The Debate Around NATO in Sweden

The risks and benefits with a Swedish NATO-membership is a complex issue. Here is a brief overview of how it has been debated in Sweden.

Sweden joining NATO is an unprecedented event that was completely off the table until the morning of February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale attack against Ukraine. Since then, the country’s leadership has moved swiftly – submitting an application to the alliance no more than roughly three months afterwards. What awaits us is the collective security guarantees of Article 5, but also – as we already have seen – new sorts of relations to some of our future allies, which not always will be simple and unproblematic.

The Social Democrats’ Change of Position

Sweden’s decision to stand outside of NATO has in particular come down to the position of the Social Democratic Party, whose commitment to alliance freedom is what primarily has blocked the required parliamentary supermajority mainly because of the size of the party (which, although it has decreased significantly over the past decades, still is the largest party in the Swedish parliament with a pretty decent margin). Hence, even though four out of the five right-wing parties in parliament wanted to join the alliance also before February 24, the previously firm position of the Social Democrats made it a topic that for the most part was not even addressed in political debates, as the Social Democratic position was well-known and there were plenty of other issues that were considered a lot more pressing to handle.

Yet things changed quickly after February 24: first, the fifth of the ring-wing parties, the Sweden Democrats, changed its position. And a while afterwards – too slow to some, too quickly to others – the Social Democrats did the same. This is really an unprecedented change of position – partly because of the speed with which it happened, but mainly since the long-standing Swedish self-image of alliance freedom is very much rooted in the Social Democrats’ struggle for diplomacy and disarmament during the post-war decades (through figures such as Olof Palme and Alva Myrdal), as well as in the idea of Sweden as an independent diplomatic voice. And, of course, the fact that there have been no wars in the country for more than 200 years (the longest time of any country in the world) has often been taken as a sort of receipt that alliance freedom has served us well.

Arguments for NATO

But the era of alliance freedom is clearly over now, and only time will tell if this was a good decision or not. For my own part, I have felt very hesitant on whether it is wise to join NATO or not – but have eventually landed in that I think it probably is for the best (although only with a narrow margin – say about 60% for and 40% against). This is to a large extent based on what I think are the two strongest arguments for NATO and for the security of Sweden, which have been formulated most poignantly by the social democratic opinion journalist Anders Lindberg (who, like the party itself, went from against to for NATO after February 24) in various articles, debates and interviews.

First, there is the breakdown of the European security order, according to which national borders and territorial sovereignty are respected. Clearly, this went out of the window on February 24 – when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at a size of which we have not seen since the second world war, and which thus changed the security situation in Europe completely. Indeed, when the geopolitical order that was established after World War Two is overthrown in such a brutal and massive way, Sweden must of course revise its previous military defence arrangements in one way or the other – which, in this case, ended in an application for NATO-membership.

The second major argument for a Swedish NATO-membership is the fact that Finland decided to join, because our two countries are very tightly knit together militarily. Additionally, a major reason for Sweden not joining NATO after the second world war was because of solidarity with Finland – as there were fears that Stalin then would invade Finland and put the iron curtain along the Finnish border. And, more recently, Finland has been Sweden’s closest military partner. Indeed, our military defences are well coordinated and complement each other very well – with Sweden possessing excellent air and underwater capabilities, and Finland being able to mobilise a large number of soldiers. Also, if Finland had joined NATO without Sweden, we would not only have been the only country in northern Europe without the collective security guarantees of Article 5 (and thus particularly vulnerable to Russian threats and aggression, even if it had not ended in a full-scale military assault) – we would also have been militarily weakened at a time when it certainly seems more apt to go in the opposite direction, because Finland would then have needed to first and foremost coordinate its defences with NATO rather than with us,.

That feels like a risky position to have put oneself in at a time like this – when the European security order no longer is respected and when a state geographically close to Sweden is carrying out an attempted genocide that includes brutal violence against civilians, forced mass-deportations, foreign and domestic propaganda, major oppression of its own people, as well as threats of using nuclear weapons. In light of this, it seems that NATO offers the best form of protection for Sweden.

Arguments Against NATO

Although this does at the same time not mean that the many good arguments against NATO simply disappear, as Lindberg has put it. On the contrary, they remain important issues that must be addressed appropriately. Hence, here is an overview of some of the most important arguments against a Swedish NATO-membership – including my reasoning for why I ultimately think that joining the alliance still is the best option.

Firstly, there is the argument that it is unnecessary to join NATO since Sweden is not in any immediate danger and the decision to do so thus risks being made based upon immediate fear. For my own part, I am not driven by immediate fear precisely because the risk of an attack against Sweden is very low. However, we cannot get away from the fact that the security situation in Europe – and parts of Europe relatively close to us, in particular – has changed significantly since February 24, and it does not look like things will go back to how they previously were anytime soon. Hence, a NATO-membership may work as the best kind of insurance for Sweden from a more long-term perspective, since we clearly live in uncertain times and do not know how things will unfold in the future.

Secondly, there is the argument that by joining NATO we are participating in a dangerous military game that only will increase tension and that could have catastrophic consequences in a possible future war with NATO (and thus Sweden) involved. It is therefore better to remain a country outside of military alliances, with an independent diplomatic voice. While I am coming from the left and thus certainly is not a militarist in any way, I also think it has become increasingly obvious that the Russian leadership simply is uninterested in diplomacy and, at the end of the day, only seems to understand one kind of logic: a military one. This is unfortunate, and there are obviously many risks with this approach, but it seems to me that we do not have a better option when the situation has escalated to this point. In other words, if there is no strong reaction when they step out of line like they have done now, they will simply keep moving their positions forward (as they already have done over the past decades).

