Sweden’s NATO Dilemma

by Fabian De Geer & Sebastian De Geer

Finnish Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and Swedish Minister of Defence Peter Hultqvist, March 16, 2022

“Swedish national security is determined by Sweden.” Those were the words of Foreign Minister Anne Linde in response to Russia warning Sweden against joining NATO. Sweden, in other words, refuses to “live in the shadow of Moscow.” Yet it finds itself in an awkward position in the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Sweden insists on its own sovereignty, it still fears upsetting the great bear in the East.

Aside from IKEA, socialism, and meatballs, there are perhaps few things that define Sweden’s international perception more than its neutrality. To some global observers, it’s been a source of immense frustration and, at times, the subject of fierce condemnation—particularly when Europe was engulfed by the Second World War and Sweden—to the great ire of those opposing Nazi subjugation—refused to declare themselves part of the Allied cause.

Speaker of the Parliament of Sweden Andreas Norlén gives remarks as the North Atlantic Council meets with its senior members, October 26, 2021

With the spectre of Russia making a spectacularly horrific comeback on the European political stage, Sweden’s hesitation to join the NATO alliance is once again drawing criticism from some quarters—though in its modern context, the criticism often takes the form of plain confusion. Maybe this is because there is something uncomfortably oxymoronic about Sweden’s claim to neutrality. After all, it is an active and ardent member of the European Union, and it frequently engages with NATO. In fact, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently commented that Sweden is as integrated with the alliance as one can possibly be without being a full-fledged member. 

The point of neutrality in international affairs is that other parties view the state as precisely that: one who does not pick sides. The theory goes that this will allow some form of flexibility, allowing the neutral country to navigate and hopefully sidestep global conflicts without making enemies in the process. However, should one ask Vladimir Putin where Sweden’s loyalty lies, he would probably point to their EU membership, close ties to the US and NATO, and dismiss any notion of neutrality. And if this is how Sweden is viewed—as a close ally by NATO and as an enemy by Russia—then why does Sweden cling to the notion that they are indeed a neutral country and continue to resist becoming a member of NATO?

History’s forgotten bully

Sweden has not always been the nice kid on the block. For the vast majority of its history, Sweden was viewed as Europe’s, and particularly the North’s, big bully. From the titanic struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism known as the Thirty Years’ War that began in 1600, to 1803 when Sweden, like much of Europe, was engulfed by Napoleon’s quest for continental superiority, the Swedes were at war more often than they were at peace.

It all started with Gustav II Adolf, also known as Gustavus Adolphus, who revolutionised the tactics of war and transformed Sweden from being a minor country on the northern fringes of the continent to a great European power with imperial ambitions. His military genius and success on the battlefield during the Thirty Years’ War earned him the dubious honour of being called the “Father of Modern War.” Building upon the momentum created by Gustav II Adolf, successive Swedish monarchs expanded the Swedish state until the 1650s, when under Charles X and later his son, Charles XI, it secured its greatest territorial reach, controlling much of the European North, parts of the Baltics, and holding colonies in what is today the US state of Delaware.

Painting by Robert Wilhelm Ekman depicting Gustav II Adolf having a war negotiation in Würtzburg

But during this time, the Swedish empire had a rather fatal flaw: its core population, excluding those in its occupied territories, barely reached 1 million. This meant that, unlike other great powers, Sweden was unable to adequately replace losses sustained on the battlefield. As such, it had to become a relentless war machine, conscripting every male of fighting age, spending a large portion of its budget on developing superior weapons, and maintaining a brutal and often inhumane discipline within its military. When Sweden went to war, everyone felt its impact. There was not one family left unaffected by the battles fought in the European theatre. 

The resilience of Sweden’s army and people was most acutely tested in 1684, when Charles XII ascended the throne. Seeing an opportunity to seize territory lost to Sweden from the young and untested monarch, a European coalition led by Russia declared war, kicking off what is known as the Great Northern War. For 15 years, under Charles XII, the Swedish army was undefeated, earning them a fearsome reputation of invincibility. Finally, the Swedish king and his army were destroyed, defeated by Peter the Great in the 1709 Battle of Poltava, located in today’s Ukraine. This not only marked the end of Sweden’s role as a great power, but also the rise of Russia—something often referred to by Putin as he describes the country’s journey toward becoming a great civilisation.

Painting by Gustaf Cederström depicting Charles XII and Ivan Mazepa after the 1709 Battle of Poltava

With the defeat at Poltava, the empire unravelled. But it would not be until the Napoleonic Wars that Sweden’s imperialist dreams were shattered for good. After once again losing to Russia in 1809, Sweden was forced to sign a peace treaty that meant giving up its Finnish half to its perennial nemesis in the East. This meant that for the first time in 500 years, Finland was no longer part of the Swedish state. To put this into perspective, imagine if the US were to lose about 50% of its territory in a single day. The national trauma this separation caused is hard to exaggerate; at this point, Sweden had undergone 111 years of near constant warfare, only to emerge impoverished, with its national pride severely wounded. War, in the national psyche, had worn the Swedes down to the bone, and subsequent administrations made it their priority to keep Sweden out of it, come what may.

