Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Sweden.
In light of recurring military provocations from Russia, and with national defense too long ignored, Swedes have started to ask hard questions about their role in European security policy. Against this background, the governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens that entered office in October 2014 has presented a foreign policy agenda with a level of ambition rivaled only by the cost of its possible failure.
Although the results of this agenda have yet to be seen, Sweden’s foreign policy is as ambitious as before, keeping the country’s score at 5 out of 5.
Sweden has long held a top position in EU external relations, sharing second place in the European Council on Foreign Relations foreign policy scorecard for 2015. Stockholm’s high level of foreign aid, focus on human rights, ambitious climate goals, and generous asylum policies make for consistent top grades, but lofty ambitions and personal activism have played a role as well.
With the new government, and with former European commissioner Margot Wallström succeeding Carl Bildt as Sweden’s foreign minister, these ambitions remain intact, although the course has been slightly modified. In his opening declaration to parliament, the new prime minister, Stefan Löfven, indicated an intensified focus on the UN, ruled out NATO membership, and emphasized that Sweden’s military nonalignment policy continues to serve the country’s interests well.
In January this year, while still new in the job, Wallström delivered a speech on Swedish security policy in which the EU’s foreign and security policy figured at an all-time low. The previous center-right government, and Bildt in particular, never missed an opportunity to emphasize Sweden’s commitment to the project, best exemplified in the 2011 statement that “European foreign policy is our foreign policy.”
The new government has yet to show signs of similar commitment. Instead, Wallström stated that “[we are in favor] of a Sweden that makes its own fundamental decisions on security policy [and] that can take a more independent position on various international issues.”
If the EU has at times been absent from discussions on Swedish security, NATO has received more attention. The opposition parties have recently been pushing for an official report on the possible consequences of Swedish membership in the alliance—a proposal that the governing coalition has no intention of supporting. NATO skepticism is deeply rooted in the current government.
Nonetheless, along with a new opinion poll showing support for NATO membership for the first time ever (48 percent in favor and only 35 percent against), the narrative has changed, and the burden of proof has arguably shifted to those who oppose membership or an official review. Clearly, the NATO issue is no longer considered holy or taboo when it comes to Swedish security and defense policy.
Looming over all current discussions on security policy is what increasingly stands out as the government’s main foreign policy goal: winning a seat on the UN Security Council for 2017–2018. The diplomatic efforts aimed at securing this goal have undeniably shifted the focus of Sweden’s foreign policy. The government’s own campaign states that while Sweden’s ambitions have recently been very much oriented toward Brussels, “now it’s a matter of more clearly taking New York as a political arena as well.” That shift might surprise observers who have grown used to Swedish politicians talking about the need for a common European voice in international affairs.
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The new government has indeed showcased its independence. Stockholm’s unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in October 2014 made Wallström an unwelcome guest in Israel, while increasing her popularity within the Arab League. This ended abruptly on March 9, 2015, when Wallström’s scheduled opening speech at a meeting of Arab ministers in Cairo was canceled after heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia, supposedly due to her loud critique of human rights abuses in that country. Sweden countered by announcing that a hotly debated arms trade agreement between Sweden and Saudi Arabia would not be extended.
Critics claim that the unilateral recognition of Palestine and worsening diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia will have no other effect on Sweden than isolation. But the government’s supporters argue that these developments reaffirm Sweden’s commitment to human rights, international solidarity, and a feminist foreign policy. The final judgment is, naturally, yet to come.
Beyond these recent episodes, how will Stockholm’s new foreign policy agenda play out in the longer term? And how will it affect Sweden’s contributions to international security? The answer is perhaps rather surprising given the government’s new approach: much, but not everything, will probably stay the same. Four key issues stand out.
First are the Swedish Armed Forces. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, its simulated air strikes on Stockholm, and a suspected submarine intrusion in late 2014 have shifted the political debate in Sweden. Against a backdrop of years of underinvestment in the military, discussions are once again addressing the fundamental issue of what needs to be defended, by whom, and at what cost.
However, while the rhetoric is at times harsh, the marginal differences between the main players and the fact that the current opposition held power for the previous eight years make it difficult for any party to capitalize on the situation. Observers should expect a modest increase in Sweden’s defense budget, possibly with funds earmarked for antisubmarine warfare and the defense of Gotland—a strategically important island for the security of the Baltic Sea—as the next defense bill is expected to reach parliament in late spring 2015.
Second, while the disagreement over NATO is no secret, one should not expect any radical changes to the status quo. Despite the ongoing debate over full membership, the NATO relationship is strong, and there is near consensus across party lines that close cooperation is necessary.
The less controversial option of military cooperation with Finland, another NATO nonmember, has recently gained much attention. In a joint report, the two countries made recommendations on how to further increase efficiency and outputs. These include a Swedish-Finnish naval task group, increased access to each other’s marine bases, antisubmarine warfare exercises, crisis management logistics, and secure lines of communication at the strategic and political levels, as well as a long-term commitment to common defense procurement.
While cooperation with Helsinki could offer Stockholm considerable gains both operationally and economically, this is by no means a shortcut to national or regional security. Rather cynically, one could call it a political manifestation that comfortably coincides with domestic pressure to address the perceived shortcomings in the Swedish Armed Forces resulting from years of cuts to the defense budget.
Third, the EU will most likely continue to play an important role in Swedish foreign policy, albeit with less grand language in support of it. Even an increased focus on the UN will to a large extent be channeled through the EU; and the union’s wide array of tools are seen as vital in managing a resurgent Russia. Indeed, Sweden continues to voice support for Ukraine through the EU amid Russian complaints.
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Finally, and rather paradoxically given the international ambitions of the government, security policy has returned home. Despite the new government’s global aims, the process of renationalizing Swedish security policy has begun and is likely to continue. The defense of Sweden starts in Sweden, as the new minister of defense stated earlier this year. The notion that the defense of Sweden starts in Afghanistan, as was often proclaimed until 2013, has been almost entirely abandoned. On this, all parties seem to agree.
The outstanding issue is the UN bid. This is a gamble, and not only on the possible outcome of Sweden’s candidacy. Much more importantly, it is a gamble on the UN. Sweden’s efforts display a belief that the UN—seen by many as largely defunct—will be a vital and constructive actor in managing global affairs in the coming years.
If both bets turn out to be correct, Sweden might find itself in the global political limelight. If either of them turns out to be wrong, the country might discover that an independent voice offers neither influence nor security in an increasingly turbulent world. Time will tell whether Sweden’s top-ranking ambition was rivaled by top-ranking judgment.
Björn Fägersten is a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and was previously a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of European Policy Studies.
Jonathan Lundell is an MSc student at Lund University and a former research assistant at the Swedish Institute of European Policy Studies.
Both write here in a personal capacity.