Sweden in NATO — And then what?

Supporters of the Swedish Left Party march through Malmö on International Workers’ Day, 1 May 2023.

First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

In late March of this year, the Swedish Parliament voted by a large majority to join NATO and abandon the country’s traditional policy of military non-alignment. Only the Left and Green parties voted against the move.

Outside parliament, a majority of the Swedish people also favour joining NATO. Next door, Finland’s NATO membership is already a fact. The immediate reason for this shift is clear: NATO supporters have a superior campaigner for their cause in Vladimir Putin. Russia’s invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine has shifted public opinion in a major way.

The Swedish decision on NATO entry was effectively taken as early as June 2022, when the Swedish Social Democrats changed their stance on the issue. Public debate was minimal, one reason being that there was no referendum. Voters could not influence the vote, which was rushed through for a quick decision before the parliamentary elections in September.

I am against Sweden’s NATO membership. I have yet to see a critical examination of the consequences of membership, let alone a public debate on an issue that should have been decided by a referendum to begin with. Sweden’s policy of neutrality and non-alignment has worked well. We have stayed out of war for more than 200 years. On the basis of non-alignment, we have been able to pursue a credible foreign policy of disarmament and human rights.

I also believe that we NATO critics already have been proven right on crucial points.

We were right about Turkey — it has been embarrassing to see both the Social Democratic and the new, right-wing Swedish government grovel before Erdoğan, keeping silent in the face of restrictions on democracy in Turkey, compromising the rule of law in Sweden, and failing the Kurds in both Turkey and Syria.

We were right when we said that Sweden’s active and independent foreign policy will have less space in NATO — the grovelling to Turkey is just one example of our foreign policy already being adapted to the transatlantic military alliance.

We were also right about nuclear weapons. Sweden’s voice for nuclear disarmament is being silenced as an adaptation to a military alliance that has incorporates the potential use nuclear weapons as a central part of its military strategy.

But it is one thing to be right, and another to get what you want. There is no indication that NATO supporters in Sweden are remotely interested in discussing their wishful thinking about the implications of NATO membership, or even testing the counter-arguments. They have already made up their minds. The credibility of non-alignment has already been swept away.

Everything indicates that Sweden will become a NATO member relatively soon. The election victory for Erdoğan and the AKP in the Turkish election might result in it taking a little longer, but the Swedish government has already proven that it is willing to make every necessary concession to the autocrat in Ankara, be it betraying the Kurds who defeated ISIS, expelling political refugees back to Turkey and imprisonment, or selling arms that can be used against civilians in Syria, Iraq, or Turkey itself. Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson rushed to congratulate Erdogan on election night, saying “our common security is a future priority”.

What comes next?

In politics, it’s common to have to deal with situations you wish you hadn’t ended up in. The Left in Sweden — and in Europe — needs to start thinking about how to should handle Swedish and Finnish NATO memberships. The political space for pursuing an independent Swedish foreign, security, and defence policy is shrinking, but it is not disappearing. Alliances can be formed with like-minded critics of NATO policy in other Nordic and European countries.

This is how I think Sweden should act once it becomes a NATO member, and, accordingly, what positions the Left should advocate for a Sweden in NATO.

  1. Continued support for Ukraine

    Support for Ukraine must continue unabated. Ukraine must be helped to liberate its country and achieve peace on terms it can accept. Russia’s attacks on another country, war crimes, and violations of international law must not be allowed to pay off.

    Ultimately, it is also about the security order in Europe and our own security. As non-aligned countries, Sweden and Finland have given extensive support to Ukraine. The Left has been in full agreement with this policy. It must continue regardless of the fact that NATO countries like Hungary and Turkey are playing a double game on the issue. It must continue even if US support for Ukraine ends after the next presidential election.
  2. No NATO troops and no nuclear weapons in Sweden

    One of the risks of Swedish and Finnish NATO membership is that it will contribute to rearmament and increased tension in the Baltic Sea region in the long term. Currently, the Russian military is severely weakened as a result of its losses in Ukraine. Russian military units normally stationed near the Baltic Sea have been used in the war and have often suffered heavy losses.

    Contrary to what some proponents of NATO membership believe, there is no indication that Russia planned to attack Sweden, and the country’s ability to carry out such operations has now been greatly reduced. In the longer term, however, Russia will rearm if it does not change its policy. Not having foreign NATO troops and nuclear weapons on Swedish soil helps to slow the drive towards rearmament and reduce tension in our immediate area.
  3. Sweden must be a voice for nuclear disarmament

    Sweden must resume its role as an advocate for nuclear disarmament and the global abolition of nuclear weapons. Work towards nuclear disarmament in the UN needs strong support.
  4. Sweden must be a clear international voice for democracy and human rights

    Sweden’s shameful silence and appeasement in the face of oppression in Turkey has already damaged our foreign policy reputation. We must re-establish a trustworthy policy of protecting democracy and human rights, whether it is Russia, China, Turkey, or the US that deserves criticism.

