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'Sweden will continue to punch above its weight'

20 Feb 2013, 12:15

Published: 20 Feb 2013 12:15 GMT+01:00

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Last week, the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published its third annual scorecard, which grades Europe’s success and failures as a foreign policy actor. The report names and shames what it calls “slackers” while applauding “leaders” and determines whether Europe has succeeded in defending key foreign policy interests.

Like eager and anxious Victorian pupils returning home with their report cards at the end of term, some European leaders will be looking forward to a pat on their back while some will likely have some explaining to do at supper.

The most discussed sub-topic of the scorecard is the mid-level powers, such as Sweden, and their ability to punch above their weight.

While Sweden’s ability to pack a punch equal to the jab of the big three - Germany, France and the UK - is an interesting phenomenon, it is not as ‘remarkable’ as the think tank itself proclaimed in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Nor as remarkable as some Swedish newspapers would like it to be, exemplified by the tabloid Expressen header “Go Sweden!”

Rather than responding with open mouths, analysts should know that punching above your weight is exactly what they should expect from Sweden, considering the country’s past and current foreign policy and its level of activity.

Firstly, Sweden is no snoozer. By briefly skimming through Sweden’s foreign policy engagements, one can easily discern that Stockholm has not hit the snooze button but woken up more quickly to important foreign policy questions than many of its European partners have.

Sweden has often promoted human rights. Sweden has contributed peacekeeping forces to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya. In response to the Arab Spring, it increased its annual aid to North Africa by roughly $11 million.

Being big-mouthed at top international meetings can be effective in grabbing people’s attention, yet Sweden stands out and earns a much higher score on think tank’s leadership scale than many of its European counterparts because it also puts its money where its mouth is.

Secondly, Sweden has a solid backbone, which is respect for international law and doing what is “right” – a moral compass far-removed from self-serving realist ideals.

Swedes perceive themselves as the good kid on the block, honouring human rights and dedicated to democracy. This identity underpins the public opinion that allows the country’s politicians to send soldiers out to many international peacekeeping missions.

Sweden also takes an active role in EU’s centralized security policy, partly of course because participation shores up influence.

The Swedish willingness to deploy special forces to Chad, for example, where the country has no obvious national interests, shows that Sweden is committed to influencing EU’s core interests.

Thirdly, Sweden is no poodle. The think tank credited Sweden’s leadership role partly to its vocal Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. This is not news. A wikileaked US Embassy dispatch to the State Department once described Bildt as “a medium-sized dog with a big-dog attitude”.

Surely, Bildt has proved that Sweden is no poodle on a tight leash?

The dispatch alluded to the need to come well-prepared if wanting to engage in debate with the skilled Swedish rhetorician, who is well-known for his outspokenness and for turning questions on their heads when facing flack. Recently, Bildt criticized the US catchphrase of reaching a 2014 ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan.

As Björn Fägersten, a researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, has highlighted, foreign policy is mostly ‘talking’ – and when combined with a big-dog personality, that talk allows many foreign policy objectives to become realities.

But there are weakness that threaten Sweden's influence. Much like assembling a Billy bookshelf when there is a missing screw, which can turn any innocent-seeming trip to Ikea into a logistical disaster, Sweden’s ambitious foreign policy plans lack some key components:

The EU has no collective defence strategy, which reduces Sweden’s hard power.

Furthermore, Sweden’s traditional Nato-membership scepticism and its reduced defence budget makes it hard for Sweden to keep the mantle of a ‘what should we do’ leader in world affairs.

While it is difficult to quantify Sweden’s normative power, it likely diminishes as defence spending erodes. With limited funds, will Sweden be able to maintain its crisis management leadership role, let alone support future interventions like the one in Libya?

Even worse, for all that EU talk of "pooling and sharing" military resources, in practice, Sweden and other member states have done little but simply cut domestic defence budgets while failing to get together for proper union-wide coordination.

Story continues below…

Finally, as the US pivots towards Asia, Europe will have new defence challenges on its hands, such as picking up the tab without the US anywhere near even to go Dutch.

Despite these missing screws, however, there is room for optimism that Sweden will retain its leadership role. Partly, because the financial crisis left Sweden mildly shaken, but not stirred, while economic meltdown afflicted or tainted many of its eurozone neighbours.

The EU’s Lisbon Treaty has also provided the institutional foundations for a union-based foreign policy and thus provided an arena for Sweden where the country can make its foreign policy voice heard.

