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Swedish Membership in NATO: To be or not to be?

- Reviewing the perspectives in the Swedish debate

Since World War II, the Swedish security policy has been to maintain peace and stay out of armed conflicts. Because of this, Sweden never joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, with a new ”Cold War” on the rise, many politicians now argue for a Swedish membership of NATO and abandonment of the neutrality policy. During this election term, two more parties have decided to be pro NATO membership. These parties are the Centerparty and the Christian Democrats, besides the Moderates and the Liberals which have long advocated for it. This entails that the center-right coalition called ”Alliansen” (the Alliance) now agrees that the Swedish security policy should take a new path, therefore it is likely that something will change if they take power after this year’s elections.

However, in Sweden, there is still a majority against the membership. In this year’s foreign declaration, Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister and Social Democrat, stated that the fact that Sweden is non-aligned serves Sweden well and promotes stability and security in the region.

The case for joining is today largely coherent with the view that Sweden is militarily weak and therefore needs NATO, as a deterrent against possible Russian aggression. Therefore, the debate of membership is primarily focused on the threat posed by Russia. An example of this is the Moderate member of the European Parliament, Gunnar Hökmark, who argued in favour of a membership in his blog in October 2014. He listed a number of arguments and examples of worrying issues regarding the Russian development in democracy and security policy. He argued that these developments and that ”Russia’s growing aggression obviously is also aimed at Sweden” show which path Sweden must take.

The evidence that Russian aggression is also aimed at Sweden is based on a number of incidents that occurred during the recent years. This includes repeated violation of the Swedish sovereign airspace and the 2014 submarine incident in the archipelago of Stockholm. Although the submarine was never found, it is believed to have been of Russian origin. Another major incident that still echoes in the debate is how the Russian air force during the Easter of 2013 conducted bombing exercises of Swedish targets. There were no Swedish planes in the air to intercept the Russian air force. For many Swedes this exposed how the country’s defence was so poorly funded that it could not be prepared to defend Sweden at all time.

As mentioned above, the current Swedish government is against the membership, arguing that it would not strengthen the security in the region.They argue that the Russian threat would increase in case Sweden joins the alliance. Interestingly enough, the ‘pro-NATO’ advocates want to join to feel secure from the threat of Russia. It is however clear what a Swedish membership would be like from Russian point of view. Last year, Mr. Putin himself said that it would be ”another threat to Russia” and would make bilateral relations even worse. An example of a non-governmental Swede who believes this is Sven Hirdman, a Swedish ex-ambassador to Russia that in February 2015 wrote : ”A Swedish – and Finnish – membership in NATO would contribute to increase the tension between the block and thereby the risk of even more incidents.”

But why is NATO expansion viewed as a threat to Russia since NATO is an alliance focused on defence and preserving peace, some might argue. A possible response could be what John J. Mearsheimer stated when he wrote an article with the headline: ”Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault”. He argues that the intention  of NATO to expand threatens Russian security interests, since it can result in NATO strongholds on Russian borders. He argues that this was the reason for Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Although Sweden does not share any borders with Russia, the island Gotland is of vital strategic importance.

Furthermore, it is relevant to look at the values that is represented in the debate. Sweden has a long history of anti-americanism which is still in the Swedish left and the Left party leader Jonas Sjöstedt has questioned if it is reasonable to join NATO when Donald Trump is president. Another aspect that surely does not help the ’pro-Nato’ advocates in promoting NATO as the agent of liberty and democracy is the fact that Erdogan’s Turkey still is a full-fledged member of the alliance. This question the purported values of NATO as a military alliance of states respecting democratic values.

The debate is entrenched, with two sides of different perspectives. The advocates against say a membership would increase the risk of armed conflicts in nearby regions while the ’pro-NATO’ advocates believes it would work as deterrent to Russia. After the election in September it is possible that the ’pro-NATO’ perspective will take power. That would make the time ahead for Swedish foreign policy very interesting, especially since their leader, Ulf Kristersson, has promised that his government will take further steps towards a membership.

Ruben Trossmark

 

 

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