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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

As Sweden prepares to join Nato, we should mourn the gradual passing of a neutral voice in global affairs, says David Crouch

OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality
Olof Palme, when he was education minister in 1968, marches against the Vietnam War side by side with Nguyen Tho Chyan, the North Vietnamese ambassador to Moscow. Photo: TT

In the spring of 1999, Russia’s prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, was on a plane to Washington for talks, just as Nato announced airstrikes on Serbia. The bombing campaign, aimed at halting Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians, targeted Russia’s Slav and Orthodox ally. On receiving the news, Primakov turned his plane around in mid-air and flew back to Moscow. 

This was the first major confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War. Russian public opinion swung overwhelmingly behind the Serbs. Moscow liberals warned the conflict would lead swiftly to “a strongly anti-Western, Cold War-oriented regime”. Vladimir Putin became prime minister that summer. And the rest is history. 

This was “blowback” for Nato – the unintended adverse consequences of a foreign policy intervention. This week, Putin is experiencing blowback himself following his invasion of Ukraine, with Sweden rushing headlong to join Nato, whose actions helped unite Russia so suddenly against the West a quarter of a century ago. 

Joining Nato brings down the curtain on a remarkable period in Swedish and European history. The last time the country declared war was in 1810 against the British. Not a single shot was fired, and peace was declared again two years later. Since then, Sweden has pursued a policy of neutrality in all armed conflicts. 

That era ended on Monday. The government confirmed what everyone knew already – that it would apply to join Nato.  

During the Cold War, neutrality gave Sweden the freedom to manoeuvre between the two blocs led by Moscow and Washington. Sweden joined widespread condemnation of the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia’s democratic uprising in 1968. 

But its emblematic leader Olof Palme also backed the global movement against the Vietnam war, hosting a tribunal in Stockholm that symbolically put the USA on trial for war crimes in Indo-China. Here was a nation that had found a middle way between capitalism and communism, it seemed, with a diplomatic as well as an economic dimension. 

Sweden became a leading voice against nuclear weapons. Successive leaders pushed for a nuclear-free zone in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Sweden’s self-image was of a “humanitarian superpower”, its independence on the world stage spilling over into anti-colonialism and feminism.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sweden sought to make the most of the “peace dividend” offered by the end of the Cold War, closing military bases, ending conscription and slashing defence spending. By 2012 the head of the armed forces admitted Sweden could withstand a limited attack for only about a week

All this is now behind us. The middle way is to become the Nato way. Sweden may continue to object to nuclear weapons, but it has opted for the US nuclear umbrella to ensure its security. It may continue to champion liberal causes, but it will have to bite its tongue as its allies with conservative Nato states such as Hungary and Turkey, not to mention the possibility of a second Trump presidency in the US. 

Beyond the immediate concerns about Russian intentions in Ukraine, Sweden is contributing to the return of a polarised world. The optimism and hope heralded by the collapse of communism 30 years ago have turned out to be a chimera. New generations will grow up in fear of the enemy and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. In these bleak circumstances, we should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality in global affairs. 

It is unfortunate that Sweden’s historic pivot is taking place with unseemly haste. While public opinion has clearly shifted in favour of Nato since the invasion of Ukraine, the majority in favour is still relatively slim and is based on fear rather than thoughtful and thorough debate. In a poll at the end of April, 55 percent of Swedish men but only 41 percent of women said yes to Nato. There are signs that opposition to Nato among the young may actually be growing.

But the decision to join Nato is a minor tremor rather than an earthquake. While Sweden may have been non-aligned, it has not been neutral for a long time. 

Sweden’s pro-Western orientation during the Cold War was an open secret on both sides. As early as 1954, Sweden signed a top secret agreement with the US regarding collaboration and intelligence sharing, including spying on Russia, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. Sweden already makes “particularly significant contributions” to the alliance, Nato says. Accession to the European Union in 1995 came at the cost of the abolition of neutrality as a principle. 

In this sense, joining Nato means Sweden is now shedding its mask of neutrality, rather than adopting a radically new stance.

Sweden in Nato means the post-Cold War era is emphatically over. The world is entering a new and unsettling phase. “Peace, love, Woodstock, Kumbaya, let’s dramatically slash defence spending and enjoy the peace dividend — that’s all over,” said Estonia’s president after Russia annexed Crimea. 

