The Swedish king decorates a war veteran at a ceremony last year. File: Jimmy Croona/CombatCamera
No one doubts the Swedes' ability to fight, but they do doubt Nato-ambivalent Sweden's commitment to helping its neighbours, argues former US defence attaché to Sweden Bruce Acker.
In the wake of Russian annexation of Crimea, the Swedish defense debate has intensified over the nature of its security structures and partnerships. The Swedish solidarity declaration of 2009 is frequently criticized for being unresourced and therefore weak:
“Sweden will not remain passive if another EU Member State or Nordic country suffers a disaster or an attack. We expect these countries to act in the same way if Sweden is similarly affected. We must be able to both give and receive support, civilian as well as military.”
As I have argued before, it is normal for a policy declaration to precede resourcing, and in fact such a policy declaration is the foundation for justifying resourcing decisions. There is then naturally a time gap from intent to full capability, with analysis of world events setting the urgency.
But the weakness of Sweden’s solidarity declaration is not embodied only in inadequate resources, not even primarily. Many of Nato’s member states have tangibly inadequate resources to defend themselves or contribute a decisive force to the collective. What makes Sweden’s solidarity declaration unconvincing is current and historic lack of political will to live up to this formulation.
Neutrality has long been absent from formal Swedish policy, and yet it is still commonly referenced in general public discourse and even appears in political discourse. It is a well-documented contention that even under a declared policy of neutrality, the government of Sweden maintained a hidden agreement with Nato.
That such a disconnect would exist between what a democratic nation tells its electorate, and what it says to prospective security partners is hardly confidence building. Security partners would accede to such agreements only in cases that are unequivocally in their own self-interest, as was the case in the Cold War.
It is not common for Nations to explicitly express their lack of confidence in a potential security partner’s commitment. The language of diplomacy has no suitable vocabulary for expressing to a friend that they are not deemed a reliable security partner.
This perhaps explains why the Nato Secretary General and the American Ambassador merely indicated that a unilateral solidarity declaration from Sweden does not change the applicability of Nato Article 5 to non-member states. Materiel capacity and operational skill are easily measured and graded. NATO does such assessments and Sweden always fares well.
Based on Swedish Armed Forces performance in Afghanistan, Libya, and the Balkans Nato commanders harbour little doubt that when so ordered Swedish Forces can and will deliver as well or better than many member nations. No such objective measure is made and published of a nations will.
But they observe. And what they see is a divided electorate with many that still believe in outdated warfighting concepts, cling to a concept of self-defense rather than collective defense, and see jobs, welfare and economy has much higher priority issues than security. A government that for the time being supports a collective approach to security on a narrow majority can readily be replaced or inhibited from acting by a strong opposition that favors isolation or neutrality.
Sweden’s internal political opposition’s instinct to oppose appears much stronger than its instinct to support policies required to defend the nation. Opposition politicians and commentators happily point out materiel and personnel shortcomings in current defense policies, though outsiders can see quite clearly that the opposition rarely, if ever, offers funded alternatives that would improve these things. On the contrary, the Swedish “shadow budget” traditions show clearly that had the opposition chosen, the available resources would have been considerably less.
In emphasizing the narrow majority that implemented the current defense reforms, the opposition emphasizes to the outside world how fragile the agreement to work in cooperation with others actually is. True, the solidarity declaration rhetoric had broad support, but the rhetoric did not cost anything. The opposition’s views of how best to handle national problems, both internal and external, are legitimate choices and have significant public support. In short, Sweden is a healthy democracy. But as with all choices, there are consequences.
In this case, the consequence is rather weak faith from outsiders that Sweden would carry through on their commitment to help others in the event of existential threats, regardless of the resources available.
The current government recognizes this, and their leading party has commendably taken the stance that despite a long-time policy favoring Nato membership, pursuing Nato membership with such a weak majority and the likely resulting vacillation is irresponsible for a nation like Sweden who prides itself on being first in class when committing to a task. Ironically, the opposition criticizes them for that too.
The credibility gap extends beyond just the solidarity declaration. Sweden is an arms exporter emphasizing quality, sustainable, and economical solutions. With noteworthy voter sentiments of neutrality and rejection of military solutions to disputes, it does not stretch the imagination that Sweden would choose to, or be easily intimidated into betraying customers using Swedish manufactured materiel in an armed conflict in the vicinity in order to avoid becoming more deeply involved, as happened to the United States prior to World War II.
The opponents to Swedish Nato membership seem to grasp their own inability to stand firm. One of the more passionate arguments presented in Sweden against Nato membership involves the loss of national independence to the Nato decision process. A nation that doubts that it can find the mettle to resist 28 friendly democratic Nations in an organization built on consensus can hardly be expected to stand firm against a tyrant, fearing loss of sovereignty to Brussels more than Moscow.
Furthermore, there is equally strong political sentiment in the current opposition that any Swedish military action outside its borders be conducted only under a United Nations mandate, and preferably under United Nations leadership. There is no other conceivable military threat in the immediate vicinity than Russia, and it is similarly inconceivable that a UN mandate will ever empower a coalition to react to Russian intimidation.
There remains a relatively strong sentiment in Sweden that neutrality has served her well. If the effect that is measured is avoidance of war, the argument is strong. If, however, one considers unhindered German troop transport en route to neighbour Norway, inaction over Russian incursion in Finland, return of refugees to Soviet-occupied Baltic states, hidden alliances, continued mythology of equal culpability in east-west relations, and avoidance of a Nato debate for fear of provocation of Russia, a clear and lasting casualty of neutrality policy is credibility.
The solidarity declaration formulation is not the problem, but rather the political sentiment backing it up. The solution lies in a sustained change in behaviour that rebuilds that credibility.