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Sweden is too starry-eyed about Nato

Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson after Sweden's Nato accession was approved this week. Credit: Getty

February 27, 2024 - 5:30pm

If the West’s reneging on James Baker’s promise of “not one inch” of Nato eastward expansion after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall ultimately contributed to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, then Joe Biden’s promise to “defend every inch of Nato territory” triggered Sweden’s decision to seek full membership of the alliance.

Conspicuously absent from the President’s remarks were the words “and partner territory”, meaning that, if Sweden were invaded by Russia, it would need to be inside the Nato security umbrella, not next to it. Thus the then-government quickly reversed over 200 years of military non-alignment, ostensibly “hand in hand” with neighbouring Finland to join.

While Sweden’s accession to Nato was approved yesterday by a final member-state vote in the Hungarian parliament, the outcome of the two-year-long ratification process cannot be described as a full diplomatic victory. Having shown, in negotiations with Turkey, that it was prepared to trade its constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression for a Nato membership, Stockholm has emerged with a somewhat bloodied nose and some lost standing among its international peers.

During the “strategic timeout” of the 1990s and 2000s, Sweden completely dismantled its institutions of civil defence — arguably the world’s most sophisticated — and radically transformed its conventional territorial defence into a small, expeditionary force that could respond to conflicts abroad. The policy was irreverently termed the “Afghanistan doctrine” due to official statements that Sweden was “best defended in Afghanistan” — meaning that Sweden could expect to receive security assurances from the major Western powers if it proved itself a reliable member of the liberal international community.

Now that Sweden is joining the alliance, we can expect the country to become as zealous a member of Nato as it has so far been of the United Nations and the European Union. Indeed, already before membership, Sweden has gifted 15 support packages of arms and equipment to Ukraine and is, after Nato entry, expected to divert one of its two remaining army brigades to one of the three Baltic states.

A reason for this is the cast-iron belief among many Swedes that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides firm security guarantees and stipulates a concerted armed response to an attack against one member state. Therefore, the thinking goes, extensive territorial defence remains less important. Sweden, if you like, is best defended in the Baltics. However, the treaty merely, and ambiguously, states that each member should take “such action as it deems necessary”.

Stockholm appears not to have learned the lesson of the ratification process — and of national pandemic management policies before then — that countries look to their interests first before they think about the consequences for others. 

An attack on Sweden, or any other European member state of Nato, would likely be met by a “coalition of the willing”, rather than the full force of the alliance. And willingness to help will be dependent on Sweden’s ability to first fight on its own. Stockholm should thus consider balancing an enthusiasm for its newfound “community of values” with a stronger concern for national resistance. This may foster the spirit of defence of the homeland that is ultimately more important to any country’s security than Nato membership or military spending pledges.


Johan Wennström is a Research Fellow at the Swedish Defence University, currently writing a book about Sweden’s stay-behind network during the Cold War.

johanwennstrom

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Rob N
Rob N
4 months ago

Giving up their constitutional right to free expression was a very bad choice.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Disappointed in this new Swedish Govt. Expected better.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
4 months ago
Reply to  Rob N

I think that ‘trade constitutional guaranteed freedom’ overstates things. No trade got made, they just ‘discussed matters’ with Turkey. The rights are still there. There was no law made to ban burning the Koran, for instance, and the governement repeatedly said that Right now major Swedish gang activity is being run by Kurds who are living in Turkey. Which means that the government has a difficult line to walk between appeasing Turkey who wants to call all Kurds who want independence from Turkey violent terrorists, even the ones who do not advocate violence, and being able to get criminals extradited to Sweden so we can roll up their whole networks. We got a little bit of more legal argle bargle about what is a terrorist supporting organisation, but the political-non-terrorist wing of the Kurdish independence movement is still welcome here. Amineh Kakabaveh did not get extradited to Turkey. The only people who were sent were ‘regular criminals’, which Erdogan complained about — he wanted political ones that he considered terrorists. The current government also wants to get rid of terrorists, so some changes in the definition of terrorist group seemed in order even absent Turkey making noise about it.
What is more worrysome is the changes to the constitution made here: https://www.thelocal.se/20221121/sweden-elects-how-the-swedish-constitution-was-quietly-changed — but there is talk of a new whistleblower law to come in to fix this particular problem. You can see why a government might not want to discuss this until after the Nato joining happens. Figuring out what secrets you are obligated to keep as part of being in a military alliance is going to be a tough one for Swedes who are used to a mindset of ‘all secrecy is wrong’.
So, there is a lot to pay attention to here, but if you got the idea that the government folded on the constitutional right to free expression, then you need to check your sources.

