Almost a year ago, a report on Sweden’s international defense cooperation, commissioned by the Swedish Defense Minister, was presented to the new Swedish government. The main conclusion of the report was that some Swedish policies should be reviewed and an official study of the pros and cons of NATO membership undertaken, preferably together with Finland. This conclusion flowed from a stark fact: Sweden can’t defend itself on its own; that is obvious and recognized by everyone.The results of all of Sweden’s ongoing forms of defense cooperation in many directions are positive but marginal, due to current restrictions on such cooperation. These restrictions in turn stem from limitations on what NATO can do with non-members, but also, of course, in the first place from Sweden’s own interpretation of sovereignty and national control of operative resources. Sweden cannot assume binding obligations in this field, and so far, there are clear limits to its participation in joint operative planning and role sharing for conflict scenarios, which seriously restricts the results of its international cooperation.At the same time, however, we in Sweden say that we can only secure our safety together with others, and we have issued a declaration of solidarity to our neighbors, which is binding under international law. Although this solidarity only obliges Sweden to give non-military assistance, the formula in the declaration is dressed in the language of reciprocity. And Sweden itself expects military assistance, if it is attacked. That means help, if not from neighbors, then at least from the United States and bigger NATO countries—not because Sweden counts on their solidarity, but because it assumes that it is in their strategic interest to help it. Unkindly put, when it comes to military assistance, the essence of Sweden’s solidarity is really “not having to give, but counting on getting.” But here one must assume that those who might want to help us also want us to contribute to their own operative goals. Since Sweden cannot take part in their planning, it cannot know the details of what those objectives would be. This asymmetry leads to a certain “patron-client” dimension to the relationship.But after more than twenty years of ever-closer cooperation with NATO, Sweden now has a NATO member’s level of interoperability. Further, after the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Sweden participates in Alliance deterrence and reassurance activities in the Baltic area—for example, by advanced exercises and by accepting AWACS over-flights. The latest discussion on Swedish participation concerns the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which will be a part of the VJTF (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force). All this brings an added identification with NATO, but also an increased risk in Sweden’s relations with Russia. But for reasons of sovereignty, Sweden doesn’t want the protection against that risk by formalizing that solidarity through membership in the Alliance.To add to this confusion, Sweden implies things that are difficult to deliver, which few believe in, and for which the armed forces so far have been prohibited to prepare by joint operative planning and role-sharing with others. These contradictions were permitted to grow in a period when other European countries also went through deep cuts and radical defense reform, cashing in the peace dividend and banking on continued fair weather. So Sweden was indeed in good company! When the fair weather ended last year, NATO had to do some deep rethinking, and the inconsistencies of Sweden’s own fair weather solidarity of the past ten years were also exposed in a rather unforgiving way.As for the report presented almost a year ago, the present government rejected the conclusion but has not really criticized the analysis. But since the government shares the gloomy picture of Sweden’s worsened strategic context, it is taking measures to improve the situation. That means more money, more developed partnership with NATO, and the strengthening of existing bilateral cooperation with neighbors, especially Finland, and hopefully with the United States and others, including Poland.The latest budget increase for the next five years does signal an important break with the past. But it still will not raise defense spending as percentage of GDP, and its effects on Sweden’s overall defense capacity will remain marginal, even if some important capabilities will be improved. Sweden shall still be unable to defend itself.The new cooperation with Finland is very important. If carried through, it will enhance Sweden’s capabilities. But it will also break new ground and take its non-aligned policies into untested waters. When it was presented last spring, the Swedish Minister for Defense made it clear that this was a large and qualitatively new step, since it covers some degree of integration of forces and planning for crisis and conflict (“beyond peace”, as it is called). Operative joint planning and exercising with others for war situations is something that up to now has been absolutely off limits according to the traditional interpretation of Sweden’s non-aligned policy. In an attempt to save this tradition, it is now being said that the new cooperation with Finland will only supplement national planning; it will be an option