April 22, 2019

The Hem and Haw of Sweden’s Relationship with NATO

Aside from troops from the US and other NATO countries, participants in the 2017 military exercise included King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.
Aside from troops from the US and other NATO countries, participants in the 2017 military exercise included King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.

Cooperation with NATO is extremely important for the security of the kingdom.

To date, Sweden has looked at whether or not it joins NATO as a matter of identity and image rather than an existential security issue. After the end of World War II, Sweden chose to continue its policy of neutrality, which had served it well in both world wars and continued to do so during the Cold War. At the same time, it is a known fact that Sweden collaborated with Germany in World War II and has cooperated with NATO since the establishment of the Alliance. The essence and meaning of this cooperation have changed and it has now become a decisive factor in ensuring Sweden’s national security. There is increasing talk about joining the Alliance. The topic that has long been a taboo has entered the programmes of political parties.

However, Sweden’s ability to defend itself and to cooperate with NATO if necessary is perhaps more important than its potential membership of the organisation. This in turn requires highly targeted long-term defence planning, a political consensus and financial means.

Neutrality and Freedom from Alliances: the Swedish Way

As NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary this month, it is worth looking back on the development of the relationship between Sweden and the Alliance. According to a former Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, the policy of neutrality was the only way for Sweden to maintain its sovereignty, which developed into something akin to an ideology that lasted for decades. At the same time, Sweden could only remain neutral thanks to the security guarantees given by the US and NATO and the Soviet Union’s 1948 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with Finland, which served as a buffer between Sweden and the Soviet Union. The Swedish media has only recently started to publicly discuss and carry articles on how Sweden was considered an unofficial member of the Alliance as early as the 1950s, because the number of parties involved was very small at the time.

In his book Den Dolda Alliansen – Sveriges Hemliga NATO-förbindelser (Invisible Alliance: Sweden’s Secret Ties to NATO), Swedish journalist Mikael Holmström provides a very colourful and comprehensive picture of how, during World War II, Sweden sold to Hitler’s Germany cast iron, ball-bearings and other materials necessary for the war effort and let Germans use its railways. After the end of the war and Germany’s surrender, Sweden had to face the threat posed by the Soviet Union. It turned to London and Washington for help and modernisation of its armed forces, but Sweden was not exactly seen as trustworthy in the West. The memory of Sweden collaborating with Germany was still fresh in everyone’s minds and it had to make an effort to win their trust. Stalin, however, was merciless. Czechoslovakia’s democratic government was overthrown by force, Finland was made to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union and Norway was waiting for its turn. The uncertainty in Europe forced Western European countries to stick together. Both bilateral and multilateral military assistance agreements were signed, but the countries soon realised that reliable resistance to the Soviet Union was not possible without the US. This led to the signing in Washington on 4 April 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty, establishing NATO.

Both Norway and Denmark joined the Alliance, but Sweden decided to remain true to its policy of neutrality. All of this created a lot of anxiety, and the post-war pro-US prime minister, Tage Erlander, did everything in his power to extend US and NATO security guarantees to Sweden. Consequently, Sweden was required to purchase large quantities of American military equipment and to cooperate closely in the field of intelligence, because of Sweden’s favourable geographical location. US planes could also use Swedish airfields. In addition, an agreement was signed stating that, should Sweden’s sovereignty come under attack, the royal family and the Swedish government in exile would be evacuated to one of the NATO countries, where the government would continue its work.

