2011-07-07 Sweden - a covert NATO country

Ever since the Second World War, official Swedish foreign policy has been one of neutrality, a stance that has been consistent with public opinion: support for Swedish NATO membership has at most times remained below 20%.(1) In 2010, 47% of Swedes held the view that a Swedish application for NATO membership would be a bad idea, while only 18% thought it would be a good idea.

Sweden joined NATO's Partnership for Peace programme in 1994, but is claimed to have retained its independence. According to NATO, "Sweden has a long history of non-alliance, and that policy remains in place today."(2) The Swedish Ministry of Defence emphasises this independence, stating that "Sweden´s cooperation with NATO is based on non-alliance"(3), and suggesting that although it currently has troops deployed in several foreign countries, Sweden has not been at war "for 200 years."(4)

Instances of close cooperation between Sweden and NATO throughout the cold war period are, however, too numerous for this stated position of neutrality to retain much credibility.

Wilhelm Lagrell has pointed out that then US ambassador to Sweden William W Butterworth sent a telegram to Washington in 1952, stating that Sweden was prepared to enter far-reaching defence cooperation with other western countries, on the condition that any such arrangements were kept secret.(5) Swedish military documents declassified in 2004 show that Swedish planes - also in 1952 - were used to gather intelligence on Soviet ships placed in the Baltic Sea, information which undoubtedly would have been of great interest to NATO.

In 1973, it was shown in relation to the famous IB affair that the Swedish intelligence agency, SÄPO, actively provided the US with information on US Vietnam war deserters living in Sweden.

Recent revelations by Mikael Holmström show that the US during the cold war secretly provided Sweden with guarantees that it would be ready to deploy marines in Sweden within 6-8 days of an attack on the country, presumably by Russia. There was also a secret Swedish military division called Air Unit 66, which carried out military exercises with NATO countries.(6) This programme was ended in 1998, but similar ties appear to exist today: in April 2010, the Swedish Ministry of Defence was granted the right to carry out joint military exercises with the US Air Force outside the northern Swedish city of Luleå (a number of activists were later fined for having accessed the designated area while the exercises were taking place).(7)

More recently, a government document published in relation to a Partnership for Peace decision for 2010-2011 states that it "does not exclude any bilateral or multilateral cooperation on security issues, other than binding agreements on mutual security guarantees", allowing for Swedish involvement in any NATO operations.(8)

A substantial part of public debate in Sweden during the summer and autumn of 2010 was centred around the issue of Sweden's presence in Afghanistan. Given Sweden´s supposed neutrality, in what terms should its role in Afghanistan, under NATO command and in NATO uniforms, be described? As violence escalated over the summer and the number of Swedish casualties continued to grow, the view that Sweden was merely playing a peace-keeping role - as opposed to a role of NATO combatant - was increasingly being called into question.

Five days before the beginning of the Cablegate publication - Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt felt that he had to point out that he saw no need for Sweden to join NATO(9), once again reiterating the consistent official policy. Carl Bildt's statement was, however, given a forceful reply by Ambassador Michael Wood, in cable 07STOCKHOLM506, sent to Washington from Stockholm in May 2007. Wood writes that "while Sweden's official foreign policy doctrine emphasizes non-alignment, in practice Sweden is a pragmatic and strong partner of NATO, having troops under NATO command in Kosovo and Afghanistan."

As Swedish policy with regards to Afghanistan became the object of growing criticism, a rift between public opinion and the views of political parties was becoming increasingly evident. A recently published survey shows that 49% of Swedes in 2010 thought Sweden should end its presence in Afghanistan, while 30% thought it should continue.(10) A less authoritative survey by Aftonbladet published a few days after the release by WikiLeaks of the Afghan War Diaries showed that 42% of Swedes supported troop presence in Afghanistan, a 5% drop compared to a similar survey carried out six months earlier.(11) Despite these figures, six out of the seven parliamentary parties supported an extended Swedish troop presence in the run-up to the September 2010 elections. The divide between official and actual policy, which had existed for decades, was again clear in relation to the war in Afghanistan.

The Cablegate release for the first time provides details of the "pragmatic side", in Ambassador Wood's words, of Swedish policy-making, including insights into the two major political parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates. In the cables, top Swedish officials of both political factions appear aware of the high level of public opposition to operations in Afghanistan, an opposition they seek to reconcile with US calls for increased Swedish international military activities.

In cable 09STOCKHOLM585, Defence Minister Tolgfors, who belongs to the right-leaning Moderate party, is reported to have urged US ambassador Robert Silverman to ensure General McChrystal's presence at a lunch meeting with EU officials. The ambassador writes that the defence minister believes it "would be very helpful to Sweden's efforts to get the EU to generate more civilian resources, and ultimately more troops, for Afghanistan." When, in cable 07STOCKHOLM506, a recommendation is made to president Bush that he express his gratitude to Prime Minister Reinfeldt, also of the Moderate party, for his cooperation on intelligence-gathering in relation to Russia and Iran, it is also recommended that this be done in private, as public US support "would open up the government to domestic criticism."

Similarly, Social Democratic Defence Secretary Urban Ahlin is reported in cable 08STOCKHOLM51 to have stressed that "it would be necessary for the Social Democrats to be able to explain why they are supporting the UN's and NATO's efforts in Afghanistan. [...] Ahlin asked for our help in getting a senior Afghanistan government official to come to Sweden to relate humanitarian stories." The same Urban Ahlin together with Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin in January 2009 co-authored an article warning of the Russian military threat, and the importance of a firm western/NATO position against Russia ("We must rise up for democracy and Russia´s neighbours").(12) The cables make it clear that both Ahlin and Sahlin were sympathetic to US interests at the time of the publication of the article. However, no mention is made of the fact that the views expressed in the article are in line with US interests.

Looking at these examples, it is difficult to distinguish between the positions of the two main Swedish political parties. Both are eager to side with US interest. And, just like the Swedish government in 1952, both want their actual relation to the US to remain secret.

1. http://www.svenskafreds.se/pax/sverige-allt-n-rmare-nato-dags-att-debattera-medlemskap
2. "Sverige har en lång tradition av militär alliansfrihet och detta är en politik som man än i dag tillämpar", http://www.nato.int/issues/nato-sweden/index-sw.html
3. "Sveriges samarbete med Nato sker på den militära alliansfrihetens grund", http://www.sweden.gov.se/sb/d/2561
4. http://www.regeringen.se/content/1/c6/10/66/84/36f8afde.pdf, page 5
5. http://www.dn.se/debatt/det-ar-samma-gamla-lik-som-trillar-ur-garderoberna
6. http://www.svd.se/nyheter/inrikes/hemligt-forband-flog-nato-agenter_6034753.svd
7. http://gandhitoday.org/pdf/regeringsbeslut-usafe.pdf
8. http://www.regeringen.se/content/1/c6/13/52/36/53fb21e2.pdf
9. http://www.regeringen.se/sb/d/7417/a/156351, paragraph 24
10. http://www.dn.se/debatt/svenskarnas-motstand-mot-nato-ar-storre-an-pa-lange
11. http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article7540596.ab
12. http://www.newsmill.se/artikel/2009/01/27/vi-maste-sta-upp-demokratin-och-rysslands-grannar

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer