The acquiescing, commonplace Sweden

PressInfo # 133

 October 4, 2001 


By Jan Oberg, TFF director


Svensk utgåva av denna

Once upon a time, there was a Sweden that was different and wanted to make a difference in the world. Over the last few years it has become an acquiescing, commonplace Sweden that has almost abandoned its creativity and independent foreign policy. Now it follows the flock and the leader(s) of the flock.

A country of only 8 million people, Sweden used to base its welfare on heavy industry and science, on Scandinavian welfare thinking, equality and a strong civil society filled with active NGOs. There is even a term for that quality: "folkrörelses-Sverige," the "peoples' movement Sweden." As a foreign policy actor, Sweden made a difference by vigorously promoting goals such as international solidarity, non-alignment, nuclear disarmament, common security, confidence-building and peace-keeping through a policy of active neutrality.

It was a staunch believer in and supporter of the United Nations. It took a stand when small countries were attacked and, as a government, it promoted NGO activities such as the Great Peace Journey and the People's Assembly for Disarmament, in the 1980s. The foreign policy of Sweden was based on public debate and commitment and, thus, to a considerable degree anchored in popular support. It was not a policy "over and above the heads of the people."

Well, of course it wasn't a fairy-tale country. But it was different, it made a difference and many Swedes, including the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, took pride in promoting certain values and ideals in world affairs.


Then there was a crisis...

Somehow a crisis hit this Sweden in the 1980s. There are those who would say that it began with the murder of its prime minister, Olof Palme, but that may not be the whole explanation however important he was for the identity of Swedes and their foreign policy.

The nation's sense of direction and self-confidence, as well as some of its basic foreign policies values, began to crumble with the crisis of the welfare state. Its keen interest in Third World affairs receded in the wake of the end of the Cold War and its membership in the European Union.

While Sweden had sought security in being different and creative -- which served it well -- its leading Social Democratic Party had taken upon itself to, quite silently, change Sweden, one step after another, into a commonplace country, one like all the rest. And the rest did not mean the world but that small part of the world that consisted of the EU and NATO.

So, while Sweden believed originally in a Third Way for itself and many others, it now seems to believe in only one way. This "one way" policy rather uncritically follows the larger countries of the West and, consequently, Sweden has virtually ceased to have a foreign policy of its own, not to mention a global perspective in its actions.


Little debate, increasing concern

Mysteriously, all of this has taken place without any comprehensive public policy discussion in Sweden. Nor has the Social Democratic Party leadership initiated a broad debate within its party circles, in spite of the fact that these are fundamental issues of great interest to the base of the party.

This may explain why a series of party heavyweights are now raising their voices outside the party. Among them we find ambassador Carl Lidbom, former defence minister Thage G. Petterson, former disarmament minister Mai-Britt Theorin, former prime minister Ingvar Carlsson, former minister of education Carl Tham (S-G of the Olof Palme International Centre), former minister of foreign affairs Sten Andersson and, most recently, ambassador and former security policy éminence grise, Sverker Astrom. They choose to do so in the Swedish media. The grassroots in local party branches also seem to be on the move.


The rather fundamental changes

If not downright opposed to the new party line, they are concerned about the manner in which one or more of the following changes have taken place during the past 10-15 years:


• Sweden sold out almost completely to the trendy privatisation and marketisation philosophy of the 1980s.

Workers began to speculate in bubble economy shares and few turned up to the marches every May 1. The ideal that wage policies should demonstrate solidarity with low-paid workers were abandoned and Sweden rapidly moved towards a class society structure with considerable income gaps, in stark contrast to everything the Party had previously stood for even since beginning of the century. Considerable parts of the mixed, Third Way Myrdal-like welfare state were demolished.


• Sweden did not promote a new thinking about security and the role of Europe after 1989.

This fact is paradoxical since Sweden was uniquely well-prepared to do so due to the Palme Commission proposals (1982), which evolved around the concept of "common security" - - seeking security together with and not against the other side. This concept was in line with Willy Brandt's "Ostpolitik" and the détente of the early 1970s. It was equally compatible with the Helsinki Process initiated by Finland and lead to the creation of the OSCE. And, most importantly, it would have been a way to strengthen the 'new thinking' and glasnost policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.


• Sweden's neutrality position was scrapped and a great potential lost.

Establishment experts argued that, since there were no longer two blocs, neutrality was a policy of the past. This was intellectually flawed, of course, since one can be neutral and impartial among three or more actors, not only two.

Sweden was never neutral in terms of values or socio-economic philosophy. Although not a member of an alliance, it was pretty clear which side it would be on should a war break out between East and West. It planned to be, and was seen as, an ally of the West, and as a forward positioning area. But Sweden enjoyed being seen as a potential bridge-builder and mediator that was related both to the North-South and to the East-West conflict. The importance of that role, also for the future, was lost upon the Social Democratic Party as well as the establishment security experts.

In the post-Cold War era, many conflicting parties around the world need exactly such actors since the world is polarised into the West/US and the rest. The Balkans are a case in point, but Sweden never took a mediation initiative there; it subordinated its policies to that of the EU and, later, NATO/KFOR.

An important point about neutrality is that it is a peace-time preparation aimed at staying out of wars others may fight. This means that the neutral actor may be seen as a reliable, impartial conflict-mitigator that can choose to make itself available to the wider international community and facilitate dialogue, mediation and peace-making.

With neutrality scrapped as an official policy, Sweden has increased the risk that it will be dragged into somebody else's war. Nowadays this means on the side of the strong West, no matter what the issue may be.


• The famous submarines were more imagined than real, U-137 being the only exception.

