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INTERVIEW: What does the end of neutrality mean for Sweden?

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
INTERVIEW: What does the end of neutrality mean for Sweden?
The Swedish UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, pictured in Congo in 1960, helped promote Sweden's image as a neutral peace-mongering country. Photo: Scanpix

Neutrality has been core to Sweden's identity and particularly to that of the Social Democrats, Annika Bergman Rosamond, associate professor at Lund University, tells The Local in an interview for our Saturday podcast.


Where does Swedish neutrality originate?

According to Annika Bergman Rosamond, associate professor in political science and international relations at Lund University, Swedish neutrality can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century.

"It originates from very early 19th century, when we had a king imported from France - Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who became Karl Johan," she said.

"He was really the person who was determined to direct Sweden away from going to war with Russia and seeking more of a Western identity and Western partners, and then assumed that neutrality would be the platform that would enable Sweden to do so."


This royal tradition of neutrality ultimately became associated with the Social Democrats in the 20th century, Bergman Rosamond explained.

"As Sweden became a democracy, the King had very little to say, so this became a bit of a mantra within the Social Democratic movement, that neutrality was a Swedish interest."

Neutrality was such a Social Democrat trait that their shift on the Nato question is "quite astounding", Bergman Rosamond said.

"Perhaps the most interesting thing about this whole debate is that neutrality is part of Social Democratic identity on the international stage. A social adhesive that has kept the party together and enabled the party to pride itself on its active internationalism."

"A lot of commentators in the Swedish press and on Swedish radio have very much associated neutrality with the Social Democrats. So this is a big change for the Social Democrats, and it will be very interesting to see how this will pan out in years to come."

Annika Bergman Rosamund is a Senior Lecturer at Lund University. Photo: Private

How did Swedish neutrality manifest itself in the twentieth century? 

"Sweden in part was critiqued for maintaining a neutral position during the war, enabling export of iron ore for German markets, and in a way sustaining the war industry in Germany," Bergman Rosamond said.

However, Sweden's neutral position did also allow it to support its neighbours during the war, which was especially important seeing as Sweden was bordered on one side by Allied forces in Norway and Denmark, and on the other by Axis forces in Finland.

"Sweden also used its neutrality in order to maintain stable and supportive relations with its neighbours. So neutrality is very much associated with Sweden's effort to find a middle way during World War Two. But then after World War Two, it took on more of an internationalist, peacemongering aspect, which became very much associated with Sweden's actions internationally."

Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary-General between 1953 and 1961, also played an important role in promoting the image of Sweden as neutral peacekeepers abroad.

"If we look at Dag Hammarskjöld in particular, he's often assumed to be the father of modern peacekeeping. And the very fact that he was Swedish and he got the United Nations to engage much more with international peacekeeping, that in part also became a Swedish agenda, and closely associated with Sweden."

"Sweden participated in a lot of UN-led peacekeeping throughout the Cold War and maintained that kind of activism post-Cold War. So the self-narrative of being a peace-loving nation, I think became stronger with UN activism and also UN leadership."



Was Sweden really neutral during the Cold War?

Bergman Rosamond sees neutrality as more of a matter of identity than policy for Sweden during the Cold War.

"We need to think of neutrality as a national mantra, an identity marker if you like, so it's not all about policy, it's about defining the nation and what kind of nation we aspire to be in global politics. So that's one element."

That's not to say that Sweden didn't take sides during the Cold War - it maintained a close relationship with the West which has in some ways laid the groundwork for Sweden's current security policy.

"That's been commented a lot on in the past couple of months, with historians like Peter Englund, for example, very much pointing towards Sweden's close relationship with the West, which became even closer when Sweden joined Partnership for Peace, Nato's framework for instilling relations with various partners.

"So it's a matter of judgement. But it's important to think of neutrality as something that also defines identity as much as policy practice."


How important was, and is, neutrality and non-alignment to Swedes and Sweden’s sense of identity?

Bergman Rosamond believes that neutrality is, for many Swedes, a latent identity which comes to the fore when Sweden is faced with great changes - such as the recent decision to join Nato.

"I think that if you ask the man or woman on the street, during the Cold War, it probably had some resonance with one's understanding of what kind of country Sweden is," she said.

This is perhaps part of the reason why the subject of Sweden's neutrality has been so widely discussed in recent weeks, in the context of whether or not to join the alliance.

"But how much people really reflected on it during 'normal' times - i.e. not at times when you're considering whether to join an international organisation, but rather to get on with everyday business of governance - I'm not so sure that people thought about it all the time."

"I think it's a latent identity that is there. And at times when we've been faced with big changes, that's when it's come to the fore, and people have really stopped to articulate their understanding of neutrality. But for some, in particular in some political groups, neutrality has been a signifier of Sweden as a peace actor, Sweden as a social democratic internationalist in global politics. So I think it's become even more vibrant during times of change."