All of this was strictly confidential, otherwise Sweden could not have considered itself officially neutral.1

Changed Security Climate

The Swedish government continued with its official policy of neutrality even after the end of the Cold War and until its accession to the European Union in 1995. Even since then, its official stance has been “freedom from alliances”, which denotes Sweden’s independence from military alliances—i.e. NATO. However, since the end of the Cold War, Sweden has cooperated closely with NATO in various peacekeeping missions. For Sweden, the end of the Cold War initially meant the end of a polarised world and, consequently, minimal likelihood of a military conflict in the Baltic Sea region. An external threat to Sweden was not considered likely and by 2014 Sweden’s defence capability had decreased by 90%. The Defence Act, which was passed in the Riksdag (parliament) following the Russo–Georgian conflict, also failed to foresee a large-scale restructuring of the armed forces. Sweden did unilaterally adopt a declaration of solidarity, in which it promised not to remain passive in the event of an attack against its neighbours, but many were unclear as to how such a promise would be fulfilled because, at the time, the state of the Swedish armed forces allowed them to participate only in minor international operations.

Events in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014 changed the Baltic security scene drastically and provided new impetus to strengthening NATO’s eastern flank. Finland and Sweden play a crucial role in the Alliance’s defence plans for the Baltic states and at the 2014 Wales summit the two Nordic countries were given the status of NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partners. For both Finland and Sweden, this provided an opportunity to participate in NATO’s working procedures as equals. Together with Finland, Sweden also participates in all NATO’s territorial defence exercises and develops its military capability hand-in-hand with the development of NATO’s in order to ensure cooperation if necessary.

Finland and Sweden also signed Host Nation Support Agreements with NATO, which allow them to receive Alliance forces on their territory but do not oblige them to do so. At the same time, the special partner status does not grant the right to participate in NATO decision-making or joint planning.2 The mutual assistance procedure is also unclear: does Article 5 apply to partners—and partners with a special status—just as it does to members, and do all the parties understand it the same way? In the grand scheme of things, this is naturally a technical problem that can be overcome. The main thing is to be ready and willing to help, and receive help, should the situation call for it.

Since Sweden’s journey to NATO seems to be longer and more complicated, the kingdom has taken other steps to ensure its national security in addition to large-scale cooperation with NATO. In 2014, Sweden and Finland signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement. In 2016, both countries signed bilateral military cooperation agreements with the US. This was followed by the defence ministers of the US, Sweden and Finland signing a Trilateral Statement of Intent on defence in 2018 in Washington. The countries also participate actively in the Nordic defence collaboration NORDEFCO.

Regardless of whether or not Sweden decides on full NATO membership someday, it is obliged to rebuild its defence capability. This, however, is a long process and requires targeted defence planning over several electoral cycles. The fulfilment of this obligation is a prerequisite for both accession to NATO and the US security guarantee. This condition has also been clearly expressed by the current US president.

Sweden’s Elections and Options

The security climate, which has become troubled both close to home and further afield, gives reason to assume that security and defence will play a bigger part in elections. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Sweden. The topics have been raised, but they have not had any effect on the course or the results of elections.

Security and defence were presumed to be the most important election topics during the elections in September 2014, for several reasons. Russia had recently annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. The right-wing Alliance, led by the Moderate Party, hoped to win the elections because the Liberals and Moderates were the most vocal in speaking out about Russia as a threat and joining NATO. At the same time, their defence policy had remained modest during the Moderate-led coalition’s rule and a cause of constant criticism. The decisive issues during the campaign were the traditional ones—tax, education, healthcare and migration—and the elections were won by the Social Democratic Party, which formed a coalition with the Green Party.

The Social Democratic Party promised to continue Sweden’s alliance-free course but cooperate with NATO and other partners as closely as possible, which, in the context of the security debate, meant choosing the golden mean on the principle of keeping both parties satisfied. Nevertheless, there was an important change. Immediately after the 2014 election, Russian fighter jets violated Swedish airspace above Öland and, shortly after that, a Russian submarine was suspected of entering Sweden’s territorial waters. An increase in the activities of Russian intelligence services in Sweden was also detected. This was a serious wake-up call for Swedish society.

