The ongoing media coverage of the the National Defence Radio Establishment’s (FRA) collection of signals intelligence, and its cooperation with American counterpart NSA, has generated less heated debate than usual. It has, however, raised the issue of non-alignment in Swedish security and defence policy. That the old policy of neutrality has been abandoned is clear, but not everyone knows what to make of the Swedish government’s unilateral declaration of solidarity. Is it empty rhetoric, a statement of the obvious or a bold step toward even deeper cooperation with NATO? Bruce Acker sees three options for Sweden’s future security and defense policy.
A recurring theme in the Swedish defense debate highlights the public’s misunderstanding of the Swedish policy of solidarity formulated in 2008 and subsequent elaboration, codification, and implementation culminating in the current 2013 Swedish statement of Foreign Policy:
Sweden will not remain passive if another EU Member State or Nordic country suffers a disaster or an attack. We expect these countries to act in the same way if Sweden is similarly affected. We must be able to both give and receive support, civilian as well as military.
The most common criticisms are that it is unilateral, Sweden lacks resources to offer, and that she lacks ability to receive forces.
A unilateral declaration of solidarity is not the same as an invalid declaration, and certainly not the same as an empty declaration. Declaration of interests that benefit another is an excellent precursor to an agreement to develop mutual interests and to pursue those interests together. From a NATO perspective, one can argue that the policy is actually a statement of the obvious, not a statement of a choice at all. Rather than an empty statement, I personally see it as a welcome sign of political courage to take such a stand, prior to receiving a reciprocal commitment from others.
It is not only normal, but completely rational that policy changes precede resourcing. Ordinarily, and in the absence of any urgent imperatives, one generally sets an ambition first, formulates a plan, and then budgets and resources to the plan. President Kennedy did not acquire a Saturn V rocket and Apollo capsule to then subsequently say, “with this we should put a man on the moon.” Kennedy was indeed rather anxious to achieve his goal for a variety of perceived pressing reasons, not the least of which was a threatening world security situation, and therefore planned and resourced an aggressive plan. None the less, he followed the structure. Sweden is doing the same, although Sweden’s newest security policy formulation, adopted under broad consensus, was drafted in relatively peaceful circumstances, with no identified barbarians at the gate, and not surprisingly it is being implemented at a rather relaxed pace.
Much of the discussion also hovers around the question of whether the named parties in the declaration, regional and EU neighbors (which by extension includes NATO in its entirety) will act to help Sweden in the event of an attack. If one focuses on the word “help”, then the absence of binding treaty alliances leaves one suspect. NATO leaders have on several occasions been asked that question by Swedish officials, and the answer is invariably that NATO Article V (that of commitment to assist in the event of armed attack) does not apply to non-members. If on the other hand the focus is on “act” the answer is invariably yes, for the self-evident reason that it is in their interest to do so.
Consistently, one hears the argumentation that Sweden lacks the capacity or adequate facilities to receive large supporting forces, as though it is decided in advance that Sweden will be a host for and thereby direct these forces in the effort to repel the aggressor. Without being a member of NATO, that is a leap of logic without much foundation in reality. NATO has a command structure, which Sweden so far has chosen not to be part of, and even there it is not founded on individual members taking the lead within their own territory. As an example, it is common knowledge that NATO has thought through how to reinforce Norway in a contingency, and has even prepositioned materiel there for that purpose. It would surprise me if anyone realistically thinks that the US marines who land there to take up their stored weapons would then salute the Norwegian King and await further instructions. The French and British imagined it might work that way in 1917, but General Pershing, with the support of Washington, had different ideas.
A threat to Sweden’s territorial integrity by any conceivable enemy is a threat to NATO. NATO will react; however only to the extent that it supports its own interests. The one objective that will be indisputable will be to defend NATO territories (Article 5). Most all other objectives, like assisting Sweden to reestablish sovereignty, are subject to other articles and will be affected by UN actions and decisions. Lucky Sweden would be, if the aggressor had no veto power in the UN Security Council, otherwise the reaction they would wish for may be illegal. That NATO will react in a manner consistent with Sweden’s wishes is desirable, though not guaranteed. Some conceivable NATO actions require no consultation with or concurrence by Sweden what so ever, like interdicting hostile forces in international space en route to or from Sweden. In addition, NATO’s priority for removing occupying forces from Sweden may be quite different than Sweden’s. In the likely event Sweden is unable to repel a qualified aggressor, NATO will react as required to prevent that aggressor from exploiting Swedish territory to threaten NATO. For that, the Security Council’s opinion is a desired but unnecessary luxury.
In my assessment this boils down to a very simple choice between three options, only two of which are realistic. Option 1: An economically realistic, but strategically risky approach, Sweden can continue on its current populist and opposition-dictated path of funding its defense as though it were in an alliance while having no security commitments from others. Option 2: Return to the untested strategy of a bygone era and adequately fund its own defense as an armed non-aligned nation, an option that probably requires an economically ruinous force, with a bleak chance of success against a modern qualified aggressor. Option 3: Follow the natural extension of the current policy and commit to the mutual interests of its neighbors by joining NATO, risking only having to admit that NATO is a collection of responsible democracies with ambitions and interests overwhelmingly similar to Sweden’s own and that Sweden can positively influence by participating.
I once walked to work every day past a neighbor who had a medium size dog within a fence, a dog that barked furiously at me as I walked by, then returned to enjoy his bone. It was neither a big dog, nor unusually ferocious. Every day I walked by, every day he barked. Being an experienced paperboy in my youth, I am certain that if I needed to approach the dog’s yard, I could have bribed him with a treat, or thumped him with a modest stick. One day, I walked with a Scandinavian exchange officer, to whom I explained my bewilderment that this dog did not understand the futility of his efforts, and that it had little effect at all on my movements. My walking companion replied…well we have some experience with this in our neighborhood. You see, every day he barks, and every day you walk by. He thinks it is working fine.