Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generally been greeted with enthusiasm, as a further demonstration of Western unity in the face of Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
But even two years ago, such a step would have been unthinkable. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, Sweden had asserted a firm policy of neutrality that involved non-participation in any wars and an avoidance of alliances during peacetime.
For Swedes, neutrality was at the centre of their identity and their perception of their special place in the world. Their new position will inevitably involve some psychological readjustments.
However, for the rest of us, there are also some significant costs that flow from the end of Swedish neutrality.
Why has Sweden abandoned neutrality?
Since the 1990s, Sweden has been enhancing its relationship with the European alliance system.
It joined the European Union in 1995 and gradually increased its involvement with NATO. In 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Sweden became an “enhanced opportunities partner”, an arrangement that involves the sharing of intelligence.
Yet it took the clear increase in the threat environment during early 2022 to push Swedish public opinion, and the representatives of all parties in the Swedish parliament, towards the momentous decision to abandon its longstanding policy of neutrality. The threats include enhanced Russian naval activity in the Baltic, and overt threats by Russia against the Baltic States and Finland to bolster its forces and nuclear capability in the region.
While there’s still significant opposition to this decision within Sweden, there’s also a broad understanding of why the threats to the security of both Sweden and the wider Baltic region have been perceived so seriously.
The history of Swedish neutrality
The decision is understandable, but it’s not without costs, both for Sweden and the wider world, especially in the longer term.
During the Cold War in particular, Sweden played an essential role as a critic, mediator and bridge-builder in a deeply divided world. Far from being a reclusive nation that eschewed involvement in global affairs, Sweden was an international activist, an enthusiastic champion of both international law and collective action.
In the process, it managed to enrage both the United States and the Soviet Union.
Important examples included its opposition to the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq. It has also regularly campaigned against nuclear armaments.
After the end of the Cold War, Sweden played a constructive role in efforts to establish new cooperative security arrangements in Europe based around preventing conflict, respect for national sovereignty, and an enhanced role for organisations such as the United Nations.
Swedish troops have had a long involvement in peacekeeping operations around the world, stretching back to the Arab-Israel war of 1948. The country’s neutral stance meant it was trusted to be impartial by both sides in any conflict.
For example, it has been a member of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission established to monitor the armistice signed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, and still in existence today. It has also provided troops for peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East, the Congo, Cyprus, and Bosnia Herzegovina among others.
Sweden has been an important contributor to efforts to promote international development. The country built some important links with Africa and is widely respected there because of its long-term support for African liberation movements. It is also highly regarded for its opposition – especially during the Cold War – to the use of aid funds as a tool to enhance support for one side or the other in a global battle for “hearts and minds”.
What the world loses from Sweden’s decision
Will Sweden continue to play these important roles now from within NATO? Perhaps, because old habits do die hard, and there are signs the ruling Social Democrats are retreating from neo-liberal economic policies.
But there are bound to be compromises that need to be made in the interests of alliance solidarity. We have already seen hints of this in Sweden’s responses to Turkey’s demands regarding the Kurdish refugees. Turkey threatened to block Sweden’s NATO application until it received some assurances about the activities of the significant Kurdish refugee population in Sweden, which Turkey has always considered a terrorist group.
These kinds of demands to restrict criticism of Turkey’s human rights record are likely to continue.
Yet the current international environment demands such a critic, bridge-builder and mediator, perhaps even more so now than during the Cold War.
We are faced with unprecedented uncertainty, complexity and entrenched hostilities that are threatening peace. As is clear in the current contest for influence in various nations in the Pacific, development aid is once again being used primarily as an instrument in a new Cold War.
We are crying out for the kind of moral leadership that Sweden provided earlier, especially under the government of Prime Minister Olof Palme during the 1980s.
However, it may be that this has all been sacrificed in the name of alliance solidarity. It’s far from clear if any other country can fill this crucial gap.