What does it mean now that this latent identity marker is disappearing?

Sweden's neutrality not only changed during the Cold War, but also upon membership of the EU in 1995, Bergman Rosamond explains, when Swedish neutrality or neutralitet was replaced by non alignment, alliansfrihet.

"Our notion of neutrality as it was understood during the Cold War took another form and changed in character with our membership of the European Union," Bergman Rosamond said.

"Non-alignment replaced neutrality. Having studied this for a number of years, I find it very interesting how neutrality is, again, upheld as a Swedish identity marker. Something that has helped us to shape the very nation we are today."

The Swedish sense of neutrality has been reignited following war in Ukraine, she explained.

"As I said, it seems like it comes and goes a little, and at the moment, with neutrality being a la mode, and also on the international agenda with the war in Ukraine, I think people have reinvoked their sense of being a neutral nation, at least in some some quarters of society."

Nato's 'nuclear umbrella' and campaigning for nuclear disarmament

Nato's nuclear weapons and Sweden's strong history of nuclear disarmament and promoting peace could also be an issue for many Swedes in joining Nato, Bergman Rosamond explained.

"I can very much understand people's fear [over coming under Nato's nuclear umbrella], in particular against the backdrop of Sweden having a long standing tradition of promoting international peace, security and justice in global politics," she said.

"A lot of people often assume that being part of Nato and the nuclear umbrella will be detrimental to Sweden's peace activism, but also the ontological fear of actually being drawn into conflict that potentially will employ nuclear weaponry. That would be frightening to any nation and given that, the current government has been very adamant in telling voters that 'we will not house nuclear weapons on our territory, we've been looking to the other Nordic states show that this is not necessarily asked of us'."

This is one of the reasons that joining Nato and trying to campaign for peace seem like contradictory policies for many Swedes, Bergman Rosamond said.

"Thinking of Sweden and its international identity is very much about trying to pursue foreign policies that are located within strong peace ambitions. So it's an oxymoron if you like, a contradiction in terms for a lot of Swedes, as it probably is for a lot of members of parliament too, it's just that it's something we've had to accept, if we want to join Nato."


Can Sweden continue to campaign for nuclear disarmament?

On the topic of whether Sweden will be able to continue campaigning for nuclear disarmament within Nato, Bergman Rosamond said it was "too early to tell".

"Ann Linde, our foreign minister, as well as our prime minister are telling us that we can still work for nuclear disarmament as a full member of Nato. Perhaps we can do more within Nato, so that we would have more of a say."

"Whether that's the case or not is something that the future can only tell us... I think it could also be the case that we are easily drawn into the everyday business of Nato, and nuclear disarmament might have to take the backseat. But it's too early to tell."

Is there any question over whether Sweden will be accepted to join Nato?

Despite Turkey's recent threats to withhold approval of Sweden's Nato bid unless the country extradite over 33 alleged terrorists to Turkey, Bergman Rosamond can't see Sweden making any sort of deal on exchanging dissidents in return for Nato membership.

"I think that hangs on Turkey at the moment. But I should imagine that America and President Biden might exercise a little bit of pressure there and get Turkey into line."

"I cannot see that Sweden will accept that there will be some exchange of dissidents for Nato membership, that would be against international law and the very human rights doctrine that Sweden prides itself on."

Annika Bergman Rosamond was interviewed by Paul O’Mahony for this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast. 


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kio 2022/05/20 06:04
I think Sweden should wake up to smell the roses . Sweden is not important in the World , it is a Northern European Country with a small population , and terrible weather . It has not done anything to change the World except Skype , Spotify and Ikea oh and Abba . No one knows these so called experts the Local like to parade . They all have Swedish surnames . Every attempt by me to get my ideas across are ignored by the Local . My father worked in the United Nations with Dag Hammarskjold , they don't care , I went to the same school as Boris Johnson Eton so I know the leadership of the UK they ignore me . I went to the same University as Trump , Elon Musk and Warren Buffet , so what no Swedish surname . I read Political Science at an Ivy league University watched my father negotiate with President Kennedy , President Johnson , Bobby and Ted Kennedy etc so what we know better . >I have been reading the Local since 1996 in both paper form and online and the Racism is Blatant to me who has spent 38 years of my life dealing with the real World , Wars , International Affairs at the highest levels , but White Swedes who know nothing absolutely nothing about anything are given the voice to perpetuate the lies being told . Sweden is digging a hole for itself that is becoming deeper and deeper , and the respect has all but gone . Why would Turkey change it's mind because Sweden and a very unpopular American President tell it to, ot annoys them even more , it annoys India , Africa and China . Sweden is known for meatballs and the safety net called Neutrality has been thrown away so now Sweden will be a target , one of the Oppressors , the enemy and you think it's good for you to have shot yourselves in the foot .

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