On March 29, Russian aircrafts conducted a military exercise near the Swedish border, reinvigorating a debate within Sweden over the possibility of pursuing NATO membership. The incident raised questions about Sweden’s defense capacities, and elicited a chorus of criticism directed toward the Swedish government’s reluctance to join Europe’s most prominent military alliance. While these concerns are understandable, a corrective dose of stoicism may be in order. This incident has provided fodder for the media and precipitated a flurry of debate, but provides little basis for a change in the country’s policies.
On the surface, Sweden’s absence from NATO may seem curious. The country has an established liberal democratic-reputation, has maintained strong international ties, holds strategically valuable territory, and therefore seems to be an ideal NATO member. The country’s absence from the alliance can be traced back to the geopolitical pressures of the Cold War. Sweden and Finland had to carefully manage east-west relations, and staying out of the alliance allayed Soviet concerns regarding American influence near its borders. The end of the Cold War eliminated this constraint, but Sweden only went so far as joining the Partnership for Peace in 1994. Since then, Sweden has continued its close relationship with NATO and its member states, engaging in peacekeeping operations and most recently participating in the Libya intervention. Despite these close ties, Swedish public opinion remains largely opposed to becoming a full-fledged NATO member and abandoning the country’s ostensible neutrality. Recent events, however, have spurred more pro-NATO sentiments within the country, with a recent survey showing that support for full membership has risen from 23 to 32 percent.
While Russia’s military exercise has been cited to bolster the argument for Swedish NATO membership, it is important to put the incident in perspective and correct some of the media hyperbole surrounding it. First, the exercise took place well outside Swedish airspace and no one has made any claims that there was ever an incursion. Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary amongst some media sources, the exercises were announced in advance which casts doubt on any suggestion that they were designed to catch Swedish defenses off guard. This is not to say the drills could not be construed as provocative, but the implicit narrative promoted by some that Sweden faces an immediate – even medium term – conventional military threat from Russia seems tenuous.
Swedish political figures do not seem to require any appeals to calm. Defense Minister Karin Enstrom recently explained that her government is comfortable relying on the EU’s security guarantee, as well as the basic geopolitical reality that Western European states are unlikely to tolerate significant interference with Sweden’s security regardless of its NATO status. Essentially, the Swedish position is that NATO membership is simply unnecessary and while there is no great contrast between Swedish foreign policy and that of NATO member states, remaining outside of NATO is the appropriate default position for the country to take.
This state of affairs seems to provide ammunition to those critics who question NATO’s contemporary relevance. The Swedish position appears to be that membership is unnecessary rather than undesirable, which does suggest that NATO is struggling to sustain its relevance. NATO’s critics commonly assert that the institution is fundamentally dated, its Cold War objectives having been achieved, and there is no reason for a country like Sweden to join. However it is worth considering the alternative possibility that NATO has evolved and is being held to antiquated standards. If observers continue to judge NATO’s relevance in terms of staving off Russian threats to Nordic states and similar conventional military concerns, they will continue to decry its irrelevance and continue to be perplexed by its enduring role in international affairs.
The recent events in Sweden indicate the extent to which many of NATO’s critics and supporters both view the organization from an outmoded perspective. Sweden will not be convinced to join NATO by pointing to a largely imaginary Russian threat. These are simply not the security threats with which it should be most concerned. Furthermore, the fact that some western states forego full membership is not proof of NATO’s irrelevance, but of its changing relevance. NATO provides a familiar institutional framework through which member states can pursue their common foreign policy interests and objectives, even though countering the Soviet Union is no longer necessary. Consequently, NATO states have little reason to leave and non-NATO states, like Sweden, see little reason to join. With this as the case, there is reason to be skeptical of those who treat NATO membership as a panacea for European security as well as those who dismiss the Alliance as a relic of the Cold War. Most importantly, observers of all stripes should refuse to grant sensationalized incidents undue influence over their analysis of European security.