Not So Neutral Anyway
Swedish foreign policy is not what it used to be for a long time.
When I was young, everything circled around the holy neutrality. Sweden and Swedes considered themselves to be above, or at least beside, the Cold War. I became politically engaged when Högerpartiet’s (today Moderaterna) youth organisation demanded Swedish membership in the EEC (the pre-EU organisation based on the Treaty of Rome). The not so glorious behaviour during and after the Second World War stuck in later years and the mantra about non-alliance in peace leading to neutrality in war became almost a religion, especially among social democrats. However, this policy was more rhetoric than reality. The socialist government had secret agreements with the Americans and NATO, so secret that the opposition knew nothing, or almost nothing, about them.
Sweden was not always neutral. From the 15th century up until early 19th century its ambition was to be a world power. Gustav I Vasa got German financing from the Hansa to make a revolution against the Danes and their King Christian who was called the Good in Denmark but the Tyrant in Sweden. It is all a matter of perspective – today German financing is still a familiar activity. Under the Vasa kings, Sweden expanded and even for a period shared a kingdom with Poland under King Sigismund’s rule.
Finland had been Swedish since the 12th century when the country was almost empty but for a few tribes. So, this was not an occupation rather an expansion, in the same way as the USA much later expanded into the western territories. Regarding Pomerania and the Baltic states, the Swedish presence was more like an occupation, though not a very violent one. This probably still constitutes the foundation for our friendly relations.
Gustav I had a grandson – Gustav II Adolphus. He engaged on the Protestant side in the 30-year war against Wallenstein. As far south as Strasbourg there are still living memories of the violent Swedish army. Alsatians actually used to tell naughty kids that if they did not behave, the Swedes might come and take them.
Gustav Adolphus’s daughter Queen Kristina did not stick to her father’s ideals. Instead she converted to Catholicism, abdicated and moved to Rome. Her cousin Karl X Gustav gave a final blow to the Danes by marching across a frozen sea in order to attack Copenhagen and by incorporating Skí¥ne, Halland, Blekinge and Bohuslän into Sweden. Karl X’s grandson Karl XII continuously fought wars. Sweden had always been a rival to Russia and our enemy had always come from the east. Karl won a big victory in Narva in 1700 (that is why we have a street in Stockholm named Narvavägen). Unfortunately, he lost the battle in Poltava nine years later and had to spend years in Turkish exile (there is no Poltava Street in Stockholm, of course). As a pastime, Karl joined the Turks to fight the Russians. When finally home, he started a war to take Norway from the Danes and he was eventually shot in Halden. It is still disputed where the bullet came from. At that time, Sweden had become very poor, owing money to everyone. Besides the normal wars with Russia, the 18th century was more peaceful and focused on culture like opera, dancing and, of course, drinking. The poet Carl Michael Bellman (1740–1795) has contributed many songs (several composed under the table) that illustrated the life in Stockholm at that time.
Like in an opera, King Gustav III was assassinated at a masquerade ball. His son Gustav IV lost another war with Russia, with the consequence that Finland was no longer Swedish. The King had to flee the country and a new king was recruited among Napoleon’s field marshals. The Bernadottes are still on the throne. The idea was to take Finland back. However, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte (or Karl XVI Johan) was clever enough not to try; instead he took Norway from the Danes. Sweden kept Norway until a peaceful partition in 1905. Finland became independent after the communist revolution in Russia; it has only been Finnish for less than 100 years after having been occupied by the Russian empire for a little more than a century, before which it had been the eastern part of Sweden for over 600 years.
The loss of Finland was probably the single most important reason for Sweden to be able to stay out of the wars in Europe. As regards the Second World War, the concessions to Hitler with troop transit and the sale of iron to Germany also played a role. The most shameful part of our history was, of course, the return of Baltic refugees to the Soviet Union. Our help to the resistance could not compensate this. Back to neutrality – all the time during the Cold War, Sweden provided information to NATO based on flight and radio traffic surveillance. However we, the public, knew nothing about the cooperation; instead the socialists proclaimed an almost religious faith in neutrality.
Some Swedish politicians (like Olof Palme) fell for the Soviet proposal about a nuclear-free zone around the Baltic. The effect would only have been of more Soviet dominance. Very few of us could predict that the Soviet Union was going to implode. As late as 1988 we did not understand the magnitude of problems in the Evil Empire. However, some of us understood the evil of communism early. The political climate in Sweden in the late 1960s and all through the 1970s was very much dominated by leftist argumentation. The earliest sign of change came from the student unions. Many important politicians, for example Carl Bildt, led the blue opposition that gained support mostly among students.
In the 1970s, Sweden’s National Union of Students held a unique position as the only student union in Western Europe not dominated by communists. Ironically, one reason for this was compulsory membership that actually activated a silent majority to vote against a left-wing leadership. The Student Union took an active part in international politics, but we appeared as lone rangers among others in the Soviet-controlled International Union of Students.
In 1976, the meeting of the European Student Union was held on Cyprus. The reason for the location was Soviet support for Greece and the Greek junta’s ambition to take over all of Cyprus. Supporting one NATO country against another – Turkey – was, of course, a clever tactic. We, the Swedish delegation, decided to travel on our own and not with the Soviet charter from Prague. We took a holyday charter to Israel and a regular flight from Israel to Cyprus. We also arranged via an officer friend in the Swedish UN troops a visit to the northern, i.e. Turkish, part of Cyprus.
