By Jonathan Power*
Sweden has been a different country from almost all the others. If we neglect Sweden’s military contribution alongside the United States in Afghanistan when it deployed barely 500 soldiers, it has been 206 years since it entered the war and lost to Norway, which then gained independence. Immediately before that, he lost two wars against Russia, in 1790 and earlier in 1721.
Sweden went through World War I and World War II uninvolved. I better revise this statement because many readers will rush to tell me that Sweden made a pact with Nazi Germany that allowed access to the rich northern Swedish iron mines if Sweden could remain neutral. For its part, Sweden was a refuge for many Jews, smuggling many illegal immigrants in small fishing boats from Denmark.
Today, it faces one of the most important decisions in its history: whether or not to join NATO. So far, he has coveted his neutrality and non-alignment. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused many Swedes to question his longstanding commitment to staying away from other people’s troubles, unless it is to provide medical aid, foreign aid, provide peacekeepers to the UN or open its doors to refugees, per capita, more immigrants than any other western country.
To understand what is being debated on the question of NATO, you have to understand the Swedish mentality. Its inhabitants like to think of themselves as distinctive. They like to think that, compared to most other countries, they are cool-headed and warm-hearted. It is true that they do things differently here and so far they have stayed away from the Russian-Western confrontation, whether during the Cold War era or after, until ‘now.
What’s so special? Let’s first talk about its enviable welfare state which gives an important clue to how Swedes view their identity. Generous to a fault, is the answer. Instinctively, they would rather spend butter than guns. Second, its plethora of “do’s and don’ts” laws. Is he an opponent of individual freedom and a supporter of regimentation, since to outsiders it seems that the government always tells the people how to live? Isn’t that too socialist? Overall, people don’t see it that way. I posed this question to a well-regarded lawyer from Gothenburg, 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, he’s a father”. This kind of thinking means that whatever government is in power, it will always enjoy broad popular support.
I remember once speaking to then-Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of a right-wing coalition that replaced the usual ruling party, the Social Democrats, whose party campaigned against ‘interference’ perpetual state. Reinfeldt, in our conversation, abandoned the old right-wing mantra of calling for lower taxes and wanted to see only “a more efficient, less conformist state and society.” Once in power, he brought his party closer to the views of the Social Democrats. He had to.
A sense of equality is deeply embedded in the Swedish psyche, he explained. “Swedish voters don’t always watch their wallets. They want to see others better off, as well as themselves”. …… “We want individual life to flourish, with a much greater degree of freedom”.
I asked him where this unusually benign development of human nature came from – church, politics, or where exactly? Part of religion, he replied, “Although hardly anyone goes to church these days and we have no connection with God, the basic idea of Christianity remains. He also pointed to the fact that because Sweden avoided war for 200 years, it was able to benefit from economic growth for a long time. “Thanks to that, we had the means to develop the welfare state in the 1950s. In fact, in the 1950s, we all thought it was a happy time. We had a deep feeling that we could afford it.
The economy hummed, more or less regardless of which party was in power. Swedes are simply extraordinarily efficient and conscientiously use their time at work. “When we work”, says Professor Ramberg, “we work very well, even without the boss pushing us”.
The Swedes are the Japanese of Europe, I have concluded, after having lived here for fifteen years, an observation that Prime Minister Reinfeldt has not denied. The Swedes are conformists by temperament. It’s hard to go out and become a high performing individual, head and shoulders above everyone else. Of course, that’s not universal or otherwise there wouldn’t be any Swedish Ericsson, Tetra Pak or Volvo, but that’s the philosophy going. (Similarly, conformist Japan has Sony and Toyota, etc.)
The Swedish government (a minority led by the Social Democrats, joined by the Conservative Moderate Party which has substantial influence over policy, including NATO membership) now seems determined to play with fire in three ways with his NATO membership speech. First, the money, instead of going to improve valuable health and social services, will go to a big increase in defense spending. It should double. Sweden will no longer have the advantage over most other countries when it comes to spending on hospitals, retraining and the elderly. It blows a hole in traditional priorities and the way of doing things. Over time, this will influence and change the Swedish way of running society.
Second, by parting with their successful history of neutrality, it will incur the wrath of Russia. This will, ironically, lead to Sweden becoming more precarious compared to today. It would be totally counterproductive. Russian submarines will simply park off the Baltic Sea, possibly with nuclear weapons. Moscow has already made this clear.
Third, judging by the way the decision is debated, no referendum seems to be planned. Longstanding traditions of free speech are being crushed by a Stockholm-based consensus that NATO membership must happen, and happen quickly. There is a panic caused by Ukraine. The government seems open to being thrown back into NATO by the United States, which is taking advantage of how the alarmed Swedish electorate feels about the Russian invasion. The government seems ready to break with the traditional way of governing the country with a lot of consultation. It’s dangerous. There could well be a powerful backlash that, if it doesn’t show up now, will show up once the Russian-Ukrainian war is over.
Polls indicate that around 55% of Swedes want their country to join NATO. But that leaves 45% who don’t. According to a reliable poll, published on 14th April, only 35% of the Social Democrats (the majority party) want Sweden to join NATO. For the Greens and the left parties combined, it is 19%. There is no consensus. There is a serious division. This is not the Swedish method. It doesn’t fit with the other parts of the Swedish ethos. This is not the Swedish soul.
The Swedes do not like having major foreign policy decisions imposed on them. When the government decided to join the euro zone, a referendum was held in 2003 and, against the advice of the government, the people voted “no”. A referendum on NATO membership is certainly a necessity.
Sweden is special, it is unusual. It should go its own way, as it always has for the past 200 years. I doubt that the people of Sweden, rooted as they are in the good sense, committed to sharing the blessings of life, incorruptible, resolving quarrels by talking rather than facing and avoiding the differences of other countries, will really be happy in NATO, an organization that provoked Russia in a way that threw tinder for the fire of the Ukrainian war. Remember, Sweden was against NATO enlargement when it started under President Bill Clinton, considering it unnecessary and counterproductive. Moreover, a few years ago he tried to persuade the Baltic states not to join NATO. This talk of somersault is most reckless.
This article is based on a 1974 column the author wrote for The New York Times. It was the most important article printed that day on the editorial page. Over a long career, he developed these ideas and Here is the result.
*About the Author: The author was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for 17 years for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times. It was the European who appeared the most in the opinion pages of these newspapers. Visit her website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com