Furthermore, with the trend of establishing “minilateral” constellations to tackle foreign policy issues, Sweden will most likely continue to be one of the most reliable partners that the US and other states will look to for support and expertise.

So, in light of the think tank’s scorecard, the more intriguing discussion for analysts to ponder is whether size matters? Despite the downsizing of defence and crisis management capabilities, Sweden will likely continue to lead, if not by example, then with its big-dog attitude.

Annelie Gregor is a political science Ph.D. candidate at the City University of New York. Her thesis looks at EU and US perspectives on "Limited Warfare within Coercive Diplomacy".

Follow Annelie Gregor on Twitter

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Your comments about this article

12:27 February 20, 2013 by skogsbo
To think that Swedish military is equal to France or the UK is comical. I'd estimate sweden has about 20-25% of the military capabilities of the UK!
12:54 February 20, 2013 by isenhand
- about 20-25% of the military capabilities of the UK

Yes, somewhere about there, if you include Hv as well. But it's not just personnel. The Swedish army also has equipment and organisation problems.

It's interesting the article picked up on the weakness in defence in relation to foreign policy.
14:42 February 20, 2013 by jostein
The trick is to dedicate the resources of the Swedes to causes that are not in their interest and does not serve them in any way shape or form. Read any initiative or article by any swedish politician about foreign policy. Its UN this, Palestine that, West Sahara this, arab women that. But never ever they show any awareness that their job in a representative democracy is to represent the interests of the electorate. That is what a representative democracy is supposed to be, elected representatives looking after the interests of the distric they represent. Not so in sweden, land of the irresponsible, ignorant, undemocratic political adventurers.
19:37 February 20, 2013 by rise
Well here people use to state Sweden is a coward anyway... Probably people just envy of the Swedes.
21:28 February 20, 2013 by swedensux
200 American or British well trained soldiers could conquer that wasteland called Sweden. I spent four years in that dump...where the men are cowards, the weather horrible and the people just as worthless. This whole article makes me laugh!
21:53 February 20, 2013 by Flygger

Tuttut tut..

My mummy taught me that if you haven't anything nice to say you should keep your big fat obnoxious trap shut.

She also told me that people who go around spouting rubbish, like you have, are obviously only interested in the contents of little boy's underwear.

I don't know if that is true of you or not but it does seem very strange there is no evidence to support you do not enjoy little boy fiddles and no-one can seriously be expected to believe you do not.

Can you please provide concrete evidence to prove you are not a kiddy fiddler or evidence that you are maybe just a mad and unadjusted troll ??
22:39 February 20, 2013 by Migga
@ swedensux

What a disgusting and racist comment.
02:27 February 21, 2013 by Phillynilly
Swedensux is unfortunately correct. The Swedish army couldn't indulge in a combat exercise if it tried.. Ask any special forces from the US or UK....
07:41 February 21, 2013 by rise
@ Phillynilly, swedensux

Poor little boys showing petty jealousy now when Sweden is shown from a bright angle.
11:43 February 21, 2013 by skogsbo
Philly, Sweden does have some reasonable troops, but they are low in numbers. UK troops, tactics and equipment is quite war hardened after the past 10 years, there is no substitute for experience and UK troops are certainly not lacking. It just wouldn't be a fair fight!
12:19 February 21, 2013 by rise
@ skogsbo

So... do you mean Swedish troops lacks the experience? After all Sweden has been participating in Afghanistan also since 2002.

But of course one cannot compare England (52-53 million people) with Sweden (9.5 million people). It would only be pathetic.
13:36 February 21, 2013 by cogito
The British don't have much reason to swagger too much given their inglorious role in 2007 in Afghanistan. They retired from the base in the city to Basra airport where they came under regular mortar and rocket fire. The city descended into gangsterism. When on 25 March 2008, Prime Minister Maliki flew down to Basra and launched the 'Charge of the Knights' to clear out the Sadrists, the British division commander was skiing in Switzerland
14:44 February 21, 2013 by rise

I don't think that's something the two patriots wants to hear one word about. ;)
20:48 February 21, 2013 by Phillynilly
Of course the only angle Rise could answer with is that of "jealousy". Since Swedes have the immature jealous trait firmly entrenched in their psyche it's little wonder that they think everybody else does.

No, Rise, we are not jealous of you. Rather we wonder why Swedes are anywhere near Afghanistan. Since the Swedish army body count seems to be non existent then it is obvious that the Swedish army is nowhere near any actual combat.. They would doing what Swedes are good at. Filling out forms and paperwork......
22:41 February 21, 2013 by skogsbo
Cogito , if only your knowledge went deeper than one news article.

