Sweden pursues a contradictory foreign policy in its dealings with the United States, writes Magnus Christiansson. This approach carries potentially dangerous implications for NATO in the event of any Baltic Sea contingency.
By Magnus Christiansson, April 27, 2017
Lately Sweden has surprisingly attracted world media attention. Images of burning cars and riots in suburbs have been used in the transatlantic public debate concerning immigration and integration. As important as these issues are, the pressing problem with Sweden in world affairs has slipped under the radar: that its foreign policy as an absurd and even dangerous contradiction within it.
As a small country in Russia’s Baltic neighborhood, its security policy is dependent on US support in the event of conflict. Yet today, its foreign ministry actively (and proudly) counters the policies spearheaded by the new US administration under President Donald Trump. The schizophrenia of this approach has potentially dangerous implications, to which we need to pay further attention.
The current government in Sweden is formed by a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Green party under the current prime minister Stefan Löfven. The former is a long-standing governor and the latter is in government for the first time. When it came to power in 2014, one of the first and most important policy shifts of the new coalition government was to introduce a “feminist foreign policy.” The agenda was highly idealist: women’s rights, disarmament, conflict prevention, and human security became its catchwords.
Critical of its center-right predecessor, the new government wanted to revive the activist foreign policy from the 1970s-1980s – instead of settling for an EU-centered role. During this earlier period, the late prime minister Olof Palme was a mediator in international conflicts and had a reputation for being critical of both superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, to the point that the US even recalled its ambassador from Sweden in the early 1970s.
Yet Löfven’s coalition government ran into trouble almost immediately, managing the difficult task of becoming despised by both Israel and the Arab League together, with Saudi Arabia recalling its ambassador from Stockholm. The 2014 NATO Summit in Wales is perhaps best remembered as the place where member states committed to the increased defence spending benchmark of 2 percent of GDP. Yet, following this meeting, Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström started to emphasize the more idealist goal of disarmament, which included support for nuclear disarmament and a nuclear weapons ban.
A key foreign policy project was to revive the UN in general and become a European member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) – a bid that had the catchphrase “An Independent Voice.” When Sweden became a member of the UNSC in June 2016, the policy transformation was complete. Yet the regional contrast has become even sharper. Compare Sweden with neighbouring Finland. Wallström celebrated the UN seat by announcing that “Sweden is back in the world.” At the same time, however, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö emphasized Baltic Sea security and the need to be “prepared for everything.” Sweden prioritizes UN, Finland the Baltic Sea. Sweden is idealist, Finland is realist.
However, one should also recall that Sweden’s foreign policy heritage from the 1970s-1980s also entailed a different, and often forgotten, dimension. Prime minister Olof Palme also pursued a policy of secret defence cooperation with NATO countries, including the US, during the Cold War. Not only did Sweden expect to be part of the Western side in a Third World War, it prepared for this possibility alongside NATO members in peacetime. This heritage is not recognized at the Swedish foreign ministry, but is part of the DNA in Sweden’s ministry of defence.
Sweden has gone on to cooperate closely in all of NATO’s defining military operations after the Cold War, and is now part of almost everything except Article V. The popular defence minister Peter Hultqvist has continued and reinforced this cooperation. The recent ratification of the Host Nation Support agreement with NATO is a critical part of this process, in so far as it allows U.S. troops to quickly move into the theater during any Baltic Sea crisis. The same month that the foreign ministry celebrated its “Independent Voice” for disarmament at the UN, the defence ministry distributed images of Swedish Gripen fighters escorting nuclear capable American B-52 as part of the NATO exercise Baltops.
In principle, this schizophrenia is part of every government. In the Swedish case, it is largely related to the identity of the Social Democratic party and its coalition with the Greens. However, in principle, it also poses particular problems in the event of military conflict in the Baltic Sea region. The Swedish double policy of the Cold War was anchored in a tight circle of statesmen that knew the fundamental realities of superpower confrontation. As such, the two tracks were never at fundamental odds, and in fact were coordinated to some degree.
Today, instead of having one government with a double policy, there are two ministries with separate agendas. Margot Wallström seems to believe that handing over a peace poem to her Russian counterpart is sign of wise policy, while her defence counterpart Peter Hultqvist seems to think deterrence of Russia is of vital importance. Both believe that they are in charge of policy, but who will be in charge in a Baltic Sea contingency?
The US election of Donald Trump has accentuated this schizophrenia. When it was announced that Trump would cut the funding to pro-abortion non-governmental organizations, the Swedish foreign ministry openly stated it would cooperate with other countries in order to compensate for these cuts. In his ministry, Peter Hultqvist wrote letters to Washington in order to make sure that defence cooperation would continue under the Trump administration. It should be noted that Sweden spends around 1 percent of its GDP on defence.
When Hultqvist worries about the US presence and a more “transactional” U.S. foreign policy, Wallström announces that increased US defence spending is “counterproductive,” even that Sweden should spearhead a coalition of countries to “counterbalance” the US. The Trump administration illuminates how the two ministries openly undermine each other: the defence ministry wants to institutionalize US cooperation, while the foreign ministry wants to institutionalize anti-Americanism.
The danger of this schizophrenic approach is that a rescue operation of any Baltic member states, in the event of military aggression from Russia, would entail the movement of NATO military forces from Nordic countries, including possibly through Sweden due to its ratification of the Host Nation Support agreement. In such a contingency, the entire Nordic-Baltic area would be turned into a single operational space. It will be impossible for the major powers, including both the United States and Russia, to ignore Sweden in their operational planning.
The stakes for Sweden cannot be higher, in so far as the country now constitutes an important linchpin in how NATO will deal with protecting the Baltic members of the Alliance. However, the current Swedish government seems willing to daydream away the scenarios that could drag it into a power struggle in the Baltics, preferring instead a disjointed approach that combines close military cooperation with the United States and NATO even as it indulges in fits of anti-Americanism.
As a result, Sweden and its public will likely be unprepared at a time of future crisis. Without a clear Swedish policy and operational preparations in theater, the entire military plan for the Baltic Sea becomes jeopardized. Sweden needs to focus its efforts on ensuring close cooperation with its American ally and NATO partners, rather than giving in to flights of fancy on “counterbalancing” the United States.
By ensuring such close cooperation, Sweden will provide an important contribution to ensuring possibly aggressive Russian activity in the Baltic Sea is successfully deterred – and if it isn’t, that operational preparations are there to deal with such a contingency.
Magnus Christiansson is Associate Lecturer in the Department of Strategy at the Swedish Defence University.