By Jonathan Power*
Sweden has been a different land from almost every other. If we overlook Sweden’s military contribution on the side of the US in Afghanistan when it deployed a mere 500 troops, it’s been 206 years since it went to war—and lost to Norway, which then achieved its independence. Immediately before that, it lost two wars to Russia—in 1790 and earlier in 1721.
Sweden went through both the First and Second World Wars without involvement. I’d better revise that statement since many readers will rush to tell me that Sweden made a pact with Nazi Germany that it allowed access to Sweden’s rich iron mines in the north if Sweden could remain neutral. On its credit side, Sweden was a haven for many Jews, smuggling many in small fishing boats from Denmark.
Today it faces one of the most important decisions in its history—whether to join NATO or not. Until now it has coveted its neutrality and non-alignment. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed many Swedes to challenge its long-time commitment to stay out of other people’s troubles, unless it is to give medical help, foreign aid, provide peacekeepers for the UN or to open its doors to refugees, taking in per head of population, more immigrants than any other Western country.
To understand what’s being debated about the NATO issue one has to understand the Swedish mentality. Its people like to think they are distinctive. They like to think, compared with most other countries, they have a cool head and a warm heart. It’s true they do do things differently here and, until now, they’ve stood aside from getting involved in the Russian/West confrontation, whether it be way back at the time of the Cold War or after—until now.
What is so special? First, let’s talk about its enviable welfare state which gives a big clue to how the Swedes see their identity. Generous to a fault, is the answer. Instinctively they would rather spend on butter than guns. Second, its plethora of “do and don’t” laws. Is it an opponent of individual liberty and a proponent of regimentation, since to outsiders it seems the government is always telling the people how to live? Isn’t it too socialist? By and large, people don’t see it that way. I put this question to a highly regarded Gothenburg lawyer, Christina Ramberg. “The government is a friend”, she replied, although she never votes for the Social Democrats. Alexandra von Schwerin, an aristocratic businesswoman paying very high taxes, says “No, it’s a father.” This kind of thinking means that whatever government is in power it will always have a lot of popular support.
I remember once talking to the then prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of a right-wing coalition which replaced the habitual governing party, the Social Democrats, whose party campaigned against the perpetual “interference” of the state. Reinfeldt in our conversation dropped the old right-wing mantra of calling for lowering taxes and wanted to see only “a more efficient and less conformist state and society”. Once in power, he moved his party towards the views of the Social Democrats. He had to.
The sense of equality goes deep down in the Swedish psyche, he explained. “The Swedish electorate don’t always look at their wallet. They do want to see other people better off, as well as themselves”. …… “We want individual life to flourish, with a much greater degree of freedom”.
I asked him where did this unusually benign development in human nature come from—the church, politics or where exactly? Some part religion, he answered, “Although hardly anyone goes to church these days and we have no link to God the basic idea of Christianity stays on. He also pointed to the fact that because Sweden has avoided war for 200 years, so it has long been able to benefit from economic growth. “Because of that we had the wherewithal to develop the welfare state in the 1950s. In fact, in the 50s we all thought it was a happy time. We had a deeply felt feeling we can afford it.”
The economy has purred on, more or less irrespective of which party is in power. Swedes are simply extraordinarily efficient and use their time at work conscientiously. “When we work”, says Professor Ramberg, “We work very well, even without the boss pushing us”.
Swedes are the Japanese of Europe, I’ve concluded, after living here for fifteen years, an observation that prime minister Reinfeldt didn’t demur from. Swedes are conformists by temperament. It is hard to break out and become a highly successful individual, head and shoulders above everyone else. Of course, this isn’t universal or otherwise, there’d be no Swedish Ericsson, Tetra Pak or Volvo, but it’s the going ethos. (Likewise, conformist Japan has Sony and Toyota etc.)
The Swedish government (a minority one led by the Social Democrats, joined by the conservative Moderate Party which has a substantial influence on policy, not least on NATO entry) now seems set on playing with fire in three ways with its talk of joining NATO. First, money, instead of going to improve the treasured social and health services, will go to a big increase in defense spending. It is expected to double. No longer will Sweden have the advantage over most other countries when it comes to spending on hospitals, job re-training and old people. It shoots a hole in the traditional priorities and way of doing things. Over time this will influence and change the Swedish way of running society.
Second, by parting from their successful history of neutrality it will incur Russia’s wrath. It will lead, ironically, to Sweden becoming more insecure compared with today. It would be a totally counterproductive move. Russian submarines will simply park themselves offshore in the Baltic Sea, maybe nuclear-armed. Moscow has already made this clear.
Third, judging from the way the decision is being debated, no referendum appears to be being planned. The long-time traditions of free speech are being squashed beneath a Stockholm-based consensus that joining NATO should be done and done quickly. There is a Ukrainian-induced panic. The government seems to be opening itself to being bounced into NATO by the US, which is taking advantage of how the alarmed Swedish electorate feels about the Russian invasion. The government seems set to break the country’s traditional way of governing with much consultation. That is dangerous. There could well be a powerful reaction that if it doesn’t surface now, will surface once the Russian/Ukrainian war dies down.
Polls say 55% or so of Swedes want their country to join NATO. But that leaves 45% who don’t. According to a reliable poll, published on April 14 only 35% of Social Democrats (the majority party) want Sweden to enter NATO. For the Greens and Left parties combined it is 19%. There is no consensus. There is a serious division. This is not the Swedish way. It doesn’t fit in with the other parts of the Swedish ethos. This is not the Swedish soul.
The Swedes don’t like big foreign policy decisions being shoved down their throat. When the government decided to enter the Euro-currency area a referendum was called in 2003 and, against government advice, the people voted “no”. A referendum on joining NATO is surely a necessity.
Sweden is special, it is unusual. It should go its own way, as it always has over the last 200 years. I doubt if the Swedish populace, so grounded as they are in a good sense, committed to sharing the bounties of life, incorrupt, resolving quarrels by talking rather than confrontation, and avoiding other countries’ disputes, will really be happy inside NATO, an organisation that provoked Russia in a way which laid the tinder for the fire of the Ukrainian war. Remember, Sweden was against the expansion of NATO when it began at the time of President Bill Clinton, judging it unnecessary and counterproductive. Moreover, a few years back it tried to persuade the Baltic states not to join NATO. This talk of a somersault is most unwise.
This article builds on a column of 1974 the author wrote for the New York Times. It was the most prominent article printed that day on the op-ed page. Over a long career, he has developed those ideas and the following is the result.
*About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com