among others which broadens freedom of action, and which in no way will constitute an obligation. That may be true theoretically or in a world of unlimited resources, but in the real world one becomes dependent on alternatives one has invested in through planning and exercises. And this dependence is the price one pays for the enhanced capability that comes from the cooperation. As long as there are no credible national alternatives in terms of planning and exercising, one is likely to be dependent on what one has invested in. This will likely be an important dimension of Sweden’s cooperation with Finland.This argument about creeping dependence has not played a big role in the Swedish discussion. But there are some fears in Finland, where there are more doubts about the reliability of Sweden as a partner, for historical reasons. That is why there are more voices in Finland in favor of a formal bilateral defense agreement with Sweden, where one hardly hears such voices, and where, if the idea is mentioned at all, it is usually rejected out of hand.What is interesting is the impact of the new Finnish cooperation on doctrine. And the relevant question is the following: If Sweden now can combine its non-aligned policy with operative planning for cooperation in wartime with Finland, why can’t the same thing be done with NATO? (Provided that NATO would accept it of course, which is not likely.) Nothing would enhance Sweden’s defensive capabilities in the region—and its cooperation with Finland!—so much as a well prepared coordination with NATO plans. Or is there an assumption that operative planning with Finland would be less compromising to non-alignment than operative planning with NATO, since Finland is non-aligned too?Finally, one cannot neglect the fact that there is a sort of geographical asymmetry to what we in Sweden usually call our common destiny with Finland. For Finland, cooperation with Sweden in some sense represents a step westward. For Sweden in the same sense it represents a step eastward. Such a step would now be taken in the face of a clearly revisionist and aggressive Russia. To many in Sweden, that is a strange step to take, if it is not combined simultaneously with at least a corresponding deepening of Sweden’s ties westward—and that would mean operative planning with NATO. If Sweden integrates militarily with a country that is more vulnerable and exposed than it is but refrains from doing the same thing with the countries whose assistance it would need if attacked…well, then none should be surprised if some think such a policy has an “ersatz” quality to it.So maybe there is some underlying idea that hasn’t been fully articulated here? Maybe the Finnish cooperation isn’t really seen as an alternative to NATO membership, but rather a sort of accelerator, or at least a facilitator, on the road to Brussels? The truth is likely that both interpretations are being made in both countries. This new cooperation bed has room for very divergent dreams—on both sides of the Baltic Sea.Sweden’s bilateral cooperation with other countries is also to be strengthened, in particular with the United States. Sweden has always seen the United States as the ultimate source of the military assistance it would need, and the Swedish Minister of Defense has recently strongly underlined that cooperation has to be deepened. In an important article, he recently wrote that, against the backdrop of Russian behavior, Sweden’s international defense cooperation becomes even more important, and that participation in major exercises is necessary for supporting Sweden’s high-end capabilities. Such exercises are also important as a marker for where Sweden belongs, and they send security policy signals. National and international defense efforts among Europeans are now to be seen as a balance to the Russian activities that have changed the European security order. The United States, according to the Minister, has a necessary role in this, and Sweden’s bilateral cooperation with the U.S. should be deepened in areas such as interoperability, training and education, procurement, research, and international operations. All these forms of cooperation are to be seen as a part of a natural development of Sweden’s policy of non-alliance, but the Minister concluded that Sweden does not seek membership in NATO, because it does not want to influence or unsettle the security order in its near abroad by abruptly changing security doctrine. The impression left by the Minister’s article is that what Sweden really has is, to borrow from earlier terminology, an “entente cordiale” with NATO that defines Swedish strategic interests and lays the ground for joint action but that is not binding on either side. The Minister did not use the expression entente of course, but it is a useful reference.The Minister’s last point about not formally changing the Swedish doctrine—that is, not becoming a member of the Alliance—is really at the heart of the current debate. The four former government parties, now in opposition, are now all in favor of membership. But for the present government this issue is still taboo, even as it seems ready for almost any kind of cooperation short of membership and guarantees. An increasing number of Swedes seem to understand that this policy implies increased risk without a corresponding increase in insurance.To