The point of any nation’s defence policy should be to provide its population with a secure space for peace, love and Kumbaya. There is an almost giddy excitement in much of the Swedish media about Nato membership. As we progress towards our armour-plated future, let’s not forget what we have lost.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. As a Swedish immigrant I too mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality. Anyone who has studied Swedish history, visited the various museums which document their proud neutrality (especially during the two world wars), or even talked to Swedes, has to appreciate the role they have played in the world.

    The simple fact is the world has changed — for the worst. Sweden (and especially Finland) need to adjust. And they have.

    But joining NATO is not all bad. The other part of my heritage is American. That country has changed as well — back toward its isolationist past. America came to Europe’s (and the world’s) rescue in both world wars only as an absolute last resort. Churchill wisely said: “America always does the right thing — after it has exhausted all alternatives.” I have zero confidence that today’s America would rescue Sweden were it NOT bound to do so by treaty. Putin knows that — and counted on it in the Ukraine.

    Let’s hope that as members of NATO now, Sweden can still swing above its weight. Hopefully they can check its worst impulses, and as well counter the increasing authoritarianism that affects many countries now.

    If so, joining NATO will be a win for everyone — and especially those in Russia would would be free as well.

  2. If you will permit the viewpoint of an American with long time ties to Sweden since I was an exchange student there in 1959 (!):

    I think the World, and especially the Western community, should indeed mourn the loss of Sweden as a friendly and Western thinking but neutral friend, as we simultaneously welcome it as a NATO ally. But perhaps the best thing about this development in my opinion is the potential reawakening of Sweden’s resolve to be strong and able to defend itself. Sweden once had an innovative and impressive defense establishment centered on the idea of being able to defend against Russian invasion. If Sweden rebuilds that formidable defensive ability, I think she will be an asset to NATO and to her own people. Just because the Western nations rightly reject aggressive war, that unfortunately does not mean that we can abandon the quest for military strength. In fact in this age of nations ready to play the role of lawless thugs, only military strength and resolve can prevent them from making a joke out of our rejection of aggressive war. So welcome Sweden to NATO. We hope and expect that you will continue to be the Sweden that we have known and respected for many years.

  3. They will not be allowed to become Members so it’s a very bad situation Sweden has been led into . The World now knows the true Sweden and it is not a Neutral Country in any way shape of form , so that myth has been destroyed . When Turkey Vetoes them they will be on their own without the respect that was once their strongest weapon , known as a stooge to the CIA , NATO and the EU led by incompetent idiots . I have made this clear to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister and they have not once responded . Biden has used Sweden , one Destroyer off Sweden and a few German troops mean nothing to the shame this government of amateurs has brought upon the Swedish people who will now pay Russia in Roubles like everyone else is doing a victory for Putin and China that the Eurodollar is dead . The Saudis are turning to the Yuhan and they like Turkey watched the Race Riots in Sweden and Korans being burnt by Swedes while the Swedish Police killed protesting Swedish Muslims . They knew the Danish Racist was coming , they knew what he was going to do but allowed it to happen , then have the cheek to ask Turkey to sign after harbouring Political Enemies of Turkey in their thousands . White Supremacy 101 as displayed by Sweden and Finland . When the GAs Prices and Electricity Bills start increasing , or food shortages hit both Sweden and Finland , please look at these to would be Napoleons and ask them how much were you paid to sell us down the drain .

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

The Swedengate Twitterstorm last week was a clash between recent arrivals in the country and Swedes with deeper roots, says David Crouch

OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

Last week saw a global storm in a Swedish teacup. The hashtag #Swedengate trended briefly in the US and the UK, sparked by an obscure observation that some Swedes would sometimes exclude visiting children from the family evening meal

Much fun was had at Sweden’s expense, and foreign media raised an amused eyebrow at all the fuss. But the conversation soon moved on. Cheap jibes at Swedish hospitality offered some light relief from war in Ukraine and the Texas school shooting.

Not so in Sweden. For four straight days, #Swedengate trended on Twitter among the top 10 hashtags in this country, not to mention a torrent of posts on Facebook and elsewhere. Popular tweets racked up tens of thousands of likes. Respected authors and academics hit the airwaves to explain the custom at issue. The placid Swedish duckpond (ankdammen) became a whirlpool. 