The situation on Cyprus is still not very good today. The Turkish invasion in 1974 prevented the Greek junta’s annexation, but the island is still divided and an agreement to re-unite it seems still far away. During the Swedish chairmanship in the Council of Europe a few years ago, we tried to help the two sides to come to an agreement at informal meetings. But nationalism, especially on the southern side, prevailed. The effect is that the citizens on the northern side have no rights as EU citizens, while the southern side, which formally represents the Republic of Cyprus, can block any attempt to ease trade, tourism or student exchange with the northern part.
It is important that all of us try to help. Naturally, one way is to increase tourism to the northern part. According to international law, no other country besides the occupier may fly into occupied territory, so Azerbaijan caused a diplomatic incident a few years ago when it landed a chartered aircraft on the Turkish side. But there are no problems with flying with Turkish airlines and the border between the north and the south is open for cars, buses and pedestrians. Last time I visited I walked across.
Another conflict that interests the Swedes today is that of Western Sahara. When the Spanish dictator Franco left Sahara in the 1970s, Morocco moved in. Many call it occupation, but it is a bit more complicated, as the Moroccans have been involved in the region for centuries. There are proposals in the two so-called Baker plans1 about a referendum, but the problem with those plans is disagreement about who will be registered as voters – refugees in the Tindouf camp, second and third generations living somewhere else, or only those now living in the region?
Today’s Sweden is very much integrated with the EU; the country has been supporting and promoting the Eastern Partnership and ongoing EU enlargement. It would be beneficial for Turkey to join the Union, but for the rest of Europe it is also vital to include Turkey. Otherwise there is a great risk that Turkey will turn elsewhere. This would mean less security and more dependence on only one supplier of natural gas because the gas from the Caucasus comes mostly via Turkey. It is natural for Sweden, who has been allied with Turkey against common enemies in the past, to welcome Turkey into the EU.
The Eastern Partnership is also very important for security and the promotion of democracy and human rights. Hopefully, this partnership will also lead to enlargement in the future. The situation in some of the partner countries is not uncomplicated. In Ukraine, democratic progress has stopped and the country has become more authoritarian. In the Caucasus, there is still – after more than 20 years – a state of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia refuses to withdraw its occupying troops from Azeri territory. The so-called Minsk Group has not been able to reach a peace agreement. This is not surprising because the three countries in the Minsk Group have their own agendas. Russia has a military treaty with Armenia and it seems to be in Russia’s interest to keep the conflict going at the present level. This way Russia is trying to gain more influence over the region. France has traditionally been very close with Armenia. Finally, the United States has the world’s best organised Armenian lobby. It is very strange that the EU has no position in the Minsk Group, but instead France is a sort of permanent member.
Sweden, who is not a NATO member but only a partner to NATO, is nonetheless more integrated than many members. This goes for all kinds of weapons and equipment standards and for participation in operations. Sweden has troops in Afghanistan and Kosovo; it took part in the air force operation in Libya and navy operations against pirates next to Africa’s coast. I never thought I would vote for a bill sending the Swedish Navy to Africa during my time in parliament. Still, the decisions to participate have enjoyed large – sometimes unanimous – parliamentary support. Recently, however, the far left (the former communist party Vänsterpartiet) and the greens have been more opposed to such common operations. In addition, the social democrats have been undecided about taking part in different operations.
As an EU member, Sweden does everything by the book. All common legislation is promptly implemented. But in the public political debate at home, it seems that there are still pro- and anti-Unionists. Sweden stands out in the ongoing European economic crisis with its very strong economy. We had our own homemade bank crisis in the early 1990s and we did our homework properly after that. But even Sweden has not been unaffected by the crisis as our economy is very much integrated with that of the rest of Europe. There is still strong support for free trade and deregulation, which is why the Swedes have good reason to worry about the growing isolationist tendencies in Europe and cries for transaction tax.
Sweden actually had to re-regulate in the field of agriculture when we joined the Union and there is a strong preference for reform regarding EU policy on agricultural subsidies. Traditionally, Sweden has taken an active part in UN activities such as peacekeeping operations. Our troops and air force were in Congo in the 1960s; we have had troops in the Middle East and on Cyprus. We still have a few observers in the Korean buffer zone. At the same time, the discussion about the United Nations is more intensive than ever, especially now that former Swedish foreign minister Jan Eliasson will start his work as Deputy Secretary-General in July. Eliasson was a minister in the last social democratic government, but he is respected among all political fractions. He is also extremely well connected in the world, having been ambassador to Washington and to the UN, where he has also chaired the General Assembly.
There are rightful demands in Sweden for reform of the United Nations. However, with a majority of non-democratic countries, reform is not easy. It will also be impossible to abolish the vetoing system in the Security Council as long as the veto countries can veto any such change. Reforming the Declaration of Human Rights is even more risky with the above-mentioned majority. For the time being, it is most likely that the United Nations with all its failings still continues to be the best possible organisation for international cooperation and peacekeeping.
To sum up, Sweden worked its way up to becoming a superpower in the 17th century; it lost most of its influence during the 19th century and the first half of 20th century; today, the country is on its way to a comeback in a new active role in the European Union and in the UN.
1 Baker I and Baker II, two versions of a United Nations initiative to grant self-determination to Western Sahara, officially called the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara. – Ed.