Swedish defense debate is more lively than usual, and the tone is usually critical, of the government as well as of the Armed Forces. At the same time, defense and security policy is not a major issue for the electorate, so incentives for leading politicians – or the media – to care much about the issues are not obvious. What conclusions can be drawn from this? Bruce Acker urges us to look realistically at the different policy options available – as well as at our history as a supposedly neutral country.
I was recently asked my opinions on the current Swedish Defense by a former member of the government. I hadn’t really prepared for the question, but since it was a friendly private meeting with room for misstatements, retractions, reconsideration and reformulation without penalty I went out on a limb and answered, “I don’t really think the loudest voices are serious.” It appears the main agenda is to simply discredit the government on defense policy in an attempt to win in other areas, not to offer any realistic options or thoughtful criticism. I’d like to take an opportunity now to reflect a little more deliberately and defend my position.
It is healthy, and I welcome, a renewed interest in defense policy. I do not envy the challenges the government faces, but I do respect their choices. When one looks at what is important to the Swedish electorate, that is, the will of the people, security policy is an issue long from the top priority. At the last election, on a survey of important issues for voter choice of political party, foreign and security policy took 16th place, behind employment (#1), Swedish economy (#3), taxes (#7), pensions (#14), and a range of social and environmental issues. In my view it is nearly miraculous that the government has managed to hold defense funding near level in real terms when economic considerations are so prominent, and not a single opposition party to a minority government supports a funding increase.
It is interesting that the debate highlights growing unease with retrograde Russian democracy, stability, and coercion. But I have yet to see any media suggest that an acceptance of economic risk, redirection of funding, or increase in taxes is in order. Criticism is not wanting, but funded solutions are non-existent. The opposition and critical voices one hears are that they are unhappy with the Swedish Armed Forces capabilities now and projected in the future, measured against what Sweden once had, or measured in terms (or theories) of how defense used to be conducted. Decades of reliance on Swedish neutrality and non-alignment have left NATO membership an impossible discussion to have. Any accusation that the current government has led Sweden to the current situation must logically be accompanied with the following question: Why would one expect a government with economic policies it perceives as successful, defy public opinion to join an unpopular alliance or pursue a sustainable defense budget that upsets the economic balance?
Why is the Swedish population relatively indifferent to defense and security policy, how can it be influenced, and whose responsibility is it? The first and last questions are nearly always sanctimoniously answered as being a political burden to bear. Here I disagree, at least partially. It is irrefutably a historically political responsibility that the Swedish population believed (in my opinion erroneously) that they were neutral under the cold war, and that this has served them well. Hindsight research has made it clear that the perpetrators of this fraud had taken sides, and hid this from the population.
But this fraud was so complete, it made political opposition nearly impossible. Generations believe it to be true, although contemporary popular debate and scientific research have partially eroded this fabrication. But to expect the current political leaders to initiate and sustain the dialog necessary to end it is unrealistic. As stated before, it would be political suicide, and it will cost in terms of issues that are higher on the average Swede’s priority list. One cannot claim that they haven’t tried. The policy documents, publically available, have reflected increasing integration with multinational security structures for decades. The Foreign and Defense Ministers have referred to them repeatedly. For all the positive aspects of “folkförankring”, one clear disadvantage of having had a large proportion of the population engaged in the nation’s defense in a bygone era is that they are resolutely anchored in defense concepts that no longer apply, if they ever did.
If the media had a more well-defined public responsibility in addition to being in business to sell information that people will buy, one could easily place the responsibility to inform on them. In democracies, this is rightfully regulated by the journalists themselves, though the industry is notoriously weak at critiquing itself. There has been a noble effort of late to rekindle the defense debate. Many excellent observations and criticisms of the current situation have been made. Unfortunately they focus on blaming the current government, because the readers love a scandal. Much less prominent are the exposés of what capability would have resulted from opposition proposals, thoughtful reflection on whether the untested yet presumed successful policies of the past would really have worked, and real analysis of what future capabilities are needed to meet foreseeable challenges. Last of all do they hold their readership accountable for not caring about the issue.