August 24, 2015

A Swedish About-face on NATO?

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven (L), Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist (C) and Sweden's Supreme Armed Forces Commander Sverker Goranson arrive for a news conference in Stockholm November 14, 2014.
Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven (L), Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist (C) and Sweden's Supreme Armed Forces Commander Sverker Goranson arrive for a news conference in Stockholm November 14, 2014.

On 18 August 2015, the Swedish press published an opinion by Åsa Lindestam, deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence, and Foreign Affairs Committee member Olle Thorell, who are both Social Democrats. In a nutshell, they argue that because NATO collective defence takes time to be triggered, the alliance would not play any role in the early phase of a crisis and that bilateral relations with Finland, Denmark, the Baltics and the US are thus much more important than NATO membership. While the message was likely intended for domestic consumption, it is a good example of the way the Swedish government is currently thinking. Lindestam repeated the same ideas in a later article published soon after US Congressional Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain visited Sweden, which shows that the publication of the article was not a coincidence but something more akin to doctrine.

For Sweden’s Social Democrats, it is a noteworthy change in rhetoric, as they built their past arguments for opposing NATO accession on perceived US dominance of the alliance and the fact that NATO deterrence is partially based on nuclear weapons. This scepticism toward the US was channelled by then PM Olof Palme when he compared the American bombing of Hanoi to the totalitarian regimes’ atrocities in Guernica, Babi Yar and Katyn. Yet in fact Sweden pursued very secret and close Cold War era security cooperation with the US, Norway and Denmark, as demonstrated by recent research. Only the prime minister, defence minister and senior military officers knew of this. Paradoxically, the other exception was the Soviet Union thanks to its effective intelligence; however, the Swedish people, including the Social Democrats’ base, remained unaware. Military cooperation between Sweden and the US is nothing new, then; what is new is the Social Democrats’ reasons for not joining NATO. Ideological anti-American arguments have given way to the opinion that the alliance takes too much time to decide things.

The new rhetoric from representatives of the biggest party in Swedish government should give the Baltic states pause for a number of reasons.

irst of all, the security debate in Sweden in recent months has avoided talk about the need to raise the country’s defensive capability and instead focused on the question of whether to join NATO. The current government has essentially ruled out accession, but the parties newly in the opposition are urging it all the more actively. Opinion polls this year have shown that the number of those in favour of joining NATO now equals those against. The above mentioned opinion piece from the two Social Democrats may have been in response to this trend. The debate on NATO is unfortunately a distraction from the issue of development of Sweden’s national defence. Swedish Parliament decided this June to allocate more money to national defence, but in respect to GDP, defence spending will drop to just 1% by the end of the decade. The NATO debate is a demagogical distraction from what Swedish parties have failed to do in this area.

Second, the coalition party’s focus on bilateral relations with Finland, Denmark, the Baltics and the US clouds the question about Sweden’s ultimate partner for ensuring its security. NATO membership does not offer this sort of fuzziness, as Article Five of the Washington Treaty applies to all member states. Secret pacts do not give citizens or neighbouring countries information about the agreements reached. While Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist claimed in a recent interview that international exercises come with a certain deterrent effect, this is not a convincing reason for developing cooperation with the US and does not show what the cooperation would give Sweden. Namely, Sweden, like Russia, has taken part since the 1990s in the international exercises held as part of NATO’s PfP programme and there is no need to deepen cooperation with the US for this reason alone.

Third, any country’s national security is best served by activities that have already been well planned during peacetime, agreed on the political and military level, provided with sufficient resources and thoroughly practised. In Estonia’s case, national defence is based on deterrence that comes from membership of the world’s most powerful military alliance and the allied forces stationed on our soil; on the other hand from our independent defensive capability. In Sweden’s case, its capabilities are aimed more at peacekeeping than high-intensity combat action.

Fourth, Sweden – relatively weak militarily and not part of the alliance, but perhaps possessing a US security guarantee – competes with NATO member states who have not neglected their national defence and who thus enjoy, besides the collective defence guarantee, a greater moral right to expect allied support in a wartime situation. Countries outside the alliance who are unwilling and unable to provide military and political support to their neighbouring democracies should not have the same solidarity that exists within NATO.

A positive aspect in all this is undoubtedly the fact that unlike in the post-WWII period, today’s Swedish government is not acting as if the country were neutral in the midst of an East-West standoff. Although the NATO debate may indeed divert attention away from Sweden’s own national defence, the discussion is more substantive than before, as the possible hidden aspects of NATO membership are covered (the overly slow decision-making process in NATO’s political structure). This shows that Swedish society is more open to debate on security topics and that the issues continue to be seen as important by its citizens.

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