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By Merely Entertaining NATO Membership, Sweden Has Changed

Nima Khorrami

Publicly acknowledging their changed calculations in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Swedish leader Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin used their joint press conference to announce that substantive discussions on NATO membership are underway and that a decision on launching an application will be made soon.

For weeks, there have been reports of Helsinki’s firm inclination to finally sign up for NATO membership but Stockholm’s shift was more surprising. Although never truly neutral, Sweden replaced its Cold War neutrality with non-alignment in the mid-1990s. Highly proud of its track record in pursuing its foreign policy goals by avoiding war for over a century, questions of formal alliances have always been hotly debated and divisive. Also, its strategic location, small population size, and relatively large territory have collectively persuaded Swedish strategists that Sweden’s security is best served by remaining outside collective security arrangements. Hence, NATO membership has historically remained an unpopular proposition. So why did Swedish leaders become so willing to entertain joining NATO?

Strategically speaking, the trajectory of events in and around Europe has forced Swedish decision makers to gradually come to terms with the unattainability of their grand strategic assumptions since the collapse of the Soviet Union: that a) war in Europe was no longer a likely occurrence and b) assistance will be readily available in the event of a conflict. Starting with Moscow’s cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, its invasion of Georgia the following year, its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its support for Belarusian and Syrian dictators, Swedish policymakers have witnessed Mr. Putin’s disregard for a rule-based international order and lackluster western responses to his irredentism with wariness. As such, a subtle process of strategic recalculation has been underway for some time now which reached its climax when Stockholm decided to dial back on, and eventually terminate, its contribution to international peacekeeping missions. The Swedish government also reintroduced conscription and began to raise public and corporate crisis preparedness as part of its wider effort to revitalize its total defense concept with vigor.

Meanwhile, a number of structural or system-level changes have collectively necessitated a radical rethinking of Sweden’s strategic posturing. As the era of multi-polarity and great power competition takes hold, put differently, Swedish strategists have had to re-evaluate the benefits of bilateral arrangements vis-a-vis those commonly associated with collective security arrangements. Russia’s progressively more aggressive posturing towards its neighbors is a firm validation of the observation that Moscow prefers great power arrangements and sphere of influence politics where few great powers have the final say in their designated zone of influence. At the same time, Trump’s doctrine of America first and the prospect of his re-election in 2024 have worried Swedish elites who fear that Washington could be open to exclusive strategic deals with major powers with little to no regards for its allies and partners concerns.

Nor the EU’s cohesion and its ability to quickly authorize policy can be taken for granted. If anything, Brussels’ initial response to COVID, where major members prioritized their national interests over the bloc’s collective interests or its failure to enforce a common strategy in dealing with the Syrian migration crisis, have weakened trust in both its reliability at times of crisis and its ability to achieve strategic autonomy even though the Swedish government remains committed to the EU as a political project. With regard to the issue of strategic autonomy, it must be noted, there are also serious concerns of a potential French hijacking of the autonomy project and turning it into a vehicle at the service of Paris’s own goals outside the EU. Added to this is the EU’s slow bureaucratic processes, meaning that attaining strategic autonomy would be a lengthy endeavor and thus of no value for addressing current and/or immediate threats. And to add insult to injury, the unfortunate democratic erosion within the bloc renders normative arguments against NATO membership - that it forces Sweden to support illiberal democracies like Turkey - void of logic.

Unsurprisingly, the so-called ‘Finland question’ has made a comeback in public discourses. Finland’s stability and territorial integrity constitutes one of Sweden’s strategic redlines, and so any assault on Finland would be considered an assault on Sweden itself; an assessment that is a direct consequence of geography. Sandwiched between Sweden and Russia, Finland provides a buffer zone for Sweden keeping the Russian threat at a safe distance. Were it to fall or experience a prolonged period of instability, its demise would constitute a direct threat to Sweden’s own sense of security.

Given the above, the key question for Stockholm has always been whether it is capable of defending Finland should it come under assault. And the answer is an unfortunate no largely due to the drastic cuts in the defense budget over the past two decades. Although still a highly professional force, the brutal fact is that having gone from one of the largest militaries in Europe to its current shrunken size, Swedish armed forces have so much catching up to do in terms of combat preparedness and, more urgently, equipment. This is why the government has decided to ratchet up its defense spending by $300 million this year, and there has been a noticeable softening in the country’s attitude towards NATO. Stockholm, so the advocates of the membership reason, can better support Helsinki as a NATO member state than remaining outside. In addition, NATO membership enables Sweden to take a more prominent role in the Baltic theater; perhaps even becoming the lead actor in shaping and/or enforcing the alliance’s Baltic strategy. It has become less convincing to resist membership out of concern for its effects on Finland’s security when Helsinki itself is set to apply. According to the Swedish armed forces own assessment, the Swedish military can make good use of the increased defense spending by 2028 at the earliest.