Rob N
Rob N
4 months ago

Thanks for the detailed points. I knew the Koran burning/freedom of expression was being discussed but the source for my comment was from the article:
“Having shown, in negotiations with Turkey, that it was prepared to trade its constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression for a Nato membership,”

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
4 months ago
Reply to  Rob N

I don’t know why he wrote that. There are people who thought that just meeting and discussing things with Ergodan was a step too far, but I wouldn’t have thought that he was one of them.

jane baker
jane baker
4 months ago

Whistleblower laws are dreadful. They are traps so far as I can see. They don’t protect a ‘whistleblower” they lull them into a false sense of safety and our them. So they’re a trap really. But I’m only going by what I see and hear in such media as I now use and also personal knowledge of what has happened to one or two NHS acquaintances.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
4 months ago

Sold their souls to the devil, covering up the US blowing up the pipeline for this. A poor bargain.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

By willingly choosing to join an alliance of like minded countries? I’ll wager Ukraine wishes they had joined when the Baltic states did

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

NATO and the EU are dying.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

In comparison to who?

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

‘To die’ is not a transitive verb here. They’re just dying; there is no comparison to be made.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I’ll wager the pro Russian Ukrainians wouldn’t have been in favour…

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago

An attack on Sweden, or any other European member state of Nato,
What serious person is expecting this to happen?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It’s a lot less likely to happen if they’re in NATO though, the deterrence is half the battle

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Not sure that’s true. UA’s push to join NATO was a key factor in what has happened in the past two years.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

A guy called Putin is certainly rumoured to be thinking about it. He does, after all, have form.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
4 months ago

While I can understand they may feel threatened by Russia, the fact is that Sweden let in an ‘invasion’ in several years ago quite willingly under humanitarian pretexts, and this has done a lot more damage to Sweden than any former KGB agent is likely to ever do.

Margie Murphy
Margie Murphy
4 months ago

Very true. And other European countries my own included haven’t learnt from Sweden. That compassionate concern and generosity to other cultures, giving all and asking nothing in return will most assuredly to bite you on the ass!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
4 months ago
Reply to  Margie Murphy

It was never about compassion. It was all about sticking it to the right

A D Kent
A D Kent
4 months ago

Quite so – but don’t forget that the pump-priming for that invasion was, in great part, caused by the chaos in Syria, Libya and before that Iraq and Afghanistan. At least two of those four were either directly caused or desperately worsened by…wait for it… NATO themselves. The Swedish government are twits.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
4 months ago

Very few people know that Article 5 doesn’t oblige any member state of NATO to take military action in response to an attack on another member.

The USA simply doesn’t enter treaties which carry obligations limiting its freedom of action.

The NATO Treaty is, as Mao would say, a paper tiger; and as DeGaulle said no US President would risk New York for the sake of Lyons.

Sweden has made a poor choice; armed neutrality was a better protection.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

While Sweden is not “on the front line” against Russia in the same way Finland is, it now understands “who the enemy is”, which is presumably what prompted it to join NATO. It seems clear to me that it has made the right decision. What that means for the composition of its armed forces going forward remains to be seen.

leonard o'reilly
leonard o'reilly
4 months ago

Iron-clad guarantees are written on paper. You would be wise to bring your own iron. That’s only realpolitik.
So, a militarily strong Sweden aligned with, let’s face it, its kin in the rest of the West: is that complicated or controversial?
On the other hand, should Sweden fear a revanchist Russia? I have my doubts. Two years on, a poor country ( Ukraine ), a stone’s throw from Moscow, with a GDP 1/15th that of Sweden’s, and a population a quarter that of Russia’s, still holds them at bay.
Not that anyone should envy Ukraine’s future.
Like the rest of the West, Sweden has more to fear from internal dissolution than from any external enemy.
Kudos on the Covid, though.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
4 months ago

Ukraine has the help of US intelligence data and help in targeting, and probably covert US/UK personnel. I doubt Ukraine alone could withstand a full scale Russian assault.

leonard o'reilly
leonard o'reilly
4 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

True enough. Artillery and intelligence have helped. But it is boots on the ground that win battles. Still, to repeat: Ukraine comes out of this much diminished, but so, too, with regard to status, do the Russians: they have proven to not be the conventional military threat they were feared to be.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

It is incumbent on the Free World to ensure that Russia comes out of this much diminished. If it doesn’t, it will only have to do the job later.

jane baker
jane baker
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Ha ha ha. You and whose army?

A D Kent
A D Kent
4 months ago

Sweden will now be fully entitled to squander billions on NATO inter-operability and the various ‘next generation’ boondoggles. NATO has achieved this stunning victory at the cost of a greatly extended possible line of contact should a Russian invasion ever escape the realm of fairytales. All par for the course for our governments of Very Serious People making Very Serious Decisions.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
4 months ago

The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. But not the mouth.