Swedish security policy traditions and the question of NATO membership

Written by me

Sweden holds the distinction of being the country that has longer than any other – ever since the Napoleonic wars, in fact – stood outside of international military conflicts. This experience of two centuries of peacefulness has conditioned Sweden’s foreign and defence policy in important ways that merit closer attention. This is true not least today when Russia is fighting its criminal war against Ukraine.

As one consequence of this war, Swedish foreign and defence policy has come under new scrutiny both in Sweden and elsewhere. Since late February, it has become an increasingly contested whether peacetime non-alignment (alliansfrihet) would indeed guarantee Sweden a freedom of choice between neutrality and belligerency (handlingsfrihet) in times of war. Rather, recent opinion polls tell us that the majority of Swedish voters already believe the country’s security would in fact be better served by outright membership in NATO. Furthermore, Sweden is not alone. Neighbouring Finland has moved very close to submitting its own membership application, and Sweden is likely to follow.

To understand Sweden’s approach to its security, it would be helpful to delve deep into its history going as far back as the 17th century. But if we don’t have the patience for that, it is helpful to revisit at least the Cold War period.

The collapse of its Scandinavian Defence Union initiative in 1949 left Sweden alone in the region to pursue a traditional neutrality course, just as it had done already since the 19th century. This policy meant military nonalignment in peacetime, with a view to remaining neutral in the event of war. It was furthermore supported by a relatively strong army for ‘neutrality defence’ and a domestic armaments industry. Sweden even had a nuclear weapons programme. However, in the mid-1970s, as the growth of Swedish economy was slowing down, its defence expenditure began to decline.

The USSR took note of this, and a series of Soviet submarine incidents followed in the Swedish territorial waters in the early to mid-1980s. The most dramatic of these occurred when a Soviet submarine ran aground near the Karlskrona naval base in south-east Sweden. Since the type of submarine was called ‘Whiskey’ in NATO parlance, the incident became known as ‘Whiskey on the Rocks.’ However, although the USSR showed clearly that Sweden was quite exposed and vulnerable to Soviet aggression, there was no fundamental revision of Sweden’s neutrality policy.

At the same time, although Sweden officially pursued a policy of unswerving nonalignment, it also undertook covert preparations for military cooperation with NATO in the event of an attack from the Soviet Union. Although not all the details are known, this secret cooperation was ongoing already in the early 1950s. Indeed, it seems that NATO was willing to defend Sweden even with nuclear weapons, if necessary, since Sweden was strategically important for the defence of Norway and the northern Atlantic.

Sweden’s two-faced attitude to its security in the Cold War era has sometimes been associated with the theory of ‘small-state realism’: the idea that deep down, small states cannot really afford to be idealistic about their security policy, because, in the end, they rely on stronger powers to protect them.

However, this does not mean that it was conscious policy choice officially adopted by the Swedish leadership. Instead, it has recently been suggested by Matti Roitto and Antero Holmila that Swedish security policy in this period could be described as ‘liquid neutrality’: a flexible and pragmatic set of policies that were adopted or changed to meet the obstacles that happened to arise, and to exploit the ‘cracks along the fault lines of superpower competition.’ This opportunistic stance was facilitated by the fact that the Swedish public – as most voters – neither understood well nor was particularly interested in foreign policy, so important changes could happen unnoticed.

The first significant turning point in Swedish security policy after 1949 occurred at the end of the Cold War. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the bipolar world system more generally meant significant changes in the security landscape for all the states in the region, and Sweden was no exception. The decline of traditional security concerns about the USSR seemed to open new and exciting perspectives to rethink Sweden’s approach to its foreign and defence policy.

Both Finland and Sweden continued to define their security position in the early 1990s as one of ‘military nonalignment and a credible national defence’, but they also sought a relationship with NATO through membership in the Partnership for Peace programme. This was possible because the end of Cold War-era bipolarity also led to a change in the role of NATO and the EU as ‘security providers.’ Especially NATO acquired a new function in the Nordic security landscape. Now, rather than purely an article 5-based collective defence organisation, it turned into something more like a cross-national forum for dialogue on security matters. In the post-Cold War world, the ability to access such networks was an important asset that Sweden could not afford to forgo, even if its closeness to NATO undermined its rhetoric of non-alignment.