understand the government’s position, one has to examine a large part of its background outside the security area itself. To simplify somewhat, there are three roots of resistance to NATO membership: political-tactical, romantic, and realist.The political-tactical roots are really outside the security area as such. They concern things like party identity, party unity, the risk of losing voters, and the risk of having a split in the party or in the government. These concerns are rational and easy to understand.The romantic roots begin in a broader sense of national identity and nostalgia for Swedish exceptionalism in a time when Sweden perhaps had a more independent voice and felt that it could play a more ambitious global role, since the non-aligned niche during the Cold War made that possible. In these romantic roots there is also an element of old anti-Americanism, general pacifism, and anti-nuclear emotions. In part of this, there also seems to be a generational dimension. The romantic arguments should of course be treated seriously and with respect, since they play an important political role, but they are not likely to take center-stage in a serious NATO-debate.The realist argument against a NATO-membership is dressed in language of the so-called realist school of international politics. It focuses on the inherent geopolitical asymmetry between Sweden and Russia, and on the experiences of Sweden’s successful strategic turnaround in 1812, during the Napoleonic wars, when it abandoned its traditional policy of hostility toward Russia (after half a millennium of wars). Almost 200 years of what is perceived as a successful security policy have left a heavy mark, and “realist” opponents of NATO membership claim that this is a “grand strategy” determined by essentially unchangeable geopolitics. Russia’s interest that no direct threat against it should originate from Swedish territory is so basic that to change the strategy would upset the balance in the region and have long-term negative consequences, it is claimed.Leaving the political and romantic arguments aside, there are at least three objections to the realist argument that staying out of NATO is the best way of handling Sweden’s asymmetry problem with Russia. One is itself a realist argument, one is idealistic, and one is existential.The first, realist objection is that Sweden’s asymmetrical relationship with Russia cannot really be treated as a bilateral issue any more. In principle, its security position is much better than during the Cold War. Russia is further away and does not have direct influence and military bases straight across the Baltic Sea. Instead it has independent, democratic, and peaceful neighbors there, being members of NATO. What is new is that, when this beneficial situation now seems to be challenged by Russia, what Sweden does or does not do in the face of this challenge may well have a strong influence on the regional outcome and hence on the stability and security that it now enjoys. There is a feedback loop of direct relevance to Sweden’s own security—of direct interdependence if you like—that did not have such a strong presence before, when Sweden was more of a periphery state. To both sides, controlling Swedish air and sea space in a conflict and denying it to the other side have become essential, for obvious reasons of geography. This is also a geopolitical argument. In the new and better Europe, Sweden faces the unexpected burden of having become more important. Sweden might even have shifted from periphery to pivot. To anyone planning an attack in the Baltic Sea area, parts of Swedish territory may have become what Belgium was to General Schlieffen before the First World War.If you believe in deterrence, and if maintaining deterrence requires Sweden to be part of the balance, then continued non-alignment will weaken, not strengthen, security. Our “entente cordiale” with NATO is not enough. In the original entente cordiale that had lasted for a decade in 1914, Britain and Foreign Minister Grey refused to the very last day before the war in August to commit binding support to France, something that certainly weakened deterrence and invited German miscalculations, at least at the political level. The lack of commitment and the lack of clarity contributed to the instability and, ultimately, to war. But the British Foreign Minister could not be clear, since there was no unity on policy in the British government.So, even if there were still a minute chance that Swedish non-membership in NATO might save it from being dragged into a regional conflict involving Russia, a “realist” calculation would have to weigh the benefit of that slim chance against the cost of the weakening of deterrence itself, which would follow from non-membership in NATO and would thus make a conflict more likely, not less. Additionally, of course, the costs of constituting a grey zone that invites probing and testing, and perhaps surprise territorial grabs, has to be reckoned with too.The paradoxical thing about Sweden’s deepened defense cooperation with Finland is that in a certain way it entails a departure from the famous neutrality policy dating back to 1812. That policy was an adaptation to the lost war of 1809 and substituted clear and naturally defined borders, namely the Baltic Sea and Torne River, for the vast and historically