In early November 2019, I spoke with the Icelandic President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson. I had seen Mr Jóhannesson speak once before, when he visited Oxford to speak to the Oxford Union earlier in the year: I was struck by his ability to communicate calmly but with authority. In short, he’s a natural statesman – which is funny, considering that his background is in academia. He takes a more hands-off approach to the presidency, instead (having run as an independent) choosing to focus upon bringing about a sense of national unity following a trying few years in the Alþingi.
Good Afternoon, President Jóhannesson – Thinking about your early life, through to your time at Oxford, I was wondering if you could tell me about that, and also when you decided to follow more of an academic path?
I was always interested in history, even as a child and a teenager; my late father and my mom raised me on books, and I was an avid book reader. When it came to deciding, after high school and college, what to study, I focussed upon history and political science as well. I graduated from college here in Iceland in ‘87, and I finished my BA in from Warwick 1991.
These days we’re remembering that it’s thirty years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and in the fall of ‘89 I was studying at Warwick, including a course called ‘Comparative Communist Systems’. There was one classmate of mine who said, ‘look, it’s all happening over there – people are fleeing from East Germany and Czechoslovakia to the West and we should go and see history in action.’ I thought about it, and decided that since I had an essay to finish and hand in in Comparative Communist Studies, I wouldn’t fly over with him to Berlin. And because of that conscientiousness, I missed the collapse of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
That’s the background there, and to cut a long story short, I went back to Iceland after graduation in 1991 then in 1998 I went to England again and started my doctoral studies at St Anthony’s College. So I did a bit in radio and thought about going into journalism full-time but the world of academia was more to my liking. There’s a slower pace. Deadlines are not measured in minutes, in academia.
And following on from that, you made the transition, if you will, from academia into politics as another step again.
Exactly – I spent one year at Oxford. I got there on a Chevening Scholarship, but then financial considerations enticed me to Queen Mary, University of London. Ultimately, I secured a position at the University of Iceland, where I was an Associate Professor, and in the spring of 2016, a full-time tenured Professor. Then we had Presidential elections coming up in Iceland, and the Prime Minister [Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson] was forced to resign because of his connection to the Panama Papers scandal.
The people of Iceland were debating who should be their next President, and I was on radio and television a lot trying to explain the role of the President, because as it happened one of my fields of expertise in history was that of the role of the President. A fair amount of people concluded that it would be great to have somebody as President who knew what the office of President was all about.
It must have been a strange thing to take on an office that you had studied for so long. How do you think being an historian has helped you as President?
I mean It’s almost like I’ve been given the chance to step into your favourite TV drama – House of Cards or Game of Thrones or something. You become an actor within this drama. Has it helped me, this background which I possess? Yes, in many ways. You need to keep in mind that the office of the President of Iceland is not similar to the Presidency of the US or France, where the President plays a political role on a day-to-day basis. Whilst the President can play a part on the political scene, your average day-to-day business is not that of Government. It certainly helps for anyone in this position to have a fair grasp of the country’s past. Just to have been a lecturer or to oversee seminars, or to conduct a speech is a good background in that sense.
I remember one of my first duties was to receive Ban-Ki Moon, the outgoing UN Secretary General. He was coming to Iceland and I felt like, ‘if there ever was a time to have a nervous breakdown, this it it!’ We had all kinds of experts on climate and international affairs, but I thought ‘alright – this is just like a seminar.’ I’m the professor, Ban-Ki Moon is the Guest Lecturer, and all those experts are just the students. So I had to make sure that everybody gets a say, and I simply imagined that this was something from the world I was familiar with. Having been an historian and an academic certainly helped me in this position.
I visited Sólheimajökull glacier in Southern Iceland a few years ago, which is visibly melting significantly year-on-year. But do you think your counterparts in Europe, in Asia and in North America are finally waking up to the threats posed by climate change?
Overall, yes. We had the Paris Agreement, where there was a great consensus on the need for action. Of course, there were those who did not like the general line taken there – and there are others who feel that more needs to be done. But if you take the overall approach, then you will find that Heads of State and world leaders are more or less unified on the need to take measures to combat, or fight, climate change and that certainly includes the Government of Iceland.
And perhaps leading on from this, I think when people think of Iceland, they think of a country that punches above its weight in terms of culture – Björk, Hatari, Olafur Eliason, for instance – and they think of a leader in women’s and LGBTQ+ rights: in what other areas can Iceland lead the way, and set a global example?
We need to strike the right balance. We are a small nation, we will never be able to direct the way the world is going, and we will always we dependent upon what leaders and people from outside Iceland’s shores will do. Having said that, we can play our part. We, in Iceland, are blessed with green energy: hydropower, geothermal, and possibly wind if we want to harness that resource. And we certainly have gained knowledge of how to use geothermal energy effectively, for instance. We can distribute our expertise and know-how and if you take, for instance, big cities in Asia where pollution is a constant threat and malice, if we can reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels in the heating and cooling of homes, and go geothermal instead, then that would be a positive change indeed. We can use that experience and expertise in all parts of the world.
After your comments on the matter went viral a few years ago, I feel I must talk about pineapple on pizza, and I would agree that it is completely horrific. But, in all seriousness, what was it like to be thrust into the global media spotlight so something apparently so trivial?
It’s a funny story, and a brilliant example of the global village in which we live. So there I was in a town in the north of Iceland, Akureyri, chatting to students after a meeting there. And then, near the end, there was this one girl who says that they’d been having this debate over pineapple on pizza. It just so happens that I have a fairly firm opinion on this. I have nothing against pineapple, but I just don’t think that pineapple on pizza works. And I say that I’m the President – let’s just say that I would be very much in favour of a ban.
And then, the local paper picks this up, and then the national media picks this up in the evening, in the [English language] section. And then, lo and behold, the following morning I had media requests from CNN and the BBC and so on. And I remember thinking like, ‘what on earth is going on here? Will I be remembered for this, and only this?’ and then I felt that this could be something slightly more substantial. So I issued a Presidential statement, something to the effect of saying that ‘Yes, I don’t like pineapple on pizza, but I do not have the power to ban it. I would not want to live in a country where the President can ban pineapple on pizza. And the President should not have unlimited powers.’ I’m happy that I was able to turn it into a story with some substance. But wherever I go, people give me their opinion.
Finally, having been a student here at Oxford yourself, do you have any words of advice for any history students or would-be Icelandic presidents who might be reading this?
There are always open days at the University of Iceland, where prospective students come along and say ‘what does the future hold for me if I study history?’ And, of course, they reply that you could become President!
But I never foresaw becoming the Head of State when I was at Oxford. I just decided to follow my conviction, and do what I really wanted to do, which was to study the past and see how it can be useful in the present. I wanted to get a fresh look at history, and revise the old history textbooks in Iceland, and give the people a new look on history. This was my conviction, and it was such a privilege to be at a place like Oxford, where you can focus on following your passion. So whilst it was great to be there studying my subject, but my advice would be to follow your passion. This goes without saying. But I thoroughly enjoyed being at Oxford, and I think I enjoyed it because I was so committed to doing what I wanted to do, and I had excellent peers and Professors. The whole environment was conducive to study. But if you have to choose between witnessing a historic event like the collapse of the Berlin Wall and handing in an essay on time, skip the essay.
Takk fyrir, President.
All the best.
Photo: President Jóhannesson addresses the International Arctic Forum in 2017. Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.