To compensate for their decision to still not seek membership in NATO, both Sweden and Finland turned into semi-independent security innovators in the 1990s. As new EU members, the two made an innovative joint proposal in 1996 for strengthening the Union’s crisis management capability and subsequently participated extensively in crisis management initiatives under both EU and NATO flags, using both military and non-military instruments. In 2008, a Nordic battle group was launched with Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Estonian, and Irish troops. The tasks of this and similar units was to provide humanitarian support, search, rescue, and evacuation duties.

The question of joining NATO outright did come up in Sweden. In 2003, the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and the former Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Elleman-Jensen issued a joint statement arguing that Finland and Sweden should join NATO or risk losing their influence in the discussion of European security. Nevertheless, the idea remained an anathema for the Swedish Social Democrats, the party that over the course of the Cold War had become heavily invested in the non-alignment policy. Rather than a form of calculated security policy, the Swedish left’s attachment to non-alignment can be best described as a form of identity politics, with NATO widely seen as incompatible with Swedish foreign policy traditions and ‘third way’ ethos.

In 2004, a new defence bill by the Swedish Social Democratic minority government stated that Sweden no longer perceived any serious threats to its national territory. Consequently, one third of Swedish military forces were disbanded, the size of defence staff reduced by one quarter and the number of submarines and fighter aircraft substantially cut. This effectively marked the end of the Cold War policy of armed neutrality. Instead, Sweden profiled itself by developing a small, highly trained rapid reaction force for crisis management purposes.

But even so, Swedish non-alignment came to be increasingly watered down over the years. As for other non- NATO member states like Finland (but also Austria and Ireland), the EU ‘solidarity clause’, as introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, raised questions about whether the security policies of these member states could be perceived as non-aligned anymore. Moreover, despite its continued official status as non-aligned, Sweden continued to take part in NATO exercises and operations and used NATO standards in its force transformation and capability development programmes, resulting in a high level of interoperability.

In October 2013 (five years after Finland), Sweden joined the NATO Rapid Response Force, contributing a ‘fighter unit’ deployable under NATO command within 90 days, mainly providing Swedish Air Force fighter aircraft for NATO operations. From 2016, Sweden (and Finland) also provide Host Nation Support to NATO forces through the provision of logistical and operational support sites, essentially allowing allied forces to be stationed on their territory, including in times of peace.

The question of NATO membership also became increasingly debated in the mid-2010s, as Russia’s aggressive behaviour increasingly highlighted Sweden’s limited territorial defence capability. Embarrassingly, in 2013, the Russian air force undertook an attack exercise in international airspace near the island of Gotland and the Swedish air force was not able to respond.

More decisively, public opinion on the matter shifted under the impression of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, showing a somewhat stronger degree of support for Swedish membership in NATO: 48 per cent in favour, compared to an average of 35 per cent in comparable surveys between 2007 and 2013.

After the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and repeated Russian threat, as well as violations of Swedish airspace by Russian planes, the support for joining NATO had risen to 60% by early April. At present, the incumbent Social Democratic government is undertaking consultations to reconsider its stance on the issue, but with the Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson having signalled her support for membership, the outcome of these consultations is not in doubt.

To summarise, it is fair to say that even before February 2022, Sweden had moved rather close to embracing the idea of NATO membership. Nevertheless, it was held back primarily by domestic left-wing opinion and the Social Democratic party, large sections of which have by now rethought their position. After decades of cuts to defence spending, there have already been many examples of Sweden’s renewed commitment to territorial security and military deterrence. Now, when Finnish and Swedish NATO membership applications are all but certain, the two Nordics are about to deal a significant symbolic and strategic blow to Russia and become full participants in regional and European security.