The other factor behind the sudden change of tune from Andersson lies in the fact that Swedes will head to polls in September. Therefore, she cannot afford being seen as weak or indecisive on the question of national security at a time when public support for NATO membership is on the rise. Moreover, she has been under pressure from the opposition parties for her allegedly hands-off approach in handling the Ukraine crisis and instead allowing Finland to be the leading Nordic voice on the issue. Her credentials as a leader and her style of leadership have both come under sustained opposition attacks in recent weeks. This must be of concern to a prime minster whose popularity is weak while her party’s dominance of the Swedish politics has been on a downward trajectory. Thus, even if Andersson and her team have serious reservations about the utility of the NATO membership, she cannot afford being at odds with the public mood.

With emotions running high and the opposition parties finding a unique opportunity in the current debate to not just attack the ruling Social Democrats but to also uproot one of their signature foreign policy achievements – non-alignment – Sweden today is much keener on NATO membership than it has ever been. Those in favor of membership tend to both discredit the country’s neutrality/non-alignment as a myth and question the logic behind non-alignment by highlighting the fact that Sweden’s decision to send arms to Ukraine, enforce sanctions against Russia, and its EU membership have all rendered the notion of non-alignment meaningless. What is more, so the argument goes, most of Sweden’s major allies are NATO members, and hence it is wishful thinking to assume that Sweden can avoid being dragged into an EU-wide conflict by staying out of military alliances like NATO. More broadly, it seems that NATO advocates see a unique opportunity in the current crisis to bring Sweden one step closer into the transatlantic sphere so that Russia, in spite of all its harsh rhetoric, will be unable to deliver on its threats. With its finances strained and armed forces stretched, Moscow’s only option lies in expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad; a reality that Sweden and its Baltic neighbors have been living with since 2018.

Still, care must be taken to avoid overestimating the prospect of membership even though there is a shared expectation amongst commentators that Stockholm will submit its application by June. For one, just because Sweden's ruling party has decided to debate the NATO question does not mean that the party as a whole has changed its stance on membership. Rather, it signals a pragmatic decision to discuss the consequences of Sweden’s changed security environment where the prospect of a military attack is no longer an unlikely scenario. More importantly, one must not discount the potency of the Swedish sense of exceptionalism, which was most recently on display in its COVD-19 response, as a Nordic social democracy with a long history of strategic autonomy and uninterrupted sovereignty. Unlike Finland, Sweden has never been invaded in its modern history, and thus it has never needed outside assistance to safeguard its territorial integrity. Its stance on neutrality and non-alignment, furthermore, have been both a matter of identity and conscious choice; that is, they were neither inevitable due to geographical proximity to a mightier neighbor nor were they imposed on it via agreements. As such, while it certainly welcomes defense and security partnerships, it prefers those that are reflective of its dominant position in the Scandinavian Peninsula, its self-identification as a moral superpower and champion of democracy and individual rights, and its proud record of sustained peace. Already, prominent figures have expressed serious concerns about an emotional rush towards membership. Former Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, for instance, has urged the government to utilize the European Union’s mutual defense mechanism embodied in the Lisbon Treaty and contribute to bloc’s drive, pushed especially by France, toward strategic autonomy. Others have casted doubt on the desirability of being allies with the illiberal democratic members of the alliance while also warning of the consequences of the membership for Sweden’s stance on nuclear weapons.

Looking ahead, the two countries bring important advantages to NATO: their advanced telecommunication, artificial intelligence, and renewable energy sectors, for instance, can be tapped into in order to develop more energy efficient autonomous naval and aerial assets. While their proximity to Russia poses risks, of course, there are also advantages: the duo can also make significant intelligence contributions. Moreover, Sweden can play a leading role in the Baltic Sea, boosting other members’ submarine hunting and cyber capabilities. And last but not least, integrating the two Nordic nations armed forces into the broader NATO structure would be a relatively straightforward task given their regular participation in NATO led exercises as two ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partners'.

Yet, having them inside the alliance would not be a risk-free affair as Andersson herself stated at the press conference. More importantly, some have already begun to question the utility of such a move for the United States. Although a Russian attack as a response to either countries joining the alliance is highly unlikely, the application process will be a relatively lengthy one during which tensions will substantially rise, requiring the United States to devote more of its resources to Europe and away from Asia; a prospect that will surely sour opinions in certain circles in Washington. As a result, it might very well be the case that a more prudent course of action would be to use a Finnish and Swedish application as a carrot to bring about a UN Security Council drafted ceasefire and/or full cessation of fighting in return for Finnish and Swedish applications withdrawal. Either way, NATO should send a thank you note to Mr. Putin for reviving interests in membership.

About the Author

Nima Khorrami

Nima Khorrami

Research Associate, The Arctic Institute
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more