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.
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".