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.

Swedish and Finnish security policies: why NATO now?

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In this post, I will provide a bit of background – very briefly – about Finnish and Swedish security policies that might be helpful in terms of contextualising their current movement towards NATO membership.

First and foremost, it is important to point out that Finland’s and Sweden’s recent moves towards submitting NATO membership applications are not some knee-jerk response to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022. The ‘return of geopolitics’ to the Baltic Sea Region is a process that has been going on for years, starting with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Over this period, both Finland and Sweden have adopted a stronger focus on territorial defence, moving away from their previously significant emphasis on expeditionary ‘troubleshoot security’.

While Finland has always retained significant territorial defence capabilities, this has been a particularly radical change for Sweden, showcased in highly visible moves, such as the rearmament of the strategically important island of Gotland. Sweden has reintroduced national service, carried out new weapon system procurements, and significantly expanded its defence budget.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has therefore created a dynamic that has undermined the traditional Nordic non-alignment stance, making both Finland and Sweden in near future cross the final red line separating them from full participation in regional and European security: outright NATO membership.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was too big of a threat for the Nordic countries for a similar development to occur. Instead of the whole Baltic Sea Region being unified in NATO – the scenario that we are going to see now – it was very fragmented in security terms. The Iron Curtain went right across the middle of the Baltic Sea, leaving the Baltic states and Poland in the Soviet sphere and obviously excluded from any form of defence cooperation.

And even those countries that ended up on the Western side of it did not constitute a unified frontline against the USSR. Instead, the states in the region adapted a gradation of security policies, known as the Nordic Balance: from Finlandised Finland in the east, over neutral Sweden in the middle, to the not entirely fully committed NATO members Norway and Denmark in the west.

After the demise of the USSR, this Cold War legacy still persisted in some ways. While Finland and Sweden did move very close to NATO through their participation in Partnership for Peace and the Enhanced Opportunities Partnership, they never built the domestic political coalitions that would have presented a convincing case for full membership to the Finnish and Swedish voters.

Just like during the Cold War, the security discourse in the Nordic countries still remained very much infused with the rhetoric of peacefulness and attempts to obfuscate the extent to which even the non-NATO members Sweden and Finland were already thoroughly connected with NATO. The obfuscation reflected the idea that the two countries publicly committing to NATO membership and giving up their formally acknowledged, even if questionable, non-aligned status, could push Russia into some form of action that would require a direct answer or countermove.

The reason why we are seeing it changing now, is because, firstly, Russia has already moved in Ukraine in a way that obviously requires a response. This has led many members of the public in Finland and Sweden to ask the justified question of ‘if not now, then when?’ in relation to NATO membership. The always non-credible idea that Russia does not pose a threat to European security has been thoroughly debunked by Russia’s own actions.

Secondly, the current heightened Russian threat is of the ‘right size’ to strengthen Nordic resolve. It is not an overwhelming threat, like the USSR was during the Cold War, which would instead trigger an appeasement dynamic. But neither is it a threat that is weak enough for the domestic opponents of NATO membership to dismiss it as non-credible. It is a challenge, but a challenge that can be resisted and overcome.

Finally, what has also changed is that foreign and defence policy is not quite as remote from the ordinary voters as it used to be. Now, previously hidden information is transmitted through constant media reporting and security and foreign policy is subject to public lobbying, even if many decisions are still made behind closed doors. The public opinion for NATO membership is already overwhelming in Finland and moving there in Sweden. Even those politicians who otherwise would be dragging their feet, will need to follow the lead of their voters, or ignore it at their peril.

The dream of the Scandinavian Defence Union

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On 9 April 2022, Finland’s former Social Democratic Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja went on record with a proposal for a Swedish-Finnish defence union. He presented this idea as a possible alternative to joining NATO, the prospect of which had become exceedingly likely for Finland, and to a lesser degree also for Sweden. Thanks to the changed security situation that had been created by Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February, Finnish public opinion behind NATO membership was solidifying, and the idea had already garnered a very comfortable majority in the Finnish parliament. Tuomioja’s intervention was widely dismissed as a desperate attempt to derail this conversation. The following day, the incumbent foreign ministers of both Finland and Sweden refused to recognise the substantive contents of his proposal. Nevertheless, doubts remain whether Tuomioja was acting entirely on his own initiative.

In the meantime, it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not the first time that a Nordic defence union has been proposed, and neither is it the first time this idea has failed. Below is a short reflection on the topic.

After the end of World War II, the mainland Nordic states, which were all culturally western and ideologically democratic found themselves in the strategic and ideological frontier between the superpowers and their respective blocs of allies. Norway and especially Finland were also frontier states in the physical sense, sharing a border with the USSR. All of them saw the USSR as that their primary security threat.