vague territory in the East, which was too close to Russia’s capital and inherently difficult to defend. Operative plans together with Finland would now risk a creeping reduction of clarity about Sweden’s commitments. That is why one might expect the adherents of a traditional realist policy toward Russia to be rather skeptical of a deepened military integration with Finland. The limits and the meaning of that integration will remain as ambiguous as the rest of the Swedish policy. Sometimes ambiguity can be constructive, and even strengthen deterrence, but sometimes it can be destabilizing by inviting miscalculation and misunderstanding.In this case, NATO membership—even more so together with Finland—would bring clarity and predictability and thereby strengthen stability. Of course, the Russians will say that it is provocative, since they love grey areas that can be manipulated, but Swedish membership in NATO would combine clarity with the same kinds of conditions that Norway and Denmark have introduced for reassurance purposes to reduce tensions.The second objection to the realist argument is actually an idealistic one. It focuses on the political and moral costs of the long-term assumption that “there will always be a Russia such as it is that has to be accommodated.” This would mean that Sweden must incorporate into its planning the assumption that revisionist Russia might succeed in undermining the present order, as well as Sweden’s friends and partners: “We don’t want to join the club, because we have to be ready for the day it fails.” Even a successful Russian revanchism would probably allow Sweden to live on in comfort, as during the Cold War, but some neighbors would certainly be worse off. Such an outcome might still make sense to Swedish strategists, but these thoughts would not project an endearing image of Sweden to the outside world.There is also a striking contrast between this pessimism and caution in security issues closest to home, on the one hand, and the DNA of the rest of Swedish foreign policy, on the other—namely, a foreign policy that is activist, values-based, shares burdens, stands in solidarity, undertakes collective action, is idealistic, and fights for noble objectives, even against long odds. In this more idealistic and activist universe, the NATO membership opponents don’t want to accommodate Russia; they want to change it and democratize it. These are all sentiments the present Russian leadership for good reasons finds not only threatening, but even downright aggressive.These value-based components combine to make the UN a centerpiece of Sweden’s international efforts. And they work at home and in the EU frame-work too, as can be seen in the current refugee crisis. Who wants binding obligations on member states for a solution of today’s most sensitive and controversial issue, where core dimensions of sovereignty are at stake? No one more so than Sweden.If NATO membership is not seen as being in Sweden’s interest, it cannot possibly be because NATO is somehow incompatible with Sweden’s core values. Rather it has to do with a gloomy view about Russia and Europe, and a lack of confidence in the program Europe has been trying to achieve for the past twenty years. There is a growing tension between how the government views the NATO issue and how it views almost all other issues. That makes it even more difficult to explain and understand. And the difficulty of explaining Sweden’s security policy to its own people has become one of its growing weaknesses.Finally, the third, “extistential” objection to the realist argument that there should be no change to Sweden’s policy of almost two centuries is simple: It has already changed it in all but name. Sweden did so in 1995, when it joined the European Union. That was the key step, bringing the country back to continental affairs in a political union. Compare Sweden’s situation today to what the father of the neutrality doctrine, King Karl Johan XIV, declared on his accession to the throne in 1818: “Geographically separated from the rest of Europe, our statecraft, as well as our own advantage, should always oblige us never to take part in in any dispute alien to the two nations of Scandinavia [by which he meant Sweden and Norway].’’ Although it was an accession speech, it sounds a bit like President George Washington’s Farewell Address almost two decades earlier, and the King’s policy differs as much from EU membership as Washington’s Farewell Address differs from Roosevelt’s Open Door policy. So, the position of Russia may never change, as the realists say, but that of Sweden already has, just like Norway’s. Or do the realists think that Norway’s geopolitical position is the same today as it was in 1818?One should not preserve a policy or a doctrine, no matter how impressive its pedigree, just because its name has not changed. A series of governments has already changed the contents of Swedish policy profoundly. Indeed, that is why the present policy is so inconsistent—until the last step is taken. The obstacles to doing so are considerable, but they are political and domestic, and have little to do with national security analysis.
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Published on: October 5, 2015
The Future of NATOComing into Alignment
Sweden’s non-aligned ambiguity is no longer a sound or sensible policy.