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Sweden in NATO: How NATO Membership Could Change Stockholm’s Strategic Posturing

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Much has been written on how Sweden’s NATO membership could affect the Alliance’s Arctic strategy1) ever since the Swedish government announced its intention to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on 17 May 2022. However, much less has been written on the potential impacts of NATO membership on Sweden’s strategic posturing in general and in the High North in particular. While the benefits of having Sweden in NATO have been thoroughly analyzed and discussed, put differently, how Sweden could leverage its NATO membership to enhance its defensive capabilities in the Arctic has gone largely unnoticed. Given the fact that the region is home to two of its most strategic industries, mining and space,2) it is important to explore the potential ways in which Sweden’s posture in the Arctic might change in the light of its pending NATO membership.

Sweden’s Arctic priorities

Similar to its regional counterparts, Sweden too views the Arctic as a strategic region that is on the fast lane to gain even more prominence in regional and global affairs.3) This, one must note, has not always been the case.4) Comparing its two national strategy dossiers on the region, one can detect a clear change of direction in the the country’s perception on the Arctic; one that has moved away from the initial focus on soft security issues to one that is hinged on the prospect of great power rivalry and regional competition.5) This conversion is most noticeable in the government’s view on the importance of climate change and environmental security in the Arctic in that such concerns are no longer confined to the notions of sustainable development and the well-being of local communities.6) Rather, they are highlighted as catalysts for increased interest in, and competition over, both the region’s resources and, more broadly, access to it.

Worried about Russia’s expansionist tendencies, China’s growing power and presence in regions outside its immediate neighborhood, and the rapidly intensifying Sino-American rivalry, Stockholm has considerable reservations about the potential impacts of these developments on the Arctic;7) so much so that it now attaches the same level of strategic importance to the Arctic and the Baltic Sea region.8) To this end, it is fair to assume that while the Nordic nation’s strategic priorities in the Arctic will continue to revolve around building political consensus amongst regional and extra regional actors, the focus of such consensus building endeavors will shift away from soft security to realpolitik amongst like minded nations. This reorientation itself seems to be motivated by a desire to ensure regional affairs are regulated in the context of a well-defined liberal order; one that welcomes cooperation and partnership between Arctic and non-Arctic nations but desists any notion of revisionism in regional affairs.

Benefits of NATO membership for Sweden

NATO membership provides Sweden with an opportunity to explore, and benefit from, joint capability developments that would in turn enable it to enhance both its presence and deterrence capabilities in the Arctic. Given its limited resources, Stockholm needs to approach its push for capability development ingeniously. In other words, not only it needs to ensure the cost effectiveness of its defense industrial expansion but it also needs to ensure that its future arsenal of weaponries is cutting edge and has a wide array of applications. Being in NATO would allow for such undertaking on both the institutional and technical fronts. Sweden can, for instance, work with its NATO partners and modify its Arctic capabilities and/or adopt its existing assets to new uses which are in line with the strategic priorities of the Alliance in the region.9)

By removing institutional and legislative barriers, NATO membership would also allow Sweden to strengthen its ongoing initiatives and agreements with the Organisation’s members to develop and upgrade joint deterrence and defense capabilities.10) One potential case in point is the prospect of enhanced cooperation amongst the NORDEFCO states which have so far been unable to fully realize their vision for a fully integrated defense and logistical ecosystem. With Sweden and Finland in NATO, “remaining barriers to operational military planning, mutual information sharing, and joint forces will be removed”,11) and thus the four Nordic neighbors will be in a stronger position to realize NOORDEFCO Vision 2025 goals which include, amongst other things, minimal restrictions on movement and storage of military assets and personal and coordinated regional and situational awareness across all domains.

Above all, however, is the real prospect for the establishment of an Arctic Security Initiative12) at the NATO level in order to facilitate increased public-private cooperation on both R&D, production, and procurement of Arctic relevant capabilities as well as joint approaches towards hybrid or informational warfare across the alliance. The underlying motivation behind such effort is to utilize the collective might of allied members to establish a solid psychological defense barrier against mis- and disinformation and a robust deterrence-by-denial posture in the High North and Northern Europe more broadly.