    This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a criminal undertaking that violated international law and had disastrous consequences for millions of people across the entire region. Sweden and Finland did not participate in the US invasion. Denmark, a NATO member, did — a consequence of the political pressure to conform to US foreign policy that comes with NATO membership. But other NATO countries reacted differently to the invasion. Sweden should continue to defend international law, strengthen the UN, and reject military adventurism.
  5. Take a broader view of security and break dependence on Russia

    Russia’s military budget is less than one tenth of NATO’s. All indications are that Russia will emerge from the Ukrainian war in a much weaker position militarily, economically, and politically. But as long as Putin remains in power, Russia will represent a security threat for neighbouring countries like Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.

    Sweden’s and Europe’s weak point vis-à-vis Russia is our dependence on Russian oil, gas, and uranium. This dependence must be ended — a policy that fits perfectly with the transition to renewable energy sources and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

    The war has fostered strong anti-Russian sentiments. But while this is perhaps understandable, the Left must insist on distinguishing between ordinary Russians who have not chosen this war and the Russian regime. Despite all the difficulties, we must try to remain connected with progressive forces in Russian society. We should welcome Russian oppositionists and war resisters fleeing to our countries. We should also strengthen our cooperation with the Left in Ukraine.

    One day, Putin’s reign will end. We should pursue a policy that makes it more likely that Russia will then develop in a democratic direction and become a country with better relations with its neighbours. Russophobia has deep historical roots in Sweden and Finland, but it will not be an asset in building new relations.
  6. Maintain the long-term goal of disarmament

    With the experience of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Nordic left-wing parties have advocated strengthening our countries' military capabilities and increasing defence spending. At the same time, there is a healthy scepticism on the Left concerning militarism, armaments, and the military-industrial complex. Most countries in Europe are now engaged in a massive military build-up, with resources that could be used for social and ecological investments going to weapons and the military.

    After the liberation of Ukraine, our long-term goal must be to establish common security and disarmament across Europe. The day will come when Putin is gone and Russia can move in a democratic direction. Our long-term goal must be to create structures of common security and disarmament that incorporate a democratic and non-imperialist Russia. Russia itself also desperately needs to invest in social development, modern infrastructure, and alternatives to fossil fuels instead of armament.

Building a safer Europe — together

The debate on our foreign and security policy will continue after Sweden joins NATO. Critical and reasonable voices are needed in this debate. It is hard to predict how Russia will change after losing the war in Ukraine. The loss in the war against Japan in 1905, the defeat in World War I, and the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan all triggered major changes in Russia. It can happen again — a potentiality that implies both risks and opportunities.

The Russian attack on Ukraine has strengthened NATO and support for the military alliance. This may change in the future, especially if the worst happens and Trump is again elected president of the United States. This is not something that NATO supporters seem to want to take into account, but we as NATO critics definitely should, as Trump’s election would open a new debate on alternative foreign and security arrangements and possible defence cooperation in Europe and among the Nordic countries.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has also served to unite NATO and give the alliance renewed purpose. Nevertheless, the internal disagreements are still there for all to see. Hungary under Orbán’s rule acts as a Trojan horse for Putin. Turkey under Erdogan is an authoritarian, oppressive, disloyal, and aggressive NATO member. The US and Europe will likely not have the same interests and policy when it comes to future relations with China.

The vast majority of left-wing forces in Europe have clearly condemned Russia’s illegal and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and supported aid to strengthen Ukraine’s defence, but there have also been voices expressing more pro-Russian positions. Excuses for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine are extremely hard to respect and understand for the Left parties in the Nordic countries and parties like Razem in Poland. We view today’s Russia as authoritarian, imperialistic, and right-wing — a kleptocracy run by Putin and his oligarchs. Condemnations of US imperialism have less credibility for those who fail to condemn Russian imperialism.

The attitude towards Russia’s war in Ukraine is viewed as crucial and could potentially be a dividing point for Left parties in Europe and impact their future cooperation. My hope is that we will agree on strong condemnation of Russia’s aggression, support for Ukraine, and aim for better solutions for our common security than today’s NATO.

Jonas Sjöstedt was a Member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Left Party from 1995 to 2006, and party leader from 2012 to 2020. He currently lives in Hanoi.