Support for NATO membership has increased in Sweden in recent years. At the same time, freedom of alliance and the image of Sweden as a neutral country is something that many Swedes cherish. This is an impossible combination, write three researchers in an article in the scientific journal Defense Studies.
The three researchers, Joakim Berndtsson (University of Gothenburg), Karl Ydén (Chalmers University of Technology) and Magnus Petersson (Defense College) believe that parts of the explanation for the paradox lie in how security policy rhetoric, decisions and handling colors of both power politics and idealistic ideas. This has given rise to a situation where the government still advocates Swedish military freedom of alliance, at the same time as cooperation with NATO is increasing.
A narrow majority wants to retain Swedish freedom of alliance
According to the SOM Institute’s surveys, increased support for Swedish NATO membership during the period 2012–2016. In recent years, support has decreased somewhat again, while a large proportion – 38 percent of those who respond in the SOM survey from 2018 – believe that the proposal for Swedish NATO membership is neither good nor bad. At the same time, a narrow majority (60 percent) of Swedes think that Sweden should retain the military freedom of alliance. A quarter of those who responded to the SOM survey in 2015 expressed support for both NATO membership and military freedom of alliance.
– This caught our interest. We wanted to seek answers away from the simple explanations, meaning that it would only be about pure ignorance or disinterest. We believe instead that the explanation should be sought in Sweden’s historical relationship with the defense alliance NATO, and how this relationship changes in the period after the end of the Cold War, says Joakim Berndtsson.
During the period of neutrality policy, Sweden’s goal was to stand outside the great power war and be and sort the buffer between the superpowers during the Cold War. But during this period there was also significant military-political cooperation with the “Western Powers”, primarily the United States, Great Britain, Denmark and Norway.
From a policy of neutrality to freedom of alliance
After the end of the Cold War, Sweden abandoned the policy of neutrality in favor of the still prevailing freedom of alliance. However, neutrality is still important for the image of Sweden, even for this policy formally abandoned.
– After the Cold War, Sweden’s line to build security together with others built a closer one also to NATO. The foreign declaration now contains a so-called “declaration of solidarity” which can contribute to Sweden supporting other EU countries and Nordic countries (most of which are NATO countries) in the event of a crisis and war, and where expectations are expressed that such a support will also be given to Sweden, says Joakim Berndtsson.
There are also several formal co-operation agreements where Sweden has approached NATO, primarily by joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace and participating in a number of UN-sanctioned, NATO-led operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, among others.
Among NATO member states, Sweden, together with Finland, has been seen as one of the most active and cooperative partner countries; many NATO countries would – in informal contexts – even describe Sweden as more valuable to NATO than several of NATO members, says Joakim Berndtsson.
Paradoxical Swedish self-image
At the same time, the researchers believe that the closer relationship with NATO is difficult to reconcile with the Swedish self-image of neutrality, freedom of alliance and of being a global “good force”. The Swedish public has historically not primarily regarded NATO as a “good force”, but rather as a symbol of militarism, incitement to war and nuclear weapons.
These tendencies have continued in the post-war era, which has led to a discrepancy between what is done in practice and how Swedish security policy describes it.
– In political contexts, then mainly by the government, a very close and gradually increasingly institutionalized cooperation with NATO is presented as possible to combine with freedom of alliance. We believe this contributes to creating the seemingly paradoxical relationship in Swedish opinions, that many believe that freedom of alliance and NATO membership are compatible, says Joakim Berndtsson.
This in turn, according to the researchers, raises questions about how Swedish security policy is conducted and legitimized. And points to a need to change and transfer an old self-image as a neutral independent “good force” to a new self-image as an alliance-free “god force that works closely with a military alliance”.
Joakim Berndtsson, Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, [email protected]