'Isolationism is passé - Sweden needs to join NATO': Liberals

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'Isolationism is passé - Sweden needs to join NATO': Liberals

With neutrality outdated and Sweden unable to effectively defend it's borders, the country needs to set aside its hang-ups and start thinking seriously about joining NATO, argues Birgitta Ohlsson, foreign policy spokesperson for the Liberal Party.


NATO is an alliance of countries with the common cause of safeguarding democracy as a societal model. Though essentially thought of as a defence alliance, NATO is just as much an ideological alliance committed to securing the survival of our pluralistic and liberal societal systems for future generations. For me, and for the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet), it is more evident than ever before that Sweden should be a member of NATO. Political parties can't just follow public opinion, they have to influence it too – and isolationism is very passé.

As the world outside moves on, time continues to stand curiously still in Sweden when it comes to the NATO debate. Eastern European and Baltic states have joined NATO: in 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania all became members. Now it's also full steam ahead for some Balkan countries well on their way to full NATO membership. Albania, once ruled with an iron hand by Enver Hoxha, and Croatia, emerging from its recent wars, have both become members of an alliance made up of thirty member states. The eminently competent prime minister of our neighbouring country Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmusson, is NATO's new secretary general.

In Sweden it is politically correct to be anti-American and to have a reflexive dislike of NATO. But with Barack Obama as president, these are hard times for all those who love to hate the United States. And we can never forget that democracy would not have survived beyond 1945 without the US. For Sweden, the transatlantic link is of central importance. All the signs suggest that multilateralism and diplomacy are staging a powerful comeback under Obama. George W Bush's foreign policy has fuelled anti-Americanism the world over. But the closure of Guantanamo is a symbolic act that marks a shift away from the dark worldview represented by Bush. America should lead through inspiration, not domination.

Obama views NATO as an important link between the US and the rest of the free world. The change in office means the preconditions now exist for the western world to coalesce around the great challenges of our time: the climate, terrorism and the financial crisis, as well as jointly standing up for democratic values. This is more necessary than ever before. For the third successive year global freedom is in regression, according to Freedom House. Just 46 percent of the world’s population lives in democracies. Unless NATO and the US act as guardians and drivers of democracy, there will be nobody to assume that responsibility. The EU is not yet capable, a point that makes the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty crucial from a security policy perspective. The EU needs to be able to act in a unified and effective manner.

Sweden’s neutrality and non-allied status mean the country has to be able to defend its own territory in almost any situation. It is just nonsense to say that our security policy is “fixed in place”, as it was so unfortunately expressed in the latest foreign policy declaration. Both the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and the Minister of Defence have stated that Sweden would be unable to defend its borders without help were the situation in Europe to drastically deteriorate. Russia is not the Soviet Union, a fact that bears repeating. But were Swedish to join NATO we would not have to worry about Russia’s ongoing rearmament.

Time and time again the government has insisted that Sweden’s security is based on fellowship with other countries – not independence from others as was the case during the Cold War. Our official defence policy even states that Sweden should “take joint responsibility for Europe’s security” and that “a neutrality option is no longer feasible when it comes to conflicts in the surrounding area”. But despite these changes in Sweden’s security policy doctrine, the NATO debate here is barely live; in fact, it is practically mummified.

The EU is not a military alliance and is therefore not an alternative to NATO. The reintegration of the French military into NATO is a clear sign that even the French have given up on the idea of having a competing organization as a counterbalance to the United States. We have to face up to reality. If we really want Sweden to take joint responsibility for Europe’s security then Sweden needs to play an integral role in the context of European and transatlantic defence. A combination of the EU’s civilian skills and NATO’s military acumen represent the future for European – and, by extension, Swedish -- security.

It's disingenuous to have so few Swedes aware of the fact that their country is in practice already part of NATO. Sweden has a lot more soldiers under NATO Command than under the UN flag, and many Swedes are unaware that we have a NATO ambassador with her own secretariat at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Yet we allow Swedish soldiers’ lives and security to be decided at meetings where we have very little say. If we were members we would be able to take responsibility and exert a far greater influence over these operations. As it stands, we have to rely on others to take responsibility. Really Sweden has already taken the step from neutrality to solidarity vis à vis our security policy. All that remains to seal the deal is NATO membership.

Ever since 1994, Sweden has cooperated with NATO through the Partnership for Peace (PfP). Through its participation in PfP, Sweden can contribute to the construction of a more stable and secure Europe – but entirely on our own terms. To me it seems strange that Sweden doesn’t want to attend the NATO birthday party, choosing instead to stand on the outside looking in with dictatorships like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus, who have just about been allowed to join PfP.

Finland has conducted three inquiries into eventual NATO membership compared to Sweden’s none. We have to come to grips with the NATO issue and put all the facts on the table. Voters should have the chance to take a position on NATO membership and the price of exclusion. We need to start talking about the fact that our dogged refusal to even consider signing up the alliance has a political price. With Obama’s presidency and Anders Fogh Rasmussen as new secretary-general, friends of NATO are beginning to see an opening. We can’t be kept quiet any more. It’s time to wake up from the Sleeping Beauty slumber of the Cold War. Springtime has arrived for a new NATO debate.

So, congratulations on your 60th birthday, dear NATO, and I hope to be able to attend your 70th.

Birgitta Ohlsson

Liberal Party foreign policy spokesperson and Member of Parliament


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