As Sweden gets ready for NATO, will its approach to nuclear weapons change?

By Jens Petersson | July 27, 2022

Sweden's Supreme Commander Micael Bydén commented on the decision to apply for Swedish NATO membership at a May press conference. Photo credit: Henrik Lundqvist Rådmark/Swedish Armed ForcesSweden's Supreme Commander Micael Bydén commented on the decision to apply for Swedish NATO membership at a May press conference. Photo credit: Henrik Lundqvist Rådmark/Swedish Armed Forces

With Sweden and Finland on a fast track to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the consequences for Sweden’s traditional stance on disarmament issues are now becoming more obvious. Many voices asked for a debate on these issues before Sweden applied for membership, but it is not until now that signs of such public discussion have been broadly seen. Sweden’s new alignment raises several questions also on the international level.

In a letter of intent dated July 5, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde wrote to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that “Sweden accepts NATO’s approach to security and defense, including the essential role of nuclear weapons, intends to participate fully in NATO’s military structure and collective defence planning processes and is willing to commit forces and capabilities for the full range of Alliance missions.”

For a country that, in the mid-1990s, told the International Court of Justice that “use of nuclear arms would not be in accordance with international law,” this shift of view on nuclear weapons is large. In his personal capacity, senior analyst Robert Dalsjö at Sweden’s Defence Research Agency summarized the shift in a tweet reading: “Now we take the step from the nursery to the adult world.”

Swedish disarmament proponents have harshly criticized this new step. The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the Swedish Physicians against Nuclear Weapons, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, headed by Swedish-born Beatrice Fihn, made a joint statement on July 12, when the Swedish letter of intent was made public by Swedish Television (SVT). “Sweden is … willing to offer capacity to the ‘full range of the alliance missions.’ This includes use of nuclear weapons, which would be a violation of international law,” the three organizations wrote and then continued: “In addition, Sweden is opening up to accept and receive nuclear weapons on Swedish territory. We cannot interpret it in any other way.”

There is an alternate interpretation of the letter of intent, however: Sweden is still likely to adopt policies similar to those of Norway and Denmark, which feature declarations on not allowing the stationing of nuclear weapons on the countries’ territories (at least not in times of peace). Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson made such a promise in parliament on May 16, echoing a decision by the Social Democratic Party the day before.

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“Regarding how we shoulder the membership when our application has been ratified, the government believes that Sweden should act as Norway and Denmark,” Andersson said. “We think that Sweden should clearly declare that we do not want nuclear weapons or permanent bases on Swedish territory. It is an attitude from Norway and Denmark that has always been respected, and the corresponding Swedish line is natural.” It is worth noting that opposition leader Ulf Kristersson pledged his support to this position in the same debate. Sweden is holding general elections in September of this year.

Following the Norwegian and Danish examples does not exclude future Swedish cooperation and participation in NATO exercises that have a nuclear component, such as supporting nuclear operations with conventional means, for instance by use of Swedish fighter aircraft to escort US nuclear bombers.

For a country with an international profile that includes strong support of nuclear disarmament, even these more limited steps must of course be viewed as major.

For the Swedish Armed Forces, the scope of the shift may, however, be both huge and small at the same time. In its response to the inquiry into the consequences of a Swedish accession to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2019, the defense forces wrote that “when nuclear-weapon states are involved in multinational operations and defense exercises, there is always an implicit nuclear dimension.” Although this prompted the Swedish defense minister to publicly state that no part of Sweden’s cooperation with NATO involves nuclear weapons, the response wasn’t retracted.

Next week, the review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is to start. Sweden has invested a lot of energy in the so called “Stockholm initiative”—a 2019 proposal by 16 non-nuclear weapons countries for “an ambitious, yet realistic agenda for nuclear disarmament“—prior to the conference. Some wonder if Sweden’s application to join NATO will influence how Sweden pushes this initiative and other disarmament issues at the conference.

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The Stockholm initiative already includes countries that are NATO members, and many observers say that it is not heavy on concrete or radical disarmament proposals. The purpose of the initiative was from the beginning to find smaller steps to take that would lay a foundation for future disarmament efforts. It would be hard to find reasons for Sweden not to fulfill this strategy in the current situation. But one might assume that Sweden will adjust its rhetoric, in order not to provoke her new-old alliance friends.

After eventually becoming a NATO member, Sweden will likely continue viewing nuclear disarmament as something desirable. From time to time, Sweden will join hands with other moderate NATO members on arms control and disarmament issues. In general Sweden is, however, known to be loyal to organizations it joins, and for this reason Sweden will be less likely to initiate more independent initiatives in the future, in my view.

Following Swedish public television’s disclosure of the letter of intent sent to NATO, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to SVT via email.

“As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance,” the ministry wrote, echoing well known NATO language, and continued: “NATO members are covered by the organization’s nuclear doctrine, where nuclear weapons are the last and ultimate part of the Alliance’s deterrence capability. … NATO is a defense alliance. A membership in NATO does not mean that Sweden must place nuclear weapons on its territory.”

“As a NATO member, Sweden will contribute to security and to the collective defense of all member states. Decisions on how and where Sweden would contribute in the event of a crisis will continue to be made by Sweden. … What Swedish contributions would look like will be discussed at a later stage,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

Time will tell if those discussions will be fully transparent, inclusive, and timely.

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