Sweden’s NATO Application Would Be a Sea Change—and a Logical Endpoint
Editor's Note: This text was updated May 11 to include the Greens’ announcement on NATO membership.
When the NATO leaders meet for their summit in Madrid at the end of June, there is every indication that Sweden, along with Finland, will have applied to join the alliance. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will have thus upended the foreign and security policy of two long-standing neutral countries and pushed them formally into the West, which would also result in Russia having an extra 1,300 kilometers of border with NATO.
Applying for NATO membership certainly represents a sea change in Swedish and Finnish domestic politics. However, when it comes to international politics, it is more the logical endpoint of decades of their security and defense policy, especially for Sweden.
The last time Sweden was involved in a regular conflict was at the tail end of the Napoleonic wars. Its first declaration of neutrality came in 1834, a position it has restated several times since. In the late 1940s, Sweden tried to create a defense alliance with Denmark and Norway, an effort that failed when the two countries decided to join NATO.
Russia has been Sweden’s historic enemy over centuries. During the Cold War, after opting not to join NATO and to pursue a policy of “non-alliance in peace, aiming at neutrality in war,” Sweden began clandestine cooperation with the United States in intelligence-sharing and military technology. In 1952, a Swedish air force reconnaissance plane was shot down by the Soviet Union while gathering information to be shared with United States. Airfields in the country were extended to accommodate US military aircraft.
Sweden’s security and defense policy rested on the conviction that its relatively large draft army and the fourth-largest air force in the world would hold the line until the West would intervene. Anyone taking part in exercises with the draft armed forces could very quickly figure out where the threat was coming from. Sweden also held, and continues to hold, a trump card with the island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea, effectively a huge aircraft carrier some 200 kilometers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Whoever controls Gotland has the upper hand in the Baltic Sea.
In Sweden, as in many other countries, the post-Cold War “peace dividend” of the late 1990s led to a reorganization of the armed forces. A semi-professional army, geared for international missions rather than territorial defense, was set up. Sweden joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, and later it sent troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed Sweden’s defense and security policy. The following year, Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist defined the new one by saying “the transatlantic link is essential for the security of Europe … Sweden’s bilateral cooperation with the United States is important and should be deepened.” In what has been called—somewhat derisively—the Hultqvist doctrine, Sweden entered into several agreements and memoranda of understanding with Western partners. Critics claim that this was a strategy by the governing Social Democrats to avoid joining NATO at a time when the security situation in Sweden’s neighborhood became increasingly tense. However, troops from individual NATO members have regularly taken part in exercises on Swedish soil.
Neutrality and an ambition and history of taking the moral high road in international relations have been an essential part of Sweden’s identity and exceptionalism.
The deterioration of the security environment has had two substantial outcomes. Sweden has provided weapons to Ukraine—the first time it provided arms to another country since it did so to Finland during the Winter War of 1939-1940. It will also increase defense spending with the objective of reaching the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP. In the 1960s, the number was around 4 percent. The preliminary assessment of the armed forces is that this goal can be reached in six years. The political opposition wants it to happen as early as 2025.
Neutrality and an ambition and history of taking the moral high road in international relations have been an essential part of Sweden’s identity and exceptionalism. Thus, joining NATO has for decades been the “third rail” in domestic politics. No political party had really pushed for membership until the behavior of Russia started to become more and more menacing. The necessary national political consensus for any attempt to promote NATO membership just was not there.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic shift in public opinion. In 2017, close to 50 percent were against joining NATO and 35 percent for it. At the end of April, 54 percent were in favor and 24 percent against.
The invasion of Ukraine has now changed all this and put the Social Democrats in a quandary. All other parties (except the Left Party, which wants a referendum and the Greens, who announced that they are in favor of a policy based on bilateral cooperation) are now clearly in favor of joining, the latest converts being the rightwing Sweden Democrats. In recent years, there has been a dramatic shift in public opinion. In 2017, close to 50 percent were against joining NATO and 35 percent for it. At the end of April, 54 percent were in favor and 24 percent against. The fact that Finland is expected to apply for membership is also in a way forcing the Swedish government to follow suit. Sweden’s geostrategic and military position as a non-member of NATO would be very precarious if it did not and its neighbor did.
An internal process has been underway to get the Social Democrats behind an application to join NATO. The party’s discipline is traditionally strong and recent polls show this is working, with the Social Democrats appearing willing to break with a foreign and security policy that has been their lodestar for so long. This week 45 percent of Social Democratic voters are in favor of joining compared to 36 percent compared to the previous one.
Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson is said to have made up her mind. Defense Minister Hultqvist, who stated in a speech last year that Sweden would never join NATO on his watch, might be slightly less enthusiastic but will eventually toe the party line.
That the Social Democrats wholeheartedly back an application for NATO membership matters. A large majority vote in parliament backing the government’s decision would signal that Sweden is a very serious potential partner to the alliance. Such a majority now looks very likely.