At a visit of the Swedish defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, in the Pentagon in mid-May 2017, the U.S. secretary of defence Jim Mattis declared the following:
”America will not abandon democratic allies and partners, and we will stand with Sweden (…). It’s not a NATO ally, but it is still, from our point of view, a friend and an ally.”1
This is a pretty dramatic statement by the leading NATO nation’s defence minister regarding a relatively small Nordic country, known for its tradition of neutrality and non-alignment (and historic, leftist anti-American sentiments stemming from the Vietnam war era). Only a few years ago, this statement would have bewildered many Swedes and had raised eyebrows within the NATO community. This year, it didn’t – in Sweden, it was considered as a great relief, given the somewhat erratic tweets, statements and policies of president Donald Trump – and as far is known, it hasn’t been questioned in the NATO member circle either.
So what has happened? The answer is that a fundamental shift in Swedish security policy has been underway for a long time. In principle, this started already more than 20 years ago when Sweden joined the European Union. In order to do so, Swedish policymakers ditched the concept of neutrality and instead underlined the country’s position as “non-aligned”. In 2009, however, the then centre-right government signed a “solidarity declaration”, that amounted to what has been called a ‘unilateral article 5 light”: Sweden declares that it “will not stay passive” if a Nordic or EU country is attacked, and it “expects” these countries to aid Sweden – in some way – if Sweden is attacked.
It is fair to say that the current social democratic-green government has pushed the envelope quite a bit further. Just before leaving for Washington, defence minister Hultqvist and general Micael Bydén (the Swedish CHOD) published an article in defence of the Aurora 2017 exercise, the biggest military exercise in 24 years in Sweden with almost 20 000 troops – of which about 1000 US soldiers and marines, but also including troops from the Baltic countries.2 Hultqvist and Bydén singled out Russia as the biggest problem for contemporary European security. They also argued that the exercise, not least its international – read American – components, will send a powerful message about the costs of attacking Sweden and thus contributes to the stability of the security situation of the region. However, the concept of non-alignment was never mentioned in the article.
Just before meeting with Jim Mattis, the Swedish defence minister gave a major speech before an audience at Johns Hopkins university In Washington DC. In the speech, the minister again denounced Russian actions in both the military and the non-military field, including the use of false facts. In contrast, he argued, ”Sweden and the U.S. are fully committed to the world order as it was established after the Second World War. We adhere to the established international institutions of the United Nations, the European Union and NATO” 3 [my emphasis]. Even if the verb “adhere to” does not mean “belong to” or “is a member of”, it clearly reflects a strong sense of a close relationship. And again, the concept of non-alignment was barely mentioned.
The Swedish minister went on saying that we “have to remember that the strategies of the Russian aggression [is] to split us, to make us weaker and make us hesitate to act”, and underlined that Sweden welcomes NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) as a crucial part of Baltic Sea security.
In all, the difference between these messages and those of any random NATO country’s representatives is not very big. And it lies a world of difference between these statements and what especially Swedish social democratic statements of security policy traditionally have sounded like. It is especially interesting to see this right now, as all speeches given by governmental ministers on topics such as these have been cleared with the ministry of foreign affairs and the prime minister’s office, meaning that they convey the view of the Swedish government as a whole. Given the fact that the Swedish MFA, especially under social democratic leadership, has been the staunchest guardian of the non-aligned policy within the entire government offices apparatus, this is actually truly revolutionary.
The Hultqvist visit to Washington, DC was met by praise from the centre-right opposition and many social democratic media outlets. Given the publically discussed problems of the relations between real allies at the NATO summit in Brussels the week after,4 the Swedish government’s success at the Pentagon was seen as a major feat and as good geopolitical strategy. Damning comments came essentially only from the old guard of leftist neutrality policy still active in politics (many of them, if not all, in their mid-70s).5
But the strategy raises a number of very important questions. For example, how is the US supposed to deal militarily with a non-aligned ally, i.e. in order to develop real military defence plans? It is widely assumed that the US has bilateral defense plans with and for a limited number of countries – among them Estonia – but all these countries are already treaty allies. What will treaty allies say if Sweden gains the same status? And how will formally non-aligned Sweden deal with the issue of disclosing its own operational defence planning with the US?
Or was Mattis considering this only as a matter of courtesy, essentially arguing that if the war comes to Sweden, the US will be there and help – but that this eventuality is so utterly remote that we frankly don’t need defense plans in peacetime?
Strategically, this issue goes in two directions. On the one hand, a close Swedish-US rapport is good for Baltic Sea security as such. The attitudes toward Russian aggression and the willingness of the Swedish government to cooperate with the US do contribute to security in the Baltic Sea region.
On the other hand, basing one’s security policy on quite loose comments on support in wartime – i..e. not at all treaty-bound or based on formal, mutual operational defence plans – is very close to wishful thinking. Furthermore, the treaty allies of the U.S. – and perhaps president Trump himself! – might oppose a situation where one country (i.e. Sweden) enjoys the role of a U.S. ally while at the same time not spending more than around 1% of its GDP on defense, and not even being willing to take on the responsibilities of alliance membership.
On top of this, the military problems that always occur when you have to improvise under stress in the face of a conflict, instead of steadily making treaty-based mutual defense planning in peacetime, will make the issue of defending Sweden with American help difficult.
And of course, the more of this that becomes known, the more the Russian general staff will consider Sweden as part of enemy territory, as was recently indicated by general Valery Gerasimov.6 This completely wastes the traditional purpose of non-alignment, i.e. the ability to stay out of a conflict – as Russian forces most likely would attack Swedish forces on day 1 of any realistic scenario in the Baltic Sea region anyway. Even if Sweden would not be the main target for the Russian attack, no competent Russian military staff officer would bet on the Swedish air force and other military assets to stay out of the conflict – and would thus plan to eliminate them as well.
Thus, there might be a day approaching quite soon when Swedish policymakers will have to choose between an increasingly counter-productive non-alignment policy and effective military cooperation with like-minded Western nations. When push come to shove, being able to plan – under a mutual defense treaty – for the common defense of all countries involved by the treaty will be crucial for both deterrence and warfighting purposes. Sweden and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Finland are likely to go down that route in a few years time. Geopolitics can be a powerful persuader.
*The author is a non-resident fellow of the ICDS and a deputy director of research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency. The views of the article are solely his own.