Sweden has for many years held a reputation for having a neutral, moralistic and pacifist foreign policy that sets it apart from most other developed countries. It is believed that Swedish non-alignment existed as a “third-way” during the Cold War and currently acts as an alternative view to realist power play politics. Yet, when one compares Swedish foreign policy to that of Britain, we can see that it is not as unique as one may initially perceive. Both countries share a foreign policy that has punched ambitiously above its weight and despite claims to neutrality is very much western centric with NATO as a key actor. Furthermore, both countries have had distant and aloof relationships with mainland Europe over the European integration project and its intended ideals. Thus, one can instead view Swedish foreign policy as being more realpolitik than idealistic, and more ordinary than unique.
Historically, particularly between the 1960s and late 1980s, Sweden pursued an ‘exceptionally activist foreign policy, which reached widely around the globe’ (Dahl, 2006: 895). Publically, Sweden proclaimed universalist policies based upon international law and small state solidarity such as by providing support to periphery third world countries like Nicaragua and Palestine, which were often ignored or considered a threat by other western states. This was possible within a bipolar system that was dominated by the twin opposing forces of the United States and the Soviet Union. Sweden could proclaim a “third-way” that gave it some sort of status as a “moral superpower” amongst a system of self-interested states dominated by realist thinking. Swedes, in fact, considered it to be an obligation ‘to interfere from its unattached perspective in order to moderate between extremes and present an attractive and viable alternative’ (Nilsson, 1988: 26). Such an activist foreign policy has been replicated by Britain, although in a different way. Britain may not be a small Nordic state and it may have, in comparison, large political, economic and social clout but it still has ‘tried to punch above its weight for the past half-century’ (Wallace, 2005: 53). Since the disastrous First World War, Britain has struggled to come to terms with its diminished global political position, which has ultimately led to an attempt to act as a pivot between the United States and Europe. Trying to create this difficult balancing act has led to British officials conducting and creating a multitude of various meetings, summits, UN resolutions and multilateral compromises. In fact, it has been documented that in the two months after 11th September 2001, Prime Minister Blair covered more than 40,000 miles in over 50 meetings with foreign officials (Riddell, 2004). Such a claim to international leadership was, in reality, ‘well beyond what Britain’s limited military and economic resources alone would support’ (Wallace, 2005: 55). Thus, Sweden is not alone in attempting to exert itself onto the international scene perhaps more than its real status suggests. They may have done so using different means but ultimately both countries had, and arguably still have particularly in the case of Britain, highly ambitious foreign policies.
The two countries have had significantly differing relations with the United States over the past half century, at least on the surface. Perhaps in part caused by the consequences of World War Two, Britain has found itself seeking to be a deputy to the United States. For a long time it was dependent, like many other war ravaged European countries, upon American development aid as well as security from the Iron Curtain. This combined with attempts to be a pivot between Europe and North America and the desire of Blair to strengthen the “special relationship” has led to successive British Prime Ministers partnering with the United States on various issues. Notable examples include the two wars in Iraq, close relations within NATO, the implementation of increasingly similar neo-liberal economic models, and general policy support within the UN. This clear alignment puts the Swedish positon into a stark position. Particularly under the leadership of Olof Palme, Sweden frequently espoused anti-American rhetoric such as by comparing American action in Vietnam with that of the Nazis. In fact, a significant amount of Swedish rhetoric during the bipolar era was targeted at the United States, not at the Soviet Union. Yet, if one analyses this a bit more deeply you can see that there are realpolitik issues relating to this. Such proximity to the USSR would inevitably mean that Sweden would not abuse its third-way position to the extent of excessively irritating the Soviets. This is confirmed by the fact that for many years Sweden actually ‘entered into a complex set of contacts and cooperation with the Scandinavian NATO allies, Denmark and Norway, the UK, and US’, which could provide military assistance in the event of war. This included ‘at one point handing over the entire Swedish military planning to the UK’ (Dahl, 2006: 901). Thus, Sweden’s anti-American rhetoric and third-way proclaimants can perhaps be seen as a more public for show affair, whilst in reality Sweden was as much dictated by realist self-interested politics as any other state.
