Nordic defence cooperation: NATO or a dead-end

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Karin Enström
Karin Enström

In its New Year forecast for 2015, The Economist said “optimism is in short supply”. It was hard to disagree then, and it still is. Escalating conflicts are causing great suffering, and the reality of increased geopolitical risk is challenging international security policies. Few observers have predicted the course of events that have unfolded. The situation in Ukraine is among the biggest challenges for the international community, and it is a long-term crisis that will have severe consequences for international peace and security.

In the Baltic Sea, here in Sweden and in neighbouring countries we have seen increased military activity. A year ago, foreign submarine activity was confirmed in the Stockholm archipelago. The consequence of events in Ukraine and the Baltic Sea is that we Swedish must strengthen our defences and increase our presence in the air and at sea. We must be prepared to use the military capabilities we possess. Our natural response must also be one of increased international co-operation. Sweden must continue to deepen its foreign, security and defence policy co-operation, especially in the Nordic region, in the EU and with NATO. Russian aggression in Ukraine has reinvigorated the debate over whether Sweden should join NATO. In my own view, the only way to enhance Swedish security and defence capabilities in the long term is through Swedish membership of NATO. Unfortunately, on its first day in office the new Swedish government led by the Social Democratic Party closed the door on NATO membership. Since then, the Swedish government has instead referred to the Nordic Defence Co-operation (NORDEFCO) and to Sweden’s defence co-operation with Finland as alternatives to NATO membership.

In my own view, the only way to enhance Swedish security and defence capabilities in the long term is through Swedish membership of NATO

Defence co-operation between Nordic countries is good, and is to be encouraged. In May of last year, I and Carl Haglund, my Finnish counterpart, his country’s defence minister, signed a joint action plan for stepping up Swedish-Finnish defence co-operation. Yet the various forms of Nordic defence co-operation that are envisaged should not be seen as alternatives to Swedish membership of NATO. The absence of defence guarantees means that Nordic defence co-operation can only complement our countries’ relations outside the Nordic region, but are not an alternative to them. Nordic defence co-operation is perceived in this manner by the Nordic countries themselves.

The present Swedish government’s stance at best introduces unnecessary confusion to the situation when all the countries involved should be striving for greater clarity and transparency. In the worst case, though, Stockholm is now reducing Sweden’s long-term security and defence capabilities by refraining from NATO membership.

The current government’s statement of foreign affairs says that “Sweden’s security policy remains firmly in place. Threats to peace and to our security are best averted collectively and in co-operation with other countries. Sweden does not participate in any military alliance.” With these three sentences, foreign minister Margot Wallström paints a picture of Sweden’s reliance on military assistance from elsewhere should Sweden be attacked. At the same time, Sweden maintains its military non-alignment policy, thus giving rise to a dilemma which is detrimental in the long run to Swedish security.

During his regular parliamentary question-and-answer session, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven referred not long ago to defence co-operation with other Nordic countries and NATO when he concluded that Sweden was far from alone. The problem wasn’t what the Prime Minister said but what he left out. The Prime Minister did not inform parliament about the limitations of Nordic defence co-operation.

As an active partner in international co-operation, Sweden cooperates with the other Nordic countries in Nordic Defence Co-operation (NORDEFCO). Further co-operation outside this structure can be found in Swedish and Finnish defence co-operation as well as co-operation with the EU and NATO. But in late December 2013, when I was Sweden’s defence minister, I commissioned an inquiry on our international defence co-operation to be carried out by former ambassador Tomas Bertelman. His findings were submitted in the autumn of 2014, by which time the landscape of Swedish foreign and security policy had changed dramatically, although those rapid changes gave the report greater weight than ever.

The various forms of Nordic defence co-operation that are envisaged should not be seen as alternatives to Swedish membership of NATO

Bertelman found several advantages in Nordic defence co-operation on logistics and joint training and exercises. His report identified a number of possibilities where deeper defence co-operation is conceivable without brushing the current framework aside. But the report found that Nordic co-operation is also hampered by its limitations. The nature of NORDEFCO is that it is more of a structure for co-operation than an organisation. On the one hand, such co-operation has the advantage of flexibility, but on the other the lack of a clear framework makes co-operation within NORDEFCO dependent on the political will of policymakers. This flexibility has meant smoothness when launching projects, but with no restraints on the aborting of projects – several have ended abruptly. The result is lower levels of trust.

All the other countries in NORDEFCO view it as a complement to other defence co-operation, meaning NATO and the EU. Denmark, Norway and Iceland respect their obligations to NATO before turning their attention to NORDEFCO. Similarly, Sweden and Finland do same with the EU. Furthermore, in NORDEFCO, there is no collective defence and therefore no defence guarantees.

Above all, the biggest constraints on Nordic defence co-operation are Sweden’s and Finland’s military non-alignment policies. As the Swedish Defence Commission’s 2014 report put it, “the importance of guaranteeing the national right to decide on operational capabilities for the defence of Sweden limits the defence and security policy co-operation in which we participate. We are ultimately limited by the fact that we do not assume any defence commitments”.

As long as Sweden sticks to its non-alignment policy, its international defence co-operation soon reaches the end of the road

To maintain its right to decide on operational defence capabilities, Sweden cannot offer any guarantees. Its military non-alignment policy is a limitation to such planning as a common reaction readiness with Finland, which was proposed earlier this year. Another limitation is on transparency and information sharing. If Sweden were to go further and deepen co-operation with NORDEFCO, that would possibly entail sharing defence planning and information with Denmark, Norway and Iceland, all of them NATO members. As these countries handle their defence planning within NATO, it would be hard if not impossible to maintain our military non-alignment policy. Sweden would be too closely intertwined with NATO.

All of this means that as long as Sweden sticks to its non-alignment policy, its international defence co-operation soon reaches the end of the road. At the same time, close co-operation with NATO has been taking place over the last 20 years. As part of its efforts to build peace and security in various parts around the world, Sweden has taken part under a UN mandate in all major NATO operations. We have also been partaking in major exercises in Europe. This has enhanced the Swedish armed forces’ operational capabilities with NATO, although the Ukraine crisis has put this co-operation under a new light. One of the consequences of Russian aggression in Ukraine is that clearer lines have been drawn between NATO allies and non-allies.

This has created a situation in which Sweden’s dualistic policy towards NATO is beginning to take its toll. So long as Sweden maintains its non-alignment policy, Sweden’s co-operation with NATO could become a burden. Should there be an attack on a NATO member state, the attacker would find it difficult to separate Sweden, with its own solidarity clause, from other NATO members. Some may disagree with this analysis, arguing that it is only one of several possible scenarios, but what isn’t hypothetical is that in this scenario, Sweden would not enjoy all the membership benefits of NATO.

It is therefore time to raise Sweden’s non-alignment policy as a serious question. We Swedes cannot go much further with Nordic defence co-operation because of our non-alignment policy, which is itself a major argument against NATO membership. The report I ordered as defence minister did not focus on any specific platform for co-operation, so as a first step the present Swedish government should heed one of its conclusions and undertake a thorough analysis of the national and regional implications of Swedish NATO membership, preferably in collaboration with Finland. 

The tradition in Sweden is to seek consensus on security policy issues. Yet the current government has shut the door on such a debate on NATO membership with few explanations. This doesn’t sit well with events in Russia, Ukraine and the Stockholm archipelago. The Löfven government agrees to the solidarity declaration stating that “no conflicts in our region would affect one country alone”, and any conflict in the region would clearly involve NATO. The question of Sweden’s non-alignment policy isn’t just for Sweden but for the Nordic region as a whole.

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