Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Why Sweden Should Join NATO

Sweden has avoided joining the alliance for decades, but the partnership may be too fruitful for either side to pass up.
September 18, 2020
Featured Image
An Honour guard of the Slovakian President stands under Slovakia and NATO flags in front of the Presidental palace on October 22, 2009 during Informal Meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Bratislava.AFP PHOTO / SAMUEL KUBANI (Photo by SAMUEL KUBANI / AFP) (Photo by SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP via Getty Images)

As American foreign policy observers begin cautiously to look beyond the Trump era, what they see is not pretty: The United States’s reputation lies in tatters. Whereas George W. Bush (justly or not) earned the U.S. a reputation of aggression and carelessness in leading the free world, Donald Trump has earned the U.S. a reputation of uninterest in leading at all. His isolationism has weakened and divided NATO, which is why it is so vital that as soon as possible after Trump leaves office, NATO demonstrates to the rest of the world in a definitive way that the current chapter of orange-flavored isolationism and kowtowing to Russia has ended.

What better way than to recruit Sweden as a member?

There are several reasons why Sweden would strengthen and reinvigorate NATO, starting with plain old geography: Sweden shares a sea border with Russia (Kaliningrad), and we possess the island of Gotland in the Baltic sea that is vital to NATO’s ability to defend the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) in the event of Russian aggression. Put yourself in Russia’s shoes and suppose that you want to attack and occupy the Baltic states, and you want to do so in such a way as to make it hard or impossible for NATO to come to their aid until it’s too late.

The easiest way to accomplish this would be to simultaneously take Gotland, install anti-aircraft and anti-naval batteries, and fight off any NATO forces that would attempt to cross the Baltic Sea. With Sweden neutral (or neutralized), the only feasible NATO response to Russian aggression against the Baltics would feature a terrible choice: either attacking the highly militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, or attacking through the narrow corridor where Lithuania shares a border with Poland. This corridor, known as the Suwalki Gap after the town that lies in the middle of it, is bound by Kaliningrad to the northwest and Belarus to the southeast—not an ideal strategic position for NATO troops.

Put another way: Without Sweden, NATO’s implicit assumption is that there is no way to prevent Russia from steamrolling the Baltics if they really wanted to.

In the scenario in which Russia occupies Gotland, Stockholm and its 1.5 million people would be within firing range. If and when Russia holds Gotland, Sweden is out of the game.

In theory Sweden could defend Gotland by itself… for a few hours. Despite its strategic importance, Gotland is home to Sweden’s smallest military unit. It would pose no match to Russia’s elite Spetsnaz commandos. How did it end up this way? Remember when everyone laughed at Romney for labeling Russia as a geopolitical threat? Well, nobody laughed harder than the Swedish government, which for decades had lulled itself into thinking Russia was no longer a military threat.

Does this not mean then that Sweden would be just another country that the US would have to pay to defend? After four years of hearing from their president about how other NATO members are not “paying their share,” it may seem like a bad idea to many Americans to add another weak link to the chain. Sweden spends just over 1 percent of GDP on defense, which is low even by NATO standards, but is already correcting this deficiency.

But in the event of an all-out war with Russia, Sweden—or at least Gotland—would be drawn in. The benefit of its inclusion in the alliance wouldn’t be in manpower or technology, but in geography (which is much harder for other members to replicate). While Sweden would benefit from joining the alliance, NATO would benefit as much or more, as Swedish inclusion in NATO would make it possible for NATO to deter aggression in the Baltics by setting up a military base on Gotland, instead of just reacting once a war has already begun.

While Stockholm’s past ignorance of Russia’s imperialist ambitions is inexcusable, Sweden has taken steps to remedy the dire situation of its military. Defense spending is set to reach 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025. While that’s still below NATO’s 2 percent target, only 15 out of NATO’s 30 member countries spend more than 1.5 percent as it is.

And though the size of Sweden’s military certainly is less than impressive, it can still punch above its weight: Sweden’s navy has defeated the U.S. Navy in multiple war games, and its snipers have won against U.S. Marines and Navy SEALsin several competitions. The Swedish Air Force also has arguably the best fighter jets in the world. All things considered, Sweden would not be a weak link. While Sweden may need NATO more than NATO needs Sweden, there is no doubt that closer cooperation and military integration would be mutually beneficial.

But all of the military considerations are ultimately secondary to the political considerations: Would Sweden want to join NATO in the first place? The answer is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, yes. While historically support for NATO has been a minority position, today, after years of Russian aggression and interference, a plurality of Swedish voters support NATO. Accession to NATO is also supported by all but one opposition party.

Given where NATO currently stands after almost four years of Donald Trump, the alliance should be equally enthusiastic about accepting Sweden as a member. In the past, many argued that having Sweden join NATO would provoke Russia and create tension in the region. Russia has indeed made it clear that if Sweden were to join NATO, they would have to “consider an appropriate response.”

Back when many seriously believed that Russia was on a path towards democracy and Western values, that may have been a valid argument. But as we’ve seen over the past decade, and in particular the past four years, Russia has imperialist ambitions which they seek to fulfill whether or not they’ve been provoked or not. Just ask the Georgians, Ukrainians, Syrians, Belarussians, Sergei Skripal, or John Podesta whether the Russians need to be provoked to act aggressively.

It was the Obama administration’s “reset” of 2009 and the “flexibility” of 2013 that made way for Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. The U.S. did not provoke Russia into supporting Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign—Russia did it anyway, because it was beneficial to Russia. Nor did the U.S. did not provoke Russia into putting bounties on the heads of American soldiers.

NATO’s deterrence against Russia is slowly breaking down, both in the “grey zone” of influence operations, and in the traditional sphere of invading neighbors. Bolstering deterrence in the Baltics by admitting Sweden as a member will reverse this trend. And that in turn will inspire and encourage defenders of freedom and democracy around the globe. After Trump, American planners and strategists will have their hands full trying to rebuild the Western alliance. Sweden should be on the top of their list.

John Gustavsson

John Gustavsson (@Nationstatist) is a conservative writer from Sweden and a Ph.D. student in economics at Maynooth University.