January 17, 2018

Swedish Membership in NATO: To Be or Not to Be?

Reuters/Scanpix
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg delivers a keynote speech at the "Folk och Forsvar" security conference in Salen, Sweden January 14, 2018
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg delivers a keynote speech at the "Folk och Forsvar" security conference in Salen, Sweden January 14, 2018

In Sweden, it is Sälen time again. In January each year, Swedes interested in national and international security issues convene in the enchanting Dalarna town of Sälen to debate Swedish defence and security policy.

Sälen is basically an all-Swedish event: the debates are carried out in Swedish with very few foreign participants invited. At times, special guests are called in. This year such a special participant was NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. That guaranteed that the Swedish views on whether or not it would be prudent for Sweden to join NATO were thoroughly aired out.

In his keynote speech the Secretary General shared the good news and the bad. The bad news for the Swedes was that, according to him, the Alliance could guarantee Swedish military security only if Sweden were a full-fledged member of the Alliance. In fact, this should have been clear to each and every Sälen participant but it apparently was not. Without a membership, the NATO Article 5 commitments just are not available.

Yet, there were also good news to the Sälen audience. The good news the Secretary General brought the Swedes was his assurance that the Alliance considered Sweden the best student in the NATO partnership class. At this point, the Finnish participants reacted strongly, and Mr. Stoltenberg had to smoothen the Finnish feathers by underlining that of course both Sweden and Finland are exceptionally good participants in the NATO EOP and equally solid partners to the Alliance!

All in all, the intensity of debate in Sälen made it obvious that defence policy – and the Swedish NATO membership in particular – will be one of the main themes in the upcoming parliamentary elections on 9 September this year.

This alone will be a major change in Swedish body politics, where until now “non-alignment” has been a nearly sacred national security doctrine uniting parties from right to left. Now, two political camps are forming: one camp consists of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven with his reigning Social Democrats and the Green Party, the other is the opposition center-right coalition headed by Mr. Ulf Kristersson, the chairperson of the Moderate Party. In opinion polls, these two camps are running neck and neck to each other.

Will we then see Sweden soon as the 30th member of the Western Alliance? It is possible but not likely. If the present government coalition wins the September elections, the result will likely be more of the same, but just on a higher level of intensity.

Mr. Peter Hultqvist, the current Social Democratic defence minister spoke at Sälen, saying that Sweden has since the end of the Cold War shrunk its military defence much too much: “These decisions turned out to be based on false premises, and on a certain amount of naiveté about the surrounding world, as well as on unreal expectations on how quickly to build up the capabilities once lost.”

In the Social Democratic view, Sweden must first focus on building up its own largely lost defence capabilities. Also, in this view Sweden will benefit from continuing to cooperate widely with the European Union, the Nordic countries (Finland in particular), the United States, and NATO, but a membership in the Alliance is not in the offing.

On the other hand, if the Moderate Party-spearheaded opposition wins in the September elections, it might mean more of a policy change. Ulf Kristersson is on record stating that he wants Sweden to become member of NATO. But note his qualifier: in ten years. Meanwhile, he would also support wide international cooperation, with a particular emphasis on cooperation with the United States. In his view, it would also be smart to join NATO in lockstep with Finland.

Meanwhile, a recent opinion poll conducted by the newspaper Aftonbladet found a record 43 per cent support to NATO membership, while 37 per cent of those polled were against it.

An internal Swedish debate on NATO membership continues. The debates in Sälen and the encouraging results in the opinion polls augur well for a potential Swedish membership, but not at any time soon.

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