All submarines were supposed to come from the East. Later analyses documented that the evidence was insufficient, to the extent that it deceived the domestic and international public. No mention was made of the much more robust and frequent violations of the waters and the airspace by NATO countries. What and who inside Sweden were really behind the search and bombing of these non-existing submarines (sometimes called "budget submarines") is an issue that remains to be revealed and debated.


• Sweden joined the (NATO) Partnership for Peace and claims that NATO membership is not an option.

During the Cold War, formal NATO membership was not an option and could hardly be mentioned. Now it can be discussed, but the Social Democratic Party policy is that non-alignment stands. This is a tactically convenient position since Sweden does not need formal membership with its mutual security guarantees. What it needs in the new world order is to move ever closer to alliance policies and integrate its defence industry and overall policies with NATO. This allows Sweden to, wisely, keep outside NATO's nuclear dimension. And it circumvents the heated debate a formal membership would provoke among the Swedes. There are no cases since 1989 where the Swedish government voiced dissent with what NATO and the United States actually did. In short, it manages to be with NATO but not inside it, as exemplified by the following point.


• Sweden endorsed NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.

During those months in 1999, Sweden tacitly sold out four foundation stones of its post-1945 policies:

a) the solidarity with small states, in this case a small European neutral and non-aligned state like itself;

b) the inviolability of the principle of sovereignty;

c) the insistence upon a UN mandate as a base of military action and

d) the argument that negotiations and other civilian means must have been tried and found in vain before military action is resorted to.


• The International Independent Kosovo Commission, established by prime minister Goran Persson, legitimated the shameful bombing.

This was anything but an impartial analysis. With minor exceptions, it supported Western policies even to the point of arguing that Kosovo ought to become independent, irrespective of what government might eventually take over in Belgrade. It was an intellectual and political flop which was politically ignored when it appeared and which nobody talks about today. (The UN University study, "Kosovo and the Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention" did a far better job).


• Sweden's insistence that it considers the UN central sounds increasingly hollow.

Facts speak more than words. Today Sweden has some 80 nationals in UN peace-keeping missions, some 800 soldiers under NATO/KFOR command in Kosovo and plans to have 1800 in the forthcoming EU rapid intervention force to be ready by 2003. As we shall see in PressInfo 134, it has not opposed a US-dominated agenda of the UN in response to the September 11 terror act.


• Sweden spearheaded the militarisation of the European Union.

Before it entered the EU, the Swedes were told that the EU would not imply military co-operation and that it would not imply a foreign and security policy spoken with one voice. That's exactly what it turned out to do! The turning point came with the events in Yugoslavia and Kosovo: the EU concluded that the United States was too powerful and did almost all the bombing itself. The EU could not remain an economic superpower and a military dwarf with virtually no action capacity.

By coincidence, spring 2001 was the period in which the work to set the EU intervention force and civilian crisis management on track -- and it was also the period in which the EU was chaired by Sweden.

Prime minister Goran Persson and foreign minister Anna Lindh argued that the new force was merely to do mine-sweeping and humanitarian tasks and that it would be a great support for the United Nations and UN peace-keeping (!). Now it turns out that it is supposed to operate up to 6000 kilometres from Brussels and consist of more than 60,000 heavily armed troops with advanced equipment, including fighter planes and submarines. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs doubled its organisational grant for the year 2001 to the Swedish UN Association (already equal to the combined grants allocated to all the 14 other NGOs!), and its leadership in turn began to argue that the EU force was a blessing for the United Nation.


• Increasingly pro-Israeli position in the Middle East conflict.

Over the last years, the active political support to the Palestinian struggle against the occupation has been toned down. Last October, Sweden abstained when the UN General Assembly voted about a text that mentioned Israel's "excessive use of force." Over many years, minister of foreign affairs, Sten Andersson, has played a leading role in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together, most recently in what has been called the Stockholm Track. This important mitigation work has now been discontinued.


Giving up global solidarity in the age of globalisation 

And to add to all this, there is much less commitment, and much less discussion, about global solidarity, and about active political support for the weakest countries and peoples.

Before its EU membership, Sweden could profile itself as a champion of global justice and (nuclear) disarmament and conversion of military resources to civilian use (e.g. disarmament ambassador Inga Thorsson initiative in the UN in the mid 1980s.) It could have disarmament ambassadors, a tradition associated with names such as Alva Myrdal, Inga Thorsson and Maj Britt Theorin. None of it is irrelevant today.

Even when inside the EU, Sweden could have continued to actively push these issues and tried to influence EU policies. For instance, it could have promoted a different diagnosis of the Balkans and made itself available as a mediator to the parties. But it has chosen not to promote such pluralism; its foreign policy leadership seems content to be represented by the Once Voice of other, larger, EU members.

So, Sweden once had a profile as an internationalist foreign policy actor, with considerable idealism and vision. It was respected for that around the world, seen as a pioneer by many in the Third World and elsewhere. Much of that image was related to Olof Palme, of course, but it was also an important dimension in the identity of the Swedes. And few countries with a population half the size of London had the influence on and the respect of the world as Sweden had.

Paradoxically, one might say that in an era of intensive globalisation Sweden is now more European and provincial in its outlook (reflected also in its media and public debate) than ever since 1945.


Speaking with one voice - but not its own

Sweden now basically follows the flock and does not speak with its own voice. Whether it uses or echoes the voice of the bigger EU members, of the United States, or of both, the important thing is that it is no longer Sweden's own. While it once made its own analyses of the world and debated what to struggle for and against with an independent mind, today's Swedish policy-making is merely about positioning, its statements merely echoes of the more influential players.

And now, in the midst of what looks like the most serious international crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis almost 40 years ago, the Swedish government sides completely with a violent approach for the presumed U.S. response to the terrorist attack on September 11.

We shall take a closer look at that example of positioning in PressInfo 134.


 © TFF 2001



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