Sweden’s NATO accession ends era of go-it-alone security

NATO membership might seem uncontroversial, but some Swedes worry it signals a fundamental shift in identity.

Published - February 26, 2024 10:27 pm IST - STOCKHOLM

Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson speaks on the phone as he receives information that Hungary’s parliament has voted yes to ratify Sweden’s NATO accession, at the government headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 26, 2024.

Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson speaks on the phone as he receives information that Hungary’s parliament has voted yes to ratify Sweden’s NATO accession, at the government headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters/TT News Agency

Sweden's final hurdle to joining NATO was swept away on February 26 after hold-out Hungary's ratification, ending 200 years during which Stockholm's military self-reliance helped it build a global brand as neutral peacemaker and human rights champion.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 left Swedes with a pivotal choice: join NATO or run the risk of standing alone against an increasingly aggressive near neighbour.

NATO membership might seem uncontroversial, but some Swedes worry it signals a fundamental shift in identity.

"Sweden's historically strong voice on the issues of peace and disarmament seems to be going silent," said Kerstin Bergea, chairperson of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, a prominent peace movement since 1883.

"The cause of peace has been part of our DNA," she added.

From U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold's efforts to promote peace in 1960s Congo to Hans Blix's role as chief U.N. weapons inspector in the lead up to the Iraq war, Sweden's neutrality has allowed it to play an influential role in global conflicts, often punching above its weight.

Sometimes that came in the form of blistering criticism of Western policy, such as former Prime Minister Olof Palme's comparison of U.S. bombings in the Vietnam War to mankind's worst atrocities, including Nazi Germany's death camps, damaging diplomatic relations with Washington for years.

Veteran diplomat Jan Eliasson, a former foreign minister and U.N. deputy secretary-general, said he was able to mediate in a number of global conflicts "because Sweden was neutral".

Like many Swedes of his generation, Eliasson said he was proud of his country's reputation as a moral force, epitomised by Palme, a vocal supporter of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle who was assassinated on a Stockholm street in 1986.

While neighbour Norway, a founding member of NATO, has maintained its role as peacebroker, NATO sceptics fear joining the alliance will limit Sweden's options and force it to toe a common line with its allies.

Securing Turkey's approval for its NATO membership has already led Stockholm to take a tougher stance on Kurdish militants fighting for a homeland on the borders of Turkey, Syria and Iraq and resume arms exports to Ankara previously suspended as a result of human rights concerns.

Membership of nuclear-armed NATO also sits uncomfortably with Sweden's support for nuclear disarmament.

Choosing sides

Sweden's neutrality began as a response to catastrophic wars - mainly against Russia - in the 18th and early 19th centuries and its policies have always been a mix of principle and pragmatism.

It supplied Nazi Germany with vital iron ore during World War Two and during the Cold War secretly exchanged intelligence with the United States.

In recent decades, Sweden has leaned closer to NATO - in part because its own military was slashed after the collapse of the Soviet Union - and has contributed to missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya and Iraq.

Close partnership, however, is now seen as insufficient. NATO's Article 5 guarantees that an attack on any member is considered an attack on all.

"From a Swedish perspective, this is about buying insurance," Barbara Kunz at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.

Opinion polls have shifted in recent years and now show robust support for NATO membership in the nation of 10 million, especially as neighbour Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, has already joined.

"We were seeing right in front of our eyes ... horrible military aggression taking place against another country and we, unfortunately, were in a position of having a relatively unprepared defence," Eliasson said.

"Aggression, war crimes, Finland and democracy. That was enough for me."

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