1st July 2014 – by Oscar Jonsson * - europeangeostrategy.org
Sweden has been described as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) number one partner, and is known for carrying a heavier defence burden than many Allied nations. In 2002, Sweden officially gave up public claims to neutrality in favour of being ‘alliance free’, and in 2009 Sweden issued a declaration of solidarity to its neighbours who, except for Finland, are all NATO members. Furthermore, back in 2004, Sweden started transforming its Armed Forces to provide shell-defence capabilities with the rationale of being part of an alliance.
Despite these moves, the legacy and self-perception of Sweden as a neutral state persists. It is for this reason that Sweden has preferred to focus on the development of the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). CSDP is a different animal to NATO, and more amenable to the interests of a neutral state. Think how CSDP is couched within the Comprehensive Approach, and therefore within a policy paradigm that emphasises non-military approaches to security (aid, trade, etc.). While Sweden has taken a lead role in pushing the EU Battlegroup concept, and has put its weight behind the whole CSDP project, disagreements over the Chad mission, French re-integration into the military structures of NATO and the hesitancy over the Libya intervention has effectively killed the Policy.
It has taken Sweden a long time to come to terms with the ‘death’ of the CSDP, but it is slowly doing so. This partly explains why Sweden has pushed for regional cooperation through Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO); such regional arrangements are becoming the norm in Europe. Nonetheless, NORDEFCO is an unsatisfactory solution even though its members share a similar political culture and it could reduce materiel and training costs. The truth is that two important members of NORDEFCO –Norway and Denmark –are NATO members, and there is still a lack of unity between the members: observe how Norway opted for the United States’(US) F-35 over Sweden’s Gripen fighter.
Sweden is stuck in a ‘no mans land’with a major discrepancy between its security policy (which stipulates non-alliance) and its defence policy (which stipulates alliance). Sweden’s security policy is explicitly based on giving and receiving help from others in a time of crisis, but it is utterly unclear who would help Sweden in a given crisis. Given the status of the CSDP and NORDEFCO a major question needs asking: why is Sweden not a NATO member?
Sweden’s NATO debate
There are a number of strong arguments keeping Sweden out of NATO. Firstly, it is argued that at present Sweden has more influence over the US because it is not a member of the Alliance. Owing to Sweden’s contributions to international missions, its defence industry and its intelligence cooperation with the US vis-à-vis Russia, it is claimed that Sweden gets more attention from the US than it ever would as a NATO member. If Sweden were to join NATO, runs the argument, it would rather be subjected to complaints of under-spending rather than applause for its current contributions.
The second argument against Swedish NATO membership is that the Alliance can never be a substitute for the proper functioning of the Swedish Armed Forces. Given the vast finance problems within the Swedish Armed Forces, there is a big risk that NATO might hinder their development if Sweden were to join NATO too soon. At least, that is how it has certainly been sold in public debates. This is important because, as the crisis in Ukraine has showed us, when a crisis starts, you have what you have where you have it. And if you are going to receive support, it will take a while, even if you have prepared for such a crisis. In short, Sweden still needs to rely on its own forces especially considering that, as it is now, a Swedish capacity for territorial defence is lacking.
Thirdly, public support is often cited as a major means barring Sweden’s NATO accession. While support for Swedish membership has been increasing it still lies at around 30%. Interestingly, in the only poll made after the Ukraine crisis, support for NATO actually decreased.
Fourthly, and related to the issue of public opinion, is the position of the political parties. The biggest party of the ruling coalition, the Moderates, have listed three prerequisites regarding Sweden’s potential NATO membership. These prerequisites are: 1) it needs to be done with the support of the Swedish Social Democrats; 2) Finland must also join NATO; and, 3) there must be public support. These are all very reasonable arguments, but they all have problems attached to them.
Illogical arguments keeping Sweden out of NATO
It is, however, possible to refute logically, to a certain degree, all the arguments against Sweden’s membership of NATO. Firstly, seeking consensus with the Social Democrats is good, but the notion of Swedish neutrality is still embedded in the party’s image. For the Social Democrats to accept membership, they would need to re-write their history and image. So it would be difficult to join with them, but joining without their support would entail a fragile membership. The first prerequisite would therefore be difficult.
However, the second condition –Finland’s NATO membership –can be refuted. Indeed, Finland has so far investigated NATO membership three times and the country already has a strong territorial defence. This makes the issue of membership much more pressing in Sweden, whose defence forces are already transformed to be a part of an alliance and cannot perform credible territorial defence. Finland’s NATO membership should not pose an absolute hindrance to Sweden’s own accession.
The third condition – public support – cannot be seen as authoritative yet because the question has not been tried publicly. Public support is inconsistent and polls show that the public is not overwhelmingly pro-NATO, but the crux of the matter is that no one has driven the question. Rather, the Moderates, who are pro-NATO, want to silence the question because supporting membership would be politically costly. Yet the public opinion argument would not have been tested until the ministers stand up and tell the people of their conviction that NATO is best for the country.
Furthermore, it is illogical to argue that NATO, as an alliance based on the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, would hinder Sweden’s work for disarmament and peace. This has not hindered Norway playing a role in peace and disarmament, even though it is a NATO member. Other arguments that hold that NATO would force Sweden to spend 2% of GDP on defence are also wide of the mark. While there is undoubted pressure to spend more within NATO, most members of the Alliance do not presently meet the 2% threshold.
Finally, some believe that NATO would force Sweden to deploy troops to conflicts in which Sweden has no national interest. Decisions about deployment are taken by consensus in NATO, and not all members deploy troops to each and every NATO mission. Indeed, while it is true that there is more pressure as a NATO member to contribute to the Alliance, Sweden is already involved in a number of missions anyway. For example, Sweden joined the intervention in Libya in 2011 when only 15 out of 28 NATO members actually participated. Additionally, last spring Sweden contributed troops to NATO’s Response Force (NRF) and the country has played a role in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.
Sweden should join NATO
Sweden should join NATO but only if it does not lead to a further operational loss for the Swedish Armed Forces. Indeed, NATO would add three important factors to Sweden’s security and defence: 1) Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (1949) would strengthen Sweden’s political deterrence and security; 2) it would allow Sweden to deepen cooperation with NATO and allow it to contribute to the development of the Alliance; and 3) membership would allow Sweden to undertake the military planning and exercises that our defence policy is built upon.
These are important considerations for a country like Sweden. The country is no longer ‘neutral’ and it has given a declaration of solidarity to its neighbours and to all EU member states, 90% of which are NATO members. It is an inescapable fact that the security of Sweden, particularly in the present context with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is dependent on the strength of the country’s partners and institutions. While it will be challenging to convince all of Sweden that NATO membership is in the best interests of the country, being without NATO seems increasingly impotent in providing for Sweden’s security needs.
* Oscar Jonsson is a PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies King's College London. He has held positions in the Swedish Armed Forces and the EU Institute for Security Studies. He writes here in a personal capacity.