September 26, 2022

From Isolationist Neutrality to Allied Solidarity: The Swedish Road to NATO Membership

EPA / Scanpix
EPA / Scanpix
Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (right) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hold a meeting inside a traditional rowboat at Harpsund, the country retreat of the Swedish prime ministers, in Sweden, 13 June 2022.
Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (right) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hold a meeting inside a traditional rowboat at Harpsund, the country retreat of the Swedish prime ministers, in Sweden, 13 June 2022.

When the Swedish government under Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson submitted the Swedish application for NATO membership to NATO HQ in Brussels on May 18th, 2022, it was widely and correctly considered a historic event. But why did it happen? And why did it happen so seemingly fast? To understand this, both the peculiar history of Swedish security policy—or the “grand strategy”—and the recent developments must be taken into account.

The application has formally ended some 200 years of a very different grand strategy, which —under names such as “Sweden’s Neutrality Policy” or the “Swedish Non-Alignment”—had one overarching and explicitly isolationist goal. This was to save Sweden from the horrors of war, regardless of whether its neighbours were invaded, raped or occupied. This policy was introduced in the early 19th century by the then king-elect, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a former French Napoleonic marshal, and constituted, in its turn, a fundamental change of the earlier Swedish “grand strategy”. Since at least the early 17th century and until Finland was lost to Russia in 1809, Sweden had been an active geopolitical player in the European great power games—another 200-year period. The Russian conquest of Finland was a major blow not only militarily but also to the Swedish national identity. Finland had, after all, been a completely integrated part of Sweden for more than 600 years. Facing a new reality, Bernadotte focused on shaping a forced union with Norway in 1814 to solidify a new, smaller Swedish kingdom with borders easier to defend against Russia. Thereafter, no major changes in Swedish grand strategy took place until 1995, when Sweden joined a political, if not military, alliance—the European Union. During both world wars, and the ensuing Cold War, Sweden conducted a grand strategy based on the maxim “non-alignment in peace aiming at neutrality in war”. During most of the Cold War, however, Sweden pursued secret collaborative arrangements with NATO countries to counter a possible Soviet attack on Sweden.

During the 1970s and ‘80s, the Swedish neutrality policy acquired a new and much more ideological meaning. A neutral stance in the dramatic last decades of the Cold War was seen as morally and ideologically superior to an allied stance. The Social Democratic prime minister Olof Palme became especially associated with this idea. It was based on a Swedish conception, popular at that time, according to which the two superpowers—the US and the Soviet Union —were seen as essentially similar kinds of evil. Standing outside either alliance was considered a better position from a both moral and geopolitical perspective. The isolationist character of the neutrality policy—hardly a morally superior one—was subsequently swept under the carpet. In this form, the neutrality policy became a central part of Swedish national identity. To be a Swede was to be non-aligned and neutral.

It was to be expected that applying for NATO membership after two centuries of neutrality would be met with surprise and shock by most Swedes. This is also how the development has been framed by some Swedish commentators: the decision was taken “in haste”; it was “not democratically decided upon”; the debate was “suppressed”, and the timeframe was “way too short”. And it is fair to say that expressions of surprise dominated the international reaction to the Swedish decision too.

In fact, the Swedish decision to apply for NATO membership was the apex of a long process that started more than 20 years ago. The first political party to switch to a pro-NATO stance, the Liberals (formerly the People’s Party, Folkpartiet), did so in 1999. The current leading opposition party, Moderaterna (centre-right), changed their position in favour of membership in 2003. The other centre-right parties—the Christian Democrats and the Centre Party (agrarians)—revised their policy in the same way in 2015. The right-wing populist party, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), had long been an opponent of NATO membership but changed its mind on the desirability of an official “NATO option” in the Swedish security doctrine in 2020. The party eventually began promoting NATO membership as soon as it became obvious in early 2022 that Finland was going to apply. The parliamentary opposition to membership was thus reduced to the Green Party, the former Communist Party (the Left Party) and the party of the current minority government, the Social Democrats. Thus, already in early 2022, a solid parliamentary majority for NATO membership existed months before the Social Democratic government changed its mind.

Similarly, the Swedish public opinion regarding NATO membership has undergone major long-term changes. For about 20 years after the end of the Cold War, a very substantial majority in Sweden disapproved of NATO membership—until 2013, between 50% and 70% were against it. From 2013 up to 2022, about a third of the Swedish population was in favour of NATO membership; a third was against it, and a third was undecided. An April 2022 poll showed that 57% of the Swedish public was now entirely behind NATO membership, while only 22% were against it. Hence, the May 2022 decision to apply for membership was by no means taken against a wall of domestic discontent.

