President of Iceland Guðni Jóhannesson visits Williams, discusses presidency

Annie Lu and Ella Marx

Jóhannesson talked about fostering “positive patriotism” in his conversation with Bernhardsson on Nov. 9. (Photo courtesy of Shirley Lin.)

“It’s a tremendous honor every day — sometimes difficult, sometimes stressful, but many privileges come with it.” 

This is how President of Iceland Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson described his job in an interview with the Record. “By privileges,” he continued, “I mean opportunities, for instance, to go on a tour, as I’m doing now, meeting interesting people in new places, and getting to talk about Iceland.”

Jóhannesson, Iceland’s sixth and current president, came to Williams on Nov. 9 and gave a talk titled “Cool Iceland: The Fascinating Challenges and Opportunities of Being a Small State.” 

The discussion, which was open to the public, filled the entire 550-seat MainStage auditorium of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. At the event, Professor of History and Chair of Global Studies Magnús Bernhardsson asked Jóhannesson questions and moderated a Q&A, and the College’s Chamber Choir performed three songs in Icelandic. 

Based on documents from the College archives, Jóhannesson is the first foreign head of state with no personal connection to Williams to visit the College since its founding in 1793, according to Bernhardsson — who is also from Iceland and attended rival high schools with Jóhannesson.

The invitation for the president of Iceland to visit Williams had been long-standing, despite the College having no institutional ties to the country. In 2005, Bernhardsson led a travel Winter Study course in Iceland, during which the nation’s president at the time — Jóhannesson’s predecessor, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson — invited the group to his residence. 

“At the end, somebody formally invited the president to come visit us in Williamstown,” Bernhardsson recounted. “His assistants joked, ‘Was that a formal invitation?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course.’”

Though his predecessor’s intended trip to Williamstown never came to fruition, Jóhannesson inherited the invitation when he took office in 2016. Jóhannesson came to the College last Wednesday in between visits to Dartmouth and Cornell on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10, respectively. While at the College, Jóhannesson also toured the campus, visited the Chapin Library, and attended receptions with students, faculty, and staff. 

In the middle of a packed schedule, Jóhannesson sat down with the Record for an interview. The most noticeable thing about Jóhannesson’s attire was his colorful, rainbow-striped socks. “It’s a way to bring color into my life when you wear suits and a tie all the time,” Jóhannesson told the Record. 

On a more serious note, he discussed the importance of having the utmost respect for the presidential role and its traditions. “Whoever holds the office has no right to transform it radically,” Jóhannesson said. “The office is bigger than the individual. But at the same time, within those confines, you must be given the freedom to put your own sort of special characteristics into it.” Hence, he concluded, wearing colorful socks along with his suit strikes a proper balance.

Jóhannesson was a professor at the University of Iceland before running for president — and before that, he also dabbled in journalism, he told the Record. He had a part-time position in radio broadcasting. “It was a good experience,” he said. “As an academic later on working in history, I learned a lot. In radio, you have to be precise — you have to be to the point, and that’s actually an asset, I think, that many academics could use.”

The presidential office in Iceland is more ceremonial than that of the United States, given that Iceland has a prime minister who is primarily responsible for making policy. “I am not at all involved in politics on a day-to-day basis,” Jóhannesson said. But he explained how certain functions still place the president on the political scene, such as forming a new government after elections and having the constitutional right to veto laws passed by Parliament. 

There are also more indirect ways through which the president can enter the political arena. “Everything involved with the office of the president can have a political bearing,” Jóhannesson said. “You quickly realize that whatever you say, whatever you do, can be picked up.” 

As an example, he told a story about visiting a high school in a small town in Iceland around half a year into his presidency. “We were having discussions about this and that — serious questions about the political role of the president — and then for the final question, one girl stood up and asked … ‘Do you like pineapple on pizza?’”

Jóhannesson happened to have a strong opinion on the subject. “Well, actually, I do not like pineapple on pizza. And if I could, I would ban it,” he replied. The local paper picked it up, and the story quickly spread to national and international news outlets. “To cut a long story short, I had to issue a clarification on Facebook that, while I do not like pineapple on pizza, I do not have the power to forbid that particular combination,” Jóhannesson said. “And that I would not want to live in a country where the president can ban what toppings you have on pizza.” 

In his talk at the ’62 Center, Jóhannesson also touched on the challenges and opportunities that Iceland faces due to its small size and the environmental and social effects of its tourism industry.

Over 2 million people typically visit every year. Jóhannesson noted that the country must balance the needs of its citizens with those of its visitors. It must also consider its natural attractions while thoughtfully expanding its tourism infrastructure, such as roads and parking sites.

“We need to make sure that people enjoy their time in Iceland, that the citizens of Iceland are happy to receive such a big number of visitors, and that nature can withstand an ever-increasing number of tourists,” he said. 

The president also noted that people will often ask him if Iceland can survive on its own, considering its history as a part of the Danish kingdom until 1944. To Jóhannesson, Iceland has long been surviving on its own — and thriving, too.

“Maybe it comes from being small — you have to prove yourself,” he said at the talk. “I believe a question of that kind — ‘Can Iceland survive on its own?’ — fills you with some kind of ‘Yes, we can.’ We are going to show ourselves and others that we can survive on our own.” 

Jóhannesson added that Iceland’s small population — which totals around 375,000 residents — can come with challenges, including insular thinking, fear of outsiders, and more provincial ways of life, but those factors do not determine the nation’s future. 

To Jóhannesson, one of the important functions of his role is to project “positive patriotism” — a pride in the national culture and heritage, but at the same time, a willingness to accept criticism. “Are we ready to accept that mistakes can be made and have been made?” he said. “Any patriotism or nationalism has to be inclusive. It has to have a spirit of diversity, tolerance, and respect for others — not xenophobia, not arrogance, and not instilling fear toward others. I believe that as president, I can play some role in that regard.”

At the talk, the president also spoke animatedly about some of the books he has written as a historian, including volumes on Icelandic presidencies, the Cod Wars, and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on Iceland. 

Jóhannesson has carried lessons from his experience as a historian into his current role. One of the first meetings he had as president was with then-Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon. “I was totally new to the whole thing,” Jóhanesson told the Record. “I felt like, ‘OK, if ever in my life there was a time to have a nervous breakdown, this is it. How am I meant to do this?’” His solution was to fall back on past experience. “I said to myself, ‘Alright. Ban Ki-moon is just a guest lecturer, this is a seminar, and I am the professor. All the others are just students.’ … I transferred my experience from a world where I was self-assured into this brand new era.”

Several years into his presidency, Jóhannesson appears to have found success in this role — a 2016 poll found that Jóhannesson had an approval rating of 97 percent, and he was reelected in 2020 with 92 percent of the vote. But his response to this statistic is quite humble. “People are OK with me,” he said. 

The Icelandic language and its preservation are also of the utmost importance to Icelanders — it is becoming increasingly endangered, since many recent technological developments do not support Icelandic. For example, Siri and Alexa cannot respond to questions in Icelandic, and Embala — the virtual assistant who speaks Icelandic — only became available within the past two years. 

When the Record asked Jóhannesson for his favorite Icelandic word, a member of his delegation suggested the word for democracy. “No, not democracy,” Jóhannesson said. “Although I’m in favor of that.”

Jóhannesson settled on the word “lífsfylling” as his favorite in the Icelandic language. “It means the fullness of life, having life with a meaning,” he said.