Thirdly, there is the issue of NATO being an alliance based on a massive nuclear arsenal. This is obviously problematic to someone like me, who is strongly against the existence of nuclear weapons because it ultimately is an existential threat to the whole of mankind. It remains to be seen if Sweden will be capable of being a strong voice for nuclear disarmament once we have joined NATO, but a minimal demand, or starting-point, should be to keep the Nordic area a nuclear-free zone (after all, both Denmark and Norway have no nuclear weapons on their territories, despite having been members of NATO since its inception).

Fourthly, there is the risk that authoritarian politicians may be elected as leaders, particularly in key NATO-countries (e.g., a Trump-win in 2024) – and possibly work towards weakening the alliance because of their nationalist inclinations – and, fifthly, that NATO at the end of the day is a US-centric alliance that risks turning its other members into instruments for American foreign and military policy. Both are certainly valid reservations, although I think that one possible way of dealing with them is that European countries could work on expanding their own military defences and tactical coordination within the framework of NATO. For instance, now that all Nordic countries will be members of NATO, there is the possibility of increasing our military collaboration within the Nordic region – of course, also with other states involved. This could also include building some kind of EU-defence, although that would most certainly take a lot of time, which means that it is not really an option in the short-term.

The Issue of Turkey

Finally, there is also the issue – already touched upon above – that Sweden may lose some or much of its independent voice by joining NATO and thus having to compromise perhaps due to stay in line with American foreign policy or with NATO-countries that already have problematic leaderships. The latter is something that we got to experience a lot quicker than most people expected, when Turkey suddenly started going public with various very strong and, in some cases, impossible demands that both Sweden and Finland needed to fulfil in order for them to not veto our NATO-applications (which any NATO-country has the right to do when a country is applying for membership) – including starting exporting weapons to Turkey again, extraditing various individuals that Turkey classify as terrorists, as well as not supporting, and classifying as terrorists, various Kurdish oppositional movements that Turkey views as terrorists. This is obviously very problematic, since Turkey is not a fully functioning democracy (with people from the political opposition being put in jail, the media not being free, and so on), their leader Erdogan has recently indicated that he is planning to invade parts of Syria again, and since Turkey’s definition of terrorists is not exactly unproblematic – as they tend to apply the term to anyone who is critical of the regime.

This is particularly unfortunate, also since Turkey waited with going public with their demands until after both countries had submitted their NATO-applications (after having first indicated that they were not opposed to Sweden and Finland joining) – obviously to put themselves in a better position for negotiating. We are thus threatened to be stuck in the awkward position between application and membership – that is, between after we have showed our intentions, but before we are protected by the collective security guarantees of Article 5. It is precisely for this reason that the consensus between Sweden, Finland and the NATO leadership was that the application and ratification process ideally should be handled as quickly as possible, as Russia already has made threats against both countries if they are to join NATO. So even though both Sweden and Finland have received so-called ‘security insurances’ from several NATO-countries (i.e., promises of military assistance if some kind of conflict with Russia erupts during the application and ratification process) – including major ones, such as the US, the UK and France – Turkey threatening to block Sweden and Finland from joining was particularly bad news for this reason.

Sweden and Finland thus risk being stuck between the interests of the two autocratic leaders Putin and Erdogan. Hence, there was no other choice than either standing up to Erdogan and risk being blocked from joining NATO possibly for the foreseeable future – or compromising in order to please the Turkish leadership. Both Sweden and Finland chose the latter and thus reached an agreement with Turkey during the big NATO-summit that took place in Madrid in June. The long-term consequences of the agreement remains to be seen – as its formulations regarding cooperations around terrorism and extraditions between Sweden, Finland and Turkey are somewhat vague and thus may be interpreted in various ways (this is important also since Turkey, if they are unhappy with how Sweden and Finland live up to the agreement, still has the option to block both countries from joining NATO until the Turkish parliament has ratified the accession protocols). Thus, sceptics of the agreement in Sweden have voiced fears that Kurds now risk being extradited to Turkey without sufficient reason, or that Sweden now will start exporting weapons to Turkey just when they possibly are about to initiate another unprovoked invasion. On the other hand, people who interpret the agreement more positively say that it really is just clarifying things as they are and that nothing really has changed.

In addition to this, it is also wise to ask oneself what Erdogan’s ultimate intentions are – since there is an election in Turkey next year and his party is not very popular at the moment, due to the currently very high inflation in the country. In other words, it is possible that this is just an attempt of his to showcase himself as a strong leader on the international scene. It could also be that he is using the situation to improve his relation to the US, as it is well-known that it has been frosty since Turkey bought the Russian antiaircraft-system S-400 a few years ago, which led the US to not export the F-35 fighter-jets that Turkey is looking to acquire. Basically, it is safe to say that Turkey has been playing a political game over the past few months – although it remains unclear who their primary target and what their ultimate objective with it is.

Only time will tell what happens, but one thing that is certain is that the changed tone of the Swedish leadership against Turkey is awkward and uncomfortable, to say the least – for instance, with the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson now saying that the government is looking forward to collaborating with Turkey and that this could become a new and important element of our bilateral relation. Needless to say, this is very different from how it sounded before Sweden began its application for NATO-membership and is obviously a consequence of the government now being forced to change at least its rhetoric towards Turkey, so as to not upset its leadership. Thus, it confirms the NATO-critics’ fears that Sweden now must compromise in its international relations with various countries in ways we did not have to do previously. This is obviously not good, although hopefully it remains in rhetoric only. In other words, that this is only some kind of political charade that our leadership has to play along with – without, for instance, having to sell out the security and well-being of the Kurds along the way.

Featured Image: Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg at the Prime Minister country retreat Harpsund on June 13, 2022. (Magnus Liljegren/Regeringskansliet)