So why did most of Sweden spend the best part of a week debating its food culture? Swedes enjoy international attention, it makes a small northern nation feel noticed and important. Articles about Sweden in foreign newspapers are often picked up and discussed in Swedish media. As one Swede wrote during a Swedengate dispute on my Facebook feed, “we love to see ourselves as strange and special, even exotic”. 

But if some ripples are still being felt abroad, the eye of the storm hangs over Sweden itself. Swedengate was a clash between recent immigrants to Sweden and Swedes with deeper roots in the country. Or, to put it more bluntly, between multicultural Sweden and white Sweden. 

“New Swedes” (nysvenskar) often come from cultures that are extravagantly generous with respect to food. The idea that a guest, let alone a child, should sit separately and unfed during a meal seems monstrous to people with Iranian, Afghan, Arab or African backgrounds. My wife’s side of the family here, which has Polish roots, are positively mortified by the thought that a visitor might not be fed. 

Feeling this pressure, the old Swedes dug in their heels. The sensible thing would have been to lighten up, take the hit, confess that this once used to happen but now not so much, and admit that it looks to outsiders like very mean behaviour. This was the approach of singer Zara Larsson, who poked fun at “peak Swedish culture” and joked that “we might not serve food but we do be serving bangers” (i.e. great pop songs).

Instead, most old Swedes performed somersaults to defend the practice of excluding others’ children at mealtimes. In the mainstream media, it was explained in terms of personal insecurity or embarrassment, individualism, 19th century poverty, even respect for other families (!). On social media, people furiously supported the practice or furiously denied that it ever happened; they claimed it was not a Swedish phenomenon, or dismissed the whole thing as irrelevant. 

In any case, it is impractical to feed kids who turn up unexpectedly at mealtimes, said some. Others claimed it was an attempt by Russian trolls to derail Sweden’s Nato membership. Sweden’s Psychological Defence Agency (yes, there is such a thing) investigated whether Swedengate was a foreign disinformation campaign (it wasn’t). Author Jens Ganman, better known for his cynicism about Sweden as a cauldron of immigrant crime, was offended that people were ignoring his nation’s generosity towards refugees

The irony involved in all this was not lost on new Swedes. “As a white swede, how does it feel being judged for something that only a ‘small’ minority of your nationality do?” tweeted one, hinting at mainstream Sweden’s suspicion of Muslims as woman-hating extremists and terrorists. Said another: “It’s fucking wild to see all these people getting super defensive about #Swedengate.”

And new Swedes swiftly grasped that old Swedes were defending the indefensible; the Svenssons were in a hole and digging themselves even deeper. Whichever way you look at it, the practice – however rare it might be – of not inviting kids to share a family meal is, frankly, bizarre. 

Lovette Jallow, an author who emigrated to Sweden from Gambia when she was 11, wrote: “Laughing at Twitter finding out that Swedish people will not feed strangers. As a kid growing up here we knew to just go home around dinner time. On the flipside, my mom would feed Swedish kids though.” Centre Party youth leader Réka Tolnai tweeted: “It’s funny that the world has discovered what we immigrant kids have been talking about for years.”

Since the mood in Sweden swung against asylum and immigration in late 2015, new Swedes, particularly those from outside Europe, have experienced persistent pressure to prove that they fit into Swedish society. They have been told at every opportunity that they must integrate into Swedish society and conform to its behavioural norms. And no matter how hard they try, it is never enough – non-white Swedes feel keenly that they are second class citizens. 

With Swedengate, the boot was suddenly on the other foot. Who wants to be Swedish when Swedes are so weird?! For people from the Global South, as several observers noted, Swedengate became less about hospitality and more about far-reaching criticisms of Swedish society, such as its history of colonialism and racism. Using a debate about food to attack someone for racism seems a bit like jailing Al Capone for tax evasion. But the bigger picture is that new Swedes felt emboldened by Swedengate to express their broader grievances against Swedish culture.

The first week of June was the moment when new Swedes, immigrants, expats, whatever you want to call them, found their voice. Swedengate marks a step towards immigrants speaking up for their rights and celebrating the many contributions they make to Swedish society – not least in terms of helping to introduce a more warm and welcoming culture around food. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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