Closely linked to the above is the lingering question mark over the United States long term commitment to European security.13) Concerned with the susceptibility of the American strategy in Europe to domestic political developments, Sweden would immensely benefit from the collective security guarantees that are part and parcel of NATO membership. Added to this is the question of resources – that is, even if the United States remains committed to the security of its European allies, there is no guarantee that it would have the means to come to Sweden’s assistance should Stockholm become the direct, or indirect, target of an adversary’s hostile actions. As Washington seeks to channel its resources towards managing its relations with Beijing, it is very likely that American’s view on alliance and partnership might undergo a somewhat substantial change whereby effective allies are considered as those who can either contribute to Washington’s struggle against China or can maintain the liberal order without much help from the US.14) By being in NATO, Sweden can ensure the latter and better utilize its strategic resources and location in the service of the former.

Last but not least, NATO membership enables Sweden to better secure its own interests in the Arctic. Home to a growing number of data centres, Europe’s largest iron ore mine, and EU’s flagship space centre, Sweden’s Arctic is already a strategic hotspot and thus a potential prime target for foreign aggression.15) As such, ensuring stability and security in its Arctic region is a prerequisite if Stockholm is to able to attract continued foreign investment into its northernmost regions and realize its own vision for a sustainable and economically stable Arctic.16) This, in turn, requires the development of capabilities and assets that would both detect and deter any potential act of aggression early on. In other words, Sweden’s ability to “address crisis, threats, and antagonistic actions below the threshold of an armed attack needs to improve”17) if it is ensure the sociopolitical stability and economic growth in its Arctic region. While being in NATO will not provide a silver bullet in easing all these concerns, it will go a long way to at least discourage any belligerent act of aggression, or hostile intentions towards Sweden.

How NATO Membership Could Change Sweden

As Turkish Parliament begins the ratification process in October18) and Sweden’s NATO goes through its final stages and NATO prepares to officially welcome Stockholm as its latest member, Sweden is set to become a prime case of a swing state.19) Given its advanced economy, vibrant technological sector, fast growing space industry, strategic location, and its mineral resources, Sweden falls neatly in this category of strategically pivotal nations. More specifically, Swedish infrastructure turns the country into the perfect staging ground for sending troops and material to Finland, Norway, and the Baltic states while its territorial vastness provides both Finland and Norway with strategic depth; that is, it enables the duo to make up for any potential loss on their own fronts by retreating into the Swedish territory.20) To this effect, NATO membership will be nothing short of an amplifier for Sweden’s strategic reach as well as its ability to implement its total defense policy. It also enables it to further consolidate its position as the leading nation on the Scandinavian peninsula.

More broadly, it is fitting to expect both a more resolute and/or uncompromising stance towards Russia and China as well as a more prominent role for the EU and NATO in Sweden’s strategic deliberations. Utilizing its EU membership and emboldened by its NATO membership, Stockholm will likely be more outspoken about its views on Chinese and Russian policies both at home and abroad. In particular, one can anticipate a sharp hardening of, and more rigid scrutiny of, Beijing and Moscow activities, including their commercial and cultural initiatives, in and around Sweden’s neighbourhood. Concerned with China’s growing heft in using its financial muscle to acquires dual used technologies,21) for instance, Stockholm will be likely to not just limit Chinese financial activities on its own territory but to assist its neighbors in doing so. Similarly, it is likely to openly call against Russia’s militarisation of its Arctic region,22) its push to restrict naval navigation alongside the Northern Sea Route,23) and its lax attitude towards the extractive industries activities in the Arctic24) which downsize the potential environmental impact of such activities.

Lastly, it seems certain that Sweden will no longer be able to maintain a balanced stance in its conduct of defense and foreign policy. Bound by NATO’s collective security agreements, Stockholm will be forced to make uncomfortable decisions on a whole range of issues that might either contradict its strategic priorities or adversely impact its commercial interests in the Arctic as well as regions far beyond the NATO core. More specifically, Sweden will no longer be able to distance itself from any potentially controversial US policy in the future. On the other hand, it will be better positioned to mold US’s approach on a whole range of strategic issues that it considers critical thanks to the simple virtue of being in NATO. Taking a clue from its activity in the EU, where Sweden has played a key role in ensuring a strong emphasis on environmental security in the Arctic, it is reasonable to expect Stockholm to replicate that role at the NATO and build consensus on the importance of climate change as a key contributing factor in the Arctic’s evolving strategic landscape.

Source : Thearcticinstitute

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