assembly.
“These first five years of the new millennium have been marked by fear: Will the next five be of new hope or will we see more fear, I wonder? We’ve seen a lot of progress in changing direction so far. I am in general an optimist, but these days also have much to worry about. If there is one thing I’d like to be my legacy after this coming year, with all the needed changes at the U.N., it is to say that I have increased the understanding among people and nations about the urgency for international solutions. All of us have to be prepared to take the steps necessary to really make a difference.”

Ulf Barslund Martensson

Read more on Eliasson’s vision for the U.N. in “Memories – and Lessons – from Somalia.”