Rise, I'm not talking about total populations, the British forces number about 200,000 plus ta and reserves, vastly more than sweden.
08:57 February 22, 2013 by rise

How many persons are this Mr Phillnilly who presents himself as "we"?


Fair enough.
12:31 February 22, 2013 by cogito
skogsbo, There are these things called "books." Have you ever encountered one?

The British-mentored division collapsed. With General Mohan, the Iraqi commander, directing the battle from a headquarters consisting of himself and eight mobile phones, and Maliki refusing to have British officers in the room...

Source: "The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama" (Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor)
13:15 February 22, 2013 by LagomSucks
#5 LOL. Too true I'm afraid
13:17 February 22, 2013 by rise
I think the thing is, there are those people who just can't stand letting a lesser populated country also feel some pride of itself. But Swedes can manage splendidly even though there are so few of us! Attempts of bullying Swedes simply doesn't bite.

Conquer Sweden with 200 American soldiers (or their baby brother the UK's dito)! That's not even an insult, it's megalomania.
16:35 February 22, 2013 by Phillynilly
Rise, you over estimate yourself... If you had any idea of the damage special forces can do then it 200 would be an accurate figure. If you're insulted, that's tough...remind me the last time Sweden actually faced invasion....
16:41 February 22, 2013 by skogsbo
Cog, just because the British military has several generals who have their heads stuck up their a$$e$, taking instructions from politicians who can't find theirs, doesn't mean that the majority of troops aren't world class, which is what the discussion is about. I'm more concerned about the quality of this girls PhD!
16:58 February 22, 2013 by Khazara
What happened to the comments.
18:51 February 22, 2013 by HelmiVainikka
"I think the thing is, there are those people who just can't stand letting a lesser populated country also feel some pride of itself."

There is nothing wrong with that, but "some" is kinda sandbagging.

Contrary to both Norway and Finland (which I presume you would agree both have also a lot of things to be proud of), Sweden has established some weird "in your face" attitude towards the rest of the planet that is simply annoying and obnoxious.

"I'm more concerned about the quality of this girls PhD!"

Not worth the paper its printed on? That is nothing new.
07:58 February 23, 2013 by rise


"Any idea"? Well I have given the Swedish uniform a couple of years of my life. Even though it is a long time ago I think it is safe to claim I actually have some idea about it.

"Insulted"? No, rather amused.

"Faced invasion?" Well, at least Sweden were facing the real THREAT of it during the Cold War. Alone and without your NATO buddies.
11:23 February 25, 2013 by Max Reaver
Swedish news dare to express such opinions because they know nobody want to punch Sweden. Try punch Russia and see how Russia punches back.
23:45 February 25, 2013 by Escort
The Swedish military is just not in the same league as the UK and France. Sweden may have some decent niche capabilities but in terms of critical mass, defence infrastructure and possession of high-end capabilities no more than a minor player. Look at the Swedish Navy, for example. It is basically no more than a coastal defence force!
09:30 February 26, 2013 by rise
Mr Bildt may be a cocky one however Olof Palme now.... he was tough! He stood in front of the TV-cameras naming the Americans in Vietnam "those the devil's murderers!". But with the NATO on the left and the Warsaw Pact on the right Sweden also hade a whole different kind of invasion defense than today's "coastal defense force". ;) The armed forces of this day is nothing but a very pale shadow (I do hope our politicians are making the right decisions!).

But still, "200 soldiers to conquer Sweden"? I wonder if they meant the kind of forces Sweden itself sent to Chad (mentioned in the article above) in 2008... ;)

20:35 February 26, 2013 by Flygger
I think this item is well passed it's best before date.

What country is harbouring evil thoughts of domination over Sweden ??

Must be thinking of an invasion from the east.

Don't need any troops in that case because half of eastern Europe is already settled down in Sweden right now and getting good state benefit payments !!

Any invading country would have to pay the benefits instead and that would probably bankrupt them so it really is not a threat from the east at all.

Britts are getting their ass kicked just now in Afghanistan but only because of the rules of engagement. Remove that and let the troops identify the threat and remove it without all the pc rubbish they have to put up with.. ie. Don't return fire until 5 or 6 soldiers have been shot down and only if the enemy was wearing a uniform and definitely not if they scarper inside a mosque in the meantime.

Bet everyone got arsed off reading this because it was too long..
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