Sweden and Britain also have a similar position when it comes to the European Union. Both states seem to have a difficult and complicated relationship, with the latter in particular seemingly wandering in no-man’s land. The role of the European Union occupies a somewhat comically tiny piece of space within the Swedish constitution. Essentially, the Swedish judicial system, unlike in Britain, has one system for administrative affairs and another one for criminal or civil affairs. Furthermore, there is no clear division between the executive and the judiciary with both being referred to as “the public authority” within the constitution (Larsson and Bäck, 2008). EU membership has brought Sweden further away from its, at least publically proclaimed, non-aligned position as increased contact and cooperation has been unavoidable. As a result, there has been confusion when implementing European legislation, with Sweden receiving criticism for its reluctant attitude to European law predominance. A case in point is the 2007 Laval case in which the European Court of Justice ordered that a Latvian construction firm be allowed to hire Latvian workers for cheaper wages during a construction project in Stockholm. The UK has had an equally tumultuous relationship with the EU. In fact, to somewhat show the similarities, sympathy strikes sprung out across British factory plants in support of Swedish workers following the Laval ruling. Moreover, Britain’s attempts to act as a pivot between Europe and the US has led to it showing an ambivalence towards Europe based upon a sort of arrogant nonchalance that the continent needs it more than it needs the continent. This has led to a position in which a failure to extrapolate the intended amount of influence over the US has been compounded by mistrust and awkward relationships with European countries. The French, for example, believe that the UK has attempted to capture the EU and render the initial European project goals dead (Wallace, 2005). As a result, in contrast to its attempts to be a global policeman, within Europe Britain ‘often punches well below its weight, for lack of sustained engagement at the highest level’ (Wallace, 2005: 62). Such apathy towards Europe has left both Sweden and Britain in a position where Euroscepticism is increasing fast. European failings such as a lack of shared direction, conflicts amongst new and old members, and conflicts between domestic and European judicial systems have led to governments making no attempt to counter the rise of the largely Eurosceptic public and media. This has led to the significant rise of right-wing anti European and anti-immigration parties in both Sweden and Britain, the Sweden Democrats and UKIP respectively.
In conclusion, one can see that Swedish foreign policy is in actual fact not particularly unique. It’s reputation as being a third-way strategy of neutrality and moralism amongst a bipolar realpolitik political system was more public showmanship than real substance. When push came to shove, Sweden was still very much aligned with the western states even if its rhetoric was more idealistic. Swedish military involvement in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan is perhaps the starkest indicator of this. In regards to its moralistic public foreign policy, Sweden was very much punching above its weight much like the UK has been doing as it has bid to build a special relationship with the United States. If one takes Sweden’s claim to be a “moral superpower” seriously then we would see differences between it and the UK in its relations with the US, yet the secret realpolitik negotiations show that in reality Sweden’s damning of American actions was not as serious as initially assumed, although it is something that Britain would never conceive of doing. Sweden’s relationship with Europe is also very similar to Britain’s with confusion and apathy leading to both countries being rather aloof from the European project. Thus, we see more similarities than differences between Sweden and Britain, and a more realist than idealist Swedish foreign policy.
Dahl, A.S. (2006) Sweden: Once a Moral Superpower, Always a Moral Superpower?. International Journal. 61 (4). P.p. 895-908.
Larsson, T., and Bäck, H. (2008) Governing and Governance in Sweden. Lund: Studentlitteratur.
Nilsson, A.S. (1988) Swedish Foreign Policy in the Post-Palme Era. World Affairs. 151 (1). P.p. 25-33.
Riddell, P. (2004) Hug them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush and the “Special Relationship”. London: Politico’s.
Wallace, W. (2005) The Collapse of British Foreign Policy. International Affairs. 81 (1). P.p. 53-68.