This article is based on a speech I gave two weeks ago in Oslo for the conference NorSec. It could be seen as a modest attempt to cover the intricacies regarding a Swedish NATO-membership without going into the Russia-question to deeply.
Sweden has been described as NATO’s partner number one and is carrying a heavier burden in the Alliance than many of its members. For instance, Sweden participated with only 15 out of 28 NATO-members in Libya, Sweden has run a PRT in Afghanistan and since last spring Sweden has contributed with troops to NATO’s response force. Furthermore, Sweden officially gave up public claims to neutrality in 2002 (in favour of being ‘alliance-free’) and in 2009 Sweden gave out a declaration of solidarity to its neighbours who are all except Finland NATO-members. So the question needs to be asked, why is Sweden not a NATO-member?
Well, there are some good and some less good arguments about that and the debate in Sweden focuses mostly on the less good ones. So just to get rid off them: NATO is a alliance based on a doctrine of nuclear deterrence which would hinder Sweden’s work for disarmament and peace (do not hinder Norway, does it?). NATO would force Sweden to spend 2% of GDP on defence (which barely no one does in NATO and it is just a goal). NATO would force Sweden to deploy troops in conflicts (but decisions are being taken by consensus).
However, the last point is a truth that needs modification. The pressure would of course be higher as a NATO member to contribute to the Alliance and thus potentially limit the freedom of manoeuvre for Sweden. Nonetheless, the counter-critique I would ask is if Sweden is already not carrying this burden Sweden anyway?
The first strong arguments against NATO which is that it would lessen the attention we got from the US which is Sweden’s most important bilateral relation. Today Sweden has a very good relation with the US and they find Sweden important because of: its contribution to missions internationally, Sweden’s leading defence industry and because of intelligence cooperation, mainly with a focus on Russia (as Snowden kindly reminded us of).
If Sweden were to join NATO, it would rather be hearing complaints of underspending than applause so for contributing. Furthermore, security affairs with Sweden would to a larger extent be conducted through NATO than on the prime bilateral level. And NATO is quite little without the US if we are looking at military capability in a time of crisis. As Asle Toje noted, a new NATO is taking form where those who deliver are favoured, a NATO-plus. Well, I’d say, Sweden is now plus without NATO.
A second important argument against NATO is that it is not a substitute for functioning own armed forces. Given the vast problems with under financing in the Swedish Armed Forces, there is a big risk that NATO hinders the development if the Swedish Armed Forces. It is certainly sold that way in the public debates through times. This is important because, as the crisis in Ukraine showed us, when a crisis starts, you have what you have where you have it. And if you’re gonna receive support, it will take a while, even if you’ve prepared for it.
To get back to the main question why Sweden isn’t in NATO. A simple way is to say that it has not been needed after the end of the Cold War, but the legacy and self-image of Swedish neutrality also persists. Given these above considerations, Sweden puts it’s focus behind the European defence cooperation (CSDP) that really took off after the disagreements regarding Iraq when Germany and France opposed the US-led coalition.
The EU both had the opportunities that it could combine aid, trade and civilian crisis management with military. It did not risk being run by a George W Bush every 4th year, who were actually close to pushing Ukraine in NATO and it was not equally provoking to Russia.
Sweden has been taking a lead role for a EU Battlegroup and put political will behind the project. Regardless of how clever this strategy was, EU defence cooperation became seriously wounded after the disagreements in command that the Chad-mission exposed, it was killed with the French reintegration in NATO’s military command and declared dead with Libya which was more or less what it was made for.
My argument is that it took a long time for Sweden to adjust to the ‘death’ of CSDP, but it has been coming lately. One way to cope with death is increased cooperation with NATO (through NRF and exercises) and one through regional cooperation through NORDEFCO which is becoming the norm in Europe. Nonetheless, these solutions are unsatisfactory.
In 2004 Sweden started to transform its Armed Forces for a shell-defence with the rationale of being part of an alliance. Sweden’s security policy is explicitly based on giving and receiving help from others in a time of crisis, but it is utterly unclear who would help Sweden, and more importantly, how, where and when? This is something that just deeper cooperation with NATO cannot solve.
NORDEFCO is attractive in theory to weave the Nordic countries with similar political culture closer together and reduce costs for materials purchase and training and so on. The crux is that it will not develop to thought tasks than that since Norway and Denmark has the focus of their security policy within NATO. Furthermore, it’s though to cooperate with Norway when they cancel the flagship-artillery project with Sweden and they prefer buying super-expensive super-delayed fighter jets instead of Sweden’s brilliant ones.
So Sweden is stuck in a no mans-land with a major discrepancy between our security policy (which stipulates non-alliance) and our defence policy (which stipulates alliance). One needs to be adjusted because, as it is now, any capability of territorial defence in Sweden lacking. What are the chances then of adjusting Sweden’s security policy? Here are the latest polls:
The few things we can conclude is that support has been increasing and it lies quite steadily around 30%. An interesting side-note is that in the only poll made after the Ukraine crisis, support went down.
The biggest party of the ruling coalition, the Moderates, puts three demands tied to a NATO-membership: it needs to be done with Finland, it needs to be done with the social democrats and there has to be public support. These are all very reasonable arguments, but they all got problems attached to them.
Finland have already investigated membership three times and they have a strong territorial defence which will make Sweden poised to join earlier. Joining NATO with the Social democrats is good, but the notion of Swedish neutrality lies especially in their own party-image. For them to accept a membership, they need to rewrite their self-perception and history. So it would be difficult to join with them, but joining without their support would equal a fragile membership.
The public support is curious. In the figures above, they’re not overwhelming pro-NATO, but the crux is that no one is really driving the question. Rather, the Moderates, who are pro-NATO wants to silence the question to death because driving the question would be politically costly. I would say that the public opinion-argument has not been tested until the Moderate ministers would stand up and say that NATO is the best thing on earth. This should affect public opinion, but if it doesn’t then the case for NATO has at least been tried and Sweden could prepare to pay the costs for what genuine alliance-freedom costs.
In way of concluding I will ask, is Sweden neutral? No, of course not. We’ve given a declaration solidarity out neighbours and to all EU states who to 90% is NATO-members, are guns and attention are not pointing eastwards because of Finland. It is an unescapable fact that the security of Sweden is dependent on the strength of our partners and our institutions.
For this reason, I am positive to NATO with the caveat that it can’t lead to a further ignoring of the needs for the Armed Forces. I would emphasise three reasons why NATO should contribute to Swedish security. Firstly, Article 5 gives political deterrence. Ukraine did not lack tanks, they had 700 of them, they lacked the political support to use them. Secondly, it gives the opportunity to deepen the inevitable defence cooperation and contribute to the institutions Sweden is dependent on. Lastly, it would allows Sweden to plan and exercise giving and receiving military aid, something which Sweden is relying on in a time of crisis.