200 years of peace

Since that fateful day in 1809, successive governments have made neutrality one of the core tenets of their administrations. The benefits of neutrality have been emphasised for so long that the position has become part of Sweden’s national identity. Even if Swedish neutrality has long been a misnomer, due to the state’s association with and membership of numerous other alliances, the concept is still wedded to the country’s character. The debate surrounding NATO has come to embody this identity crisis, with the prospect of joining being viewed as the definitive end to Sweden’s image of itself as a neutral actor—an image forged by the national trauma of losing Finland and collective war fatigue resulting from generation after generation being lost on the battlefield in the name Swedish imperial expansion.

Those advocating a continuation of this non-military alignment point to the fact that the policy has served Sweden well. Avoiding involvement in wars has allowed the state to dedicate time and effort to building the progressive social democracy for which they are known. And by staying out of the two world wars of the 20th century, Sweden was able to establish itself as one of the world’s foremost humanitarian actors.

NATO: A Swedish dichotomy 

Out of this history of neutrality, a new Swedish dichotomy has emerged. The historic ambition to remain neutral now stands in stark contrast to a steadily growing will of both the public and Swedish political society to join NATO. The Social Democrats (SAP), Sweden’s ruling party and founders of much of its political identity, are reluctant to abandon many of the sociopolitical concepts they built during the 20th century, including neutrality. On the other hand, the Swedish centre and right-wing are keen on joining NATO, often praising the more sober realpolitik of Finnish security policy. Since Sweden’s third-largest party, the Swedish Democrats, recently shifted their stance on NATO, there is now a majority in the Swedish Riksdag that wants to join NATO. Polls also show that a majority of the Swedish public is now in favour of joining, with 51% in favour and 27% opposed—the first time such a majority has existed

NATO Secretary General on board of HSwMS Carlskrona, October 27, 2021

With this change of opinion, even the stalwarts of neutrality are shifting their stance on this long-standing military doctrine. A historical and principal position of neutrality, long ingrained in Sweden’s political identity, is now beginning to make room for something more akin to geopolitical realism.

The shift is evident in SAP leadership. Magdalena Andersson, the Swedish prime minister, stated in an interview that joining NATO, given the geopolitical circumstances, would create more rather than less insecurity by adding a degree of unpredictability to Swedish security policy. However, in the same interview, she also clearly stated that any further deterioration of the geopolitical environment could require Sweden to join NATO, explaining, “If we assess that it would be the best for Sweden then we would have to reconsider.” This represents a shift from steadfast neutrality to a more realpolitik approach—a change that has occurred gradually over the last decade but reached its zenith in recent weeks. Even if fervently denied by those closest to her, reports now claim that Andersson has made up her mind: if Finland joins, as seems likely, Sweden will finally cross the Rubicon with its eastern neighbour and submit a NATO application.

Those who are still critical of the alliance insist that such a move would create disruption, confusion, and ambiguity in Swedish foreign policy. As such, they say joining NATO would be “highly inappropriate.” However, this argument is now increasingly hard to stomach. For whom would such a decision actually be inappropriate? There’s only one actor who poses a credible military threat to Sweden: Russia. So while Sweden does not want Moscow to dictate its international security policies, there are still those in Swedish politics who are reluctant to act in a fashion the Kremlin would deem unacceptable—a Swedish dichotomy indeed. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a visit to the Berga Naval Base, October 27, 2021

The first and foremost responsibility of any country’s leaders is to secure the well-being of its citizens. This is a valid and accurate point that needs to be taken into consideration when pondering the consequences of any foreign policy decision, including that of joining NATO. But it is the combination of Sweden’s ambition to dictate its own policies while still not upsetting Russia for the sake of security and safety that creates tension. Such desires create a paradox, since in effect, Russia dictates Swedish foreign policy. And as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now shows, standing outside of military allegiance in the event of Russian aggression against Sweden would not serve the well-being of its citizens.

If Sweden wants to be the master of its own fate given current geopolitical events, it will have to let go of the historical roots shackling the debate of neutrality to foregone times. Those still wary of what a NATO membership would entail for regional security and safety should focus their attention on what is truly best for the Swedish people, not what would be appropriate in the eyes of Russia. They will find that the two approaches yield vastly different conclusions. 

Fabian De Geer is a political risk analyst in the telecommunications sector and holds an MSc from the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. 

Sebastian De Geer works with product development in the fintech industry and studied Politics and International Affairs at the University of Warwick with a focus on international political economy

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