In this situation, the Nordics had essentially three security options available: firstly, to continue with their isolationist neutrality policy of the interwar period; secondly, to try to create a Nordic defence union amongst themselves; or thirdly, to conclude alliance with one of the superpowers – meaning, realistically, the US and its allies.

A return to the neutrality of the interwar period was not very likely, or at least not for all of them. Already in the 1930s, it had become obvious that neutrality and ‘non-provocation’ in the framework of the League of Nations were not tenable policies since the organisation itself failed to fulfil its purpose as a provider of collective security. In 1940, both Denmark and Norway fell under Nazi German occupation, which lasted for the duration of the war. By the end of it, their experiences had firmly driven home the need for credible security guarantees to ensure that nothing similar would ever happen again.

Finland, which had fought against the Soviet Union, entered after the war its period of so-called Finlandisation: one-sided dependence on Soviet foreign policy. This meant that Finland was unable to participate in further security discussions and had to adopt ‘neutrality’ as its official security policy stance.

In the couple of years immediately after the Second World War, when the bipolar world of the Cold War had not yet fully hardened, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden also continued to follow a policy of what has sometimes been called ‘neutralism within the United Nations.’ This was essentially a continuation of their 1930s neutrality policy in the successor organisation of the League of Nations. Soon enough, however, the second option, a Scandinavian Defence Union, also made its appearance.

In the immediate background of the rise of this idea were the heightened East-West tensions over the Berlin blockade of June 1948 to May 1949. In this tense situation, the Swedish Social Democratic Foreign Minister Östen Undén was tipped by his Norwegian counterpart that Norway would soon revise its previous foreign policy and ‘open up to the West’. As a response, Sweden scrambled to preserve Nordic security policy unity by trying to offer an alternative and initiated talks with Denmark and Norway over the establishment of a Scandinavian Defence Union with the explicit aim of protecting ‘Nordic neutrality’.

Essentially, the Swedes believed it would be possible for the Scandinavian states to isolate themselves from superpower competition by issuing a common declaration of neutrality and non-involvement in the Cold War, which would also be reinforced with military resources to make any possible military intrusion in the area too costly to carry out (armed neutrality). In this way, the Scandinavian Defence Union project was intended as a Nordic extension of the Swedish traditional neutrality policy. It had the support of the Swedish prime minister and all Swedish political parties on condition that the proposed alliance would remain independent of either of the two superpower blocs.

However, the main opposition to the idea came from Norway. Norway, unlike Sweden had experienced German occupation first-hand and was well-aware of the dangers of isolation. Norway had also received substantial help from the Allies during the war, especially Britain, and was happy to continue this cooperation with Britain and the US. There were also fears in Norway that if the American response to the Scandinavian Defence Alliance would be unfavourable, leading to alienation between Norway and the Western allies, which would have been very dangerous in case there was a war against the USSR. Finally, there were signs of increasing Soviet aggression, which included the communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the Finno-Soviet Friendship and Mutual Assistance Treaty, which had been forced on Finland and concluded two months later, and the start of the Berlin blockade in June 1948.

For all those reasons, the Norwegians demanded that the proposed alliance establish official military collaboration with the Western powers. But this was, of course, unacceptable for Sweden, since official military cooperation with Western powers was exactly what the idea of the Scandinavian Defence Union had been meant to prevent.

Denmark had experienced a much milder form of German occupation than Norway, and Danish opinion was more open to the Defence Union proposal. When Norway rejected it, the Danish Social Democratic Prime Minister proposed a joint Swedish-Danish alliance instead. Now, however, Sweden became concerned that this reduced alliance would be too weak and would still come under the influence of NATO. So, in the end, even the Swedish-Danish defence union failed to happen.

The third option available for the Scandinavian states in the initial stages of the Cold War was to conclude an alliance with one of the superpowers. This is what Denmark, Norway and Iceland effectively did by subsequently becoming founding members of NATO. The collapse of the Scandinavian Defence Union initiative left Sweden alone in the region to pursue a traditional neutrality course as it had done already from the 19th century onwards.

While Swedish and Finnish neutrality were officially abandoned in the 1990s, as they joined the European Union, they have retained their policy of non-alignment, i.e., non-membership in NATO. Now, however, Russia’s criminal escalation its war against Ukraine has fundamentally changed the regional security environment, and the fundamental questions of Nordic security policy are once again on the table. It is fair to say that compared to the winter of 1948-1949, the idea of the Scandinavian Defence Union – by necessity excluding those Nordic countries that are already in NATO – presents an even less credible alternative in 2022. We are therefore more likely than not to see two more Nordic NATO accessions very soon, and an end to the security fragmentation that has characterised the Nordic region ever since the early years of the Cold War.