The Problems of Mortgaging Détente – The Case of Sweden

IIEA21st January 20206min
The tremendous changes in the European security landscape in the early 1990s led to fundamental changes in Swedish security policy, both in stated doctrine and in practice.

Author: Niklas Grahholm

The past three decades

The tremendous changes in the European security landscape in the early 1990s led to fundamental changes in Swedish security policy, both in stated doctrine and in practice. From an official Cold-War declaratory policy of “non-alignment in peacetime, with the aim to neutrality in wartime”, the policy gradually changed to the “military non-alignment” of today.

In parallel, this provided for substantial contributions designed to stabilise Europe towards a new equilibrium. EU membership in 1994 was made possible, as was cooperation with NATO through the Partnership for Peace in the same year. The 1990s were in many ways a slow farewell to the declared neutrality policy of the Cold War, while perceptions of neutrality lingered on for many years.

Two seminal developments during the 1990s influenced trends in defence and security policy. Firstly, the Balkan Wars during the first half of the decade where Sweden took part in a great power coalition under warlike conditions on the European continent. The last time we undertook something similar was against Napoleon in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. The Balkan wars were a steep learning curve on the tactical, operational and strategic level. Starting within the UN-led framework of UNPROFOR, cooperation with NATO followed with participation in IFOR and KFOR.

Secondly, support for the three Baltic States, which had regained their independence in the early 1990s, was another substantial focus. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the border of Western Europe moved 400 kilometres to the east and helped stabilise the Baltic Sea region and led to a trajectory where civil rights, personal freedom, normal economic development and the rule of law was gradually established. Baltic EU and NATO-membership followed.

The first Gulf War in 1990-91 also appeared to show that a New World Order, with the UN at the centre, had emerged. The liberal world order was further supported by increased trade. Peace would follow from globalisation.

As a result of these optimistic trends in the early 1990s, Swedish defence spending could be cut.  Gradually, the spending decreased from about 2.5% of GDP in the late 1980s to just above 1% of GDP today. The Cold War tasks of defence of the realm in an existential and apocalyptical WWIII-type scenario, shifted to a near-exclusive focus on peace-support operations and the stabilisation of conflict-prone regions far away from home. The substantial civil defence organisation was disbanded. Military capabilities shrank substantially. Between 80-90% of all units in the wartime organisation were disbanded, along with conscription in favour of a small full-time professional armed force.

All this seemed to work well during the 1990s and well in to the first decade of the new millennium. Gradually, the security climate worsened and it was realised that Russia would no longer play along with the updated European security order or the agreements it had signed in the 1990s.

Russia was returning to old patterns: the disdain for American dominance, the aim for a cordon sanitaire and a version of 19th century spheres of interest, where smaller neighbours would exist at the mercy of Moscow, if they could retain their independence at all.

The attack on Georgia in 2008 followed. This was noticed in the West, but most pressed the snooze button, failed to draw the right conclusions and went back to sleep. The Russo-Georgian war was in many ways “…a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”, to quote Neville Chamberlain.

These trends continued and in 2014 a rude awakening followed with the Russian invasion, occupation and subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea. The war in eastern Ukraine, led and supported by Russia, continues to this day.

 

Towards a new stance on defence and security

For Sweden, the war in Ukraine led to a new stance on defence and security with a clear shift in emphasis towards territorial defence. International crisis management operations were no longer the primary focus in the Defence Bill of 2015.

Unfortunately, the defence bill was underfunded, and difficult political negotiations led to supplementary budgets to help fill the gaps that frequently appeared. As a result, the scaling up of defence capabilities could not be fully met within the five-year period. Valuable time was lost.

The current defence planning process will lead to a new defence bill this year, covering 2021 to 2026. All indications are that spending will increase substantially and several organisational reforms will be included.

 

Defence cooperation: Grapple-hook policies

In parallel, an effort at deeper and more cohesive defence cooperation began. The realization that the combination of military-technological developments –longer range and higher precision – and the renewed threat from Russia, meant that the Nordic-Baltic region was now one strategic space.

Today, Swedish-Finnish defence and security cooperation, complemented by a trilateral US-Finnish-Swedish arrangement, has developed substantially and there is even talk of a Swedish-Finnish formal alliance. In addition, Norwegian-Swedish-Finnish cooperation is also underway, as well as a closer defence dialogue with Denmark, Germany and Poland. The cooperation with the Baltic States forms another part of the pattern.  The Nordics have also breathed new life in to NORDEFCO, where defence cooperation and equipment acquisitions are discussed. On top of all this the Northern group of nations discusses hard security issues and the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and have a membership beyond the nations of the Nordic region.

Relations with NATO are further enhanced, and Sweden entered into the Enhanced Opportunities Partnership (EOP) a few years ago. Full membership in NATO is currently, however, not on the agenda. Taken together, these cooperative efforts can be described as a “grapple-hook defence policy”, aimed at anchoring Sweden firmly in preparation for possibly worse times to come.

 

 So what of future trends? Time for Plan B and C, and D and…?

The current strategic situation seems only to worsen. The 1945 order, modified in the early 1990s, looks distinctly shaky. Geopolitical tensions due to the large-scale relative shifts in power on the grand strategic level, leads to a lower degree of predictability in the international system with clear impacts on the Nordic-Baltic region and elsewhere.

As a result, the international long-term order and the multilateral system is under threat. While multilateral arrangements help promote and strengthen a rules-based world order with long-term norm building as a central component, the hopes for further developing these in the current international climate seems to be dimming. The focus will probably shift towards ensuring the survival of these institutional arrangements over the longer term.

 

Four conclusions

Smaller nations need to adapt to this lower degree of predictability in the international system. How do we ensure that we quickly and clearly observe and react to such events?

First, sudden events will have to be managed in direct cooperation with others and not necessarily exclusively through well-established multilateral organisations.

The recent shooting down of a Ukraine International Airlines flight near Tehran is one example of what could become part of a pattern for a less predictable situation. Issue-focused and temporary arrangements to manage security challenges will probably become more common.

Second, in defence acquisition, we are getting closer to a point where the usual routines for sometimes very long development periods will have to be shortened and simplified. A stronger defence capability and an increased number of units is needed urgently.

Third, the grand strategic system which many assume will remain a constant factor cannot be taken for granted. It may suffer further shocks which could have serious follow-on effects for Europe. For example, what if the transatlantic link – central to Euroatlantic security – would be seriously and suddenly weakened? This is just one of several possible events that would negatively impact the security climate in our part of the world. It is our task as security analysts to ponder such possibilities. What would then be our plan B?

Lastly, the main conclusion I draw from the Swedish experience of the past three decades is that in international security, an overly optimistic view of long-term trends can lead to increased risks. The priority must be to avoid creating a security deficit. The smaller a nation is, the higher the risks of mortgaging détente in advance.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not the IIEA.