Social Democrat Peter Hultqvist became Minister of Defence and immediately began to seriously tackle defence expenditure and the reform of the armed forces. He sensed the terrible state of Swedish defence capability and understood that the country could no longer bury its head in the sand. The normalisation of the relationship between the armed forces and the defence ministry became his first task. He asked the armed forces to provide a realistic, unembellished picture of its state and capabilities, and proceeded to make significant changes within the limits of his mandate.3

Sweden’s national defence strategy for 2016–20 set out the first increase in defence expenditure in 20 years and the need to restructure the armed forces, so that they would match up to a realistic threat scenario and the state’s main duty to defend its territorial integrity. Sweden had abolished mandatory conscript service in 2010, but in 2017 the decision was made to restore it, effective from the following year. In September 2017, Sweden held Aurora 17, its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, which focused on the defence of Gotland and mainly comprised units from the US and other NATO countries. In 2018, an army regiment was once again stationed on Gotland.

There has been a very strong change of course in Swedish national defence, but despite this only one-third of the promised budget increase made it to the armed forces.

Prior to the 2018 Riksdag elections, many feared that the new government might not continue on this course. This fear was unfounded, but the most recent elections nevertheless turned out to be historic. The formation of a coalition had never taken so long, nor had Swedish society and political parties been so internally fragmented. The elections took place in September 2018 but the new government assumed office only on 21 January 2019. The fact that as many as four right-wing parties—the Liberals, the Christian Democrats, the Centre Party and the Moderate Party, who formed the right-wing Alliance—took a positive stance on the issue of joining NATO is also historic.

If the Alliance had won the elections and gained power, the course towards NATO would perhaps become rather more definitive. As can be seen, this did not happen. The Alliance split, and today the new Swedish government is led by the Social Democrats. At the same time, it is thanks to them that the defence budget has been increased in recent years, with defence reforms following close behind. Thanks to the forceful actions of the Social Democrats, right-wing parties—mainly the Moderates—have started to take defence seriously and assumed a firm position in relation to NATO.

Moving in the right direction is not sufficient for joining NATO. This also requires the support of more than 50% of the people, a majority in the Riksdag, and increasing defence expenditure to 2% of GDP. Even though the security debate in the Swedish media has been quite lively in recent years and the latest figures show a whopping 42% in support of accession to NATO, Swedes still consider belonging to a military alliance an ideologically foreign idea. The situation is not improved by the polarisation among the Social Democrats themselves, as expressed in the defence minister trying to cooperate with NATO and the US as closely as possible while foreign minister Margot Wallström has opted for a policy of world peace reminiscent of Olof Palme and is seeking international support for the ban on nuclear weapons. Nuclear capability, however, is a key component of NATO’s deterrence and waiving it would be unacceptable to the US.

The road to increasing defence expenditure is rocky, too. On 14 May 2019, the Defence Committee of the Riksdag is required to present the government with a report on defence policy trends for the next five years. Even though the committee is unbiased in its proposals and the aim is to increase defence expenditure to 1.5% of GDP by 2025, defence minister Hultqvist has provided a framework that is likely to prevent it. The ruling coalition’s promises in other fields will probably be more costly than estimated.

In developing its defence capability and the question of joining NATO, Sweden must also continue and coordinate its activities with Finland, because the security of both countries depends on each other.

Cooperation with NATO and individual allies has helped to modernise and significantly improve the Swedish armed forces. This has strengthened the national security of Sweden and Finland but also that of the Baltic states. However, the endless hemming and hawing will continue until Swedes finally accept NATO as their own.


The views expressed are the author’s own.


1 Mikael Holmström, Den dolda alliansen – Sveriges hemliga NATO-förbindelser. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Atlantis, 2011.

2 Anna Wieslander, “What Makes an Ally? Sweden and Finland as NATO Partners”. The Atlantic Council, 2019. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/what-makes-an-ally-sweden-and-finland-as-nato-partners

3 Annika Nordgren Christensen, “En betraktelse över den försvarspolitiska mandatperioden 2014-2018: Putin, pengar och personalförsörjning”. Blog, 2018 https://annikanc.com/2018/08/16/en-betraktelse-over-den-forsvarspolitiska-mandatperioden-2014-2018-putin-pengar-och-personalforsorjning/


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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