The Road towards Membership

What made the Swedish government—i.e., the Social Democratic party—change its mind then? Well, the jury is still out, but it is fair to say that there were three crucial factors at play. The first one is of course the February 24, 2022—the Russian invasion and its war of aggression against Ukraine. This is also the official line of the Swedish government: the war constitutes such a dramatic challenge to the European security order that all earlier strategies and policies must be reconsidered, including Swedish non-alignment. But European security has seen many major challenges during the last 100 years alone: the world wars, the Cold War and the various Soviet invasions of neighbouring, even if allied, countries, such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And none of them made Sweden change its neutrality policy. Not changing this policy was also essentially the official line as spelled out by the Swedish prime in early March 2022. Later that month, however, she warmed up to the idea of joining NATO, and the government initiated an internal study group tasked with writing a report on the consequences of the Russian war against Ukraine. When the report was published in May, its conclusions would only go as far as indirectly recommending NATO membership as the most adequate answer to the Russian aggression.

Yet underlying all this was another factor, whose importance for the Swedish NATO application cannot be overstated—the strategy of the Finnish government. As early as in their official New Year’s Eve speeches in 2021, both President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin all but indicated that NATO membership was on the Finnish agenda. The Finnish government also ordered a study group to analyse the pros and cons of NATO membership. The group’s report and conclusions were published in April and turned out to be strongly focused on the pro-membership arguments. In this context, Prime Minister Marin travelled to Stockholm and held meetings with her Swedish counterpart while noting that Finland’s decision on whether to apply for membership would be taken shortly. It was obvious—if not explicitly spelled out—that Helsinki now was on the path toward membership. Given the extremely close political and military cooperation that Sweden enjoys with Finland, as well as the countries’ common history and geostrategic dependency on each other, it became increasingly clear that a Finnish membership would almost automatically lead to a Swedish one. To be outside the alliance in the event of a Finnish membership would—most Swedish analysts, military officers and most Social Democrat officials agreed—be completely untenable for political, geostrategic and purely military reasons.

There is the third factor of utmost importance underlying the Swedish decision, although it is seldom spelled out. This factor can be called the “defence deficit”. All the way through the Cold War, Sweden backed its security policy—i.e., the neutrality policy—with a very substantial defence posture. As late as the 1980s, Sweden had a mobilizable defence force of some 800,000 troops, including 30 army brigades, more than 300 modern, domestically built fighter planes, a navy of about 55 surface combatants and 12 submarines, a strong coastal artillery system and a 100,000 men strong national guard-type organization (“Hemvärnet”). 800,000 troops are actually more than half of the current US active-duty force. The US is a country more than 30 times bigger than Sweden in terms of population and enjoying what is an unmatched defence budget and posture in the entire world.

This would not be an exaggeration to say that, up to the end of the Cold War, Sweden took its armed neutrality posture very seriously, spending around 3% of its GDP on defence for decades. It changed fundamentally, though, after the end of the Cold War: the armed forces were cut about 90%. Today, Sweden can barely muster 50,000 troops, including only one (1) full army brigade (although working on building two more). Its air force consists, in practice, of less than 70 fighter planes and there are at most seven surface combatants and three submarines active in the navy on any given day. It goes without saying that such a force is not able to withstand a Russian attack on its own. General Sverker Göranson, the then Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said in 2013 that, in the event of a military attack, Sweden would only be able to defend one limited part of the country—such as the Stockholm area—for about a week. That revelation was a major reason for the change in Swedish public opinion on NATO membership that year.

These three factors go a long way in terms of explaining the Swedish membership application in May 2022. Given that the issue of non-alignment is part of the national identity, one would have expected major upheavals in substantial parts of Swedish public opinion. However, it has never materialized. The Social Democratic party—the real bulwark of the neutrality policy for decades—organized a top-down internal process about the issues involved, after which the internal opposition to the membership application fizzled out entirely. No major protest demonstrations have been held—the few ones that did take place attracted less than 800 people each. Even with a couple of critical articles in the left-leaning elite mass media outlets, the opposition to the application has been remarkably muted. In contrast, the enthusiasm for NATO membership within the armed forces, the professional staff of the ministries of defence and foreign affairs, analysts and academics, as well as large parts of the public, is most tangible.

The Consequences

However, the Swedish NATO membership is not a done deal yet due to Turkey’s concerns about Swedish—and to a lesser extent Finnish—relations with various Kurdish organizations and individuals. Therefore, it is a bit premature to consider all the consequences of it. However, given Turkey’s eventual acceptance, the spectrum of geopolitical and military change in the Baltic Sea and Arctic regions will be huge. The Baltic Sea will become a NATO Lake—the environment that is similar to the mid-17th century when the kingdom of Sweden controlled most of the Baltic shores. Working together with allies or partners to deter or counter Russian aggression in this region is, after all, something Sweden has been doing—albeit sometimes only very discreetly—for more than 300 years. In that sense, Sweden’s NATO membership is not surprising at all.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the FOI or the Swedish government.

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