Sweden brings benefits for NATO but accession delay raises difficult questions

Sweden’s membership will strengthen NATO, but the delays associated with its accession has revealed several concerns about the credibility and future of the alliance.

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Sweden’s membership of NATO cements a relationship that has gradually grown stronger since the end of the Cold War. While Sweden’s NATO membership has taken a little longer to be approved than that of its neighbour Finland, its suitability for membership has never been an issue for most members of the alliance. 

As Hungary finally approves Sweden’s NATO membership, the Scandinavian country brings five key benefits for the alliance.

First, the political symbolism of two staunchly neutral states – Sweden and Finland – joining NATO should send an important message to countries who are still undecided about Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Both have a long experience of managing their relationship with Russia while remaining fiercely independent. Abandoning neutrality and joining NATO because of Russia’s actions is a major change in their respective foreign policies and Swedish accession means the Kremlin and its allies cannot claim that the Finnish decision was an isolated incident.

Second, as the NATO military command seeks to develop defence plans for NATO’s eastern members aimed at deterring and, if necessary, defending these countries from Russian action, Sweden brings with it a considerable amount of experience and understanding of how to counter the Russian desire to have complete control over its neighbours. 

Third, unlike many countries who have joined NATO since the end of the Cold War, Sweden has maintained highly capable military forces with a good deal of cutting-edge technology, including fourth generation Gripen fighter aircraft equipped with Meteor air-to-air missiles, Leopard 2 main battle tanks and Gotland-class attack submarines powered by an air-independent propulsion system. 

Sweden’s geographical position makes it an essential part of any NATO defence plans.

Fourth, Sweden’s geographical position makes it an essential part of any NATO defence plans. Its location means it can serve as a land transit route to reinforce both Norway and Finland, while also allowing NATO to largely take control of the Baltic Sea in any potential conflict with Russia. This provides an alternative sea reinforcement option to the Baltic states other than the vulnerable land border between Poland and Lithuania which is within artillery range of the Russian-held Kaliningrad area and Belarus. 

Fifth, with the other NATO members looking to rearm to deter any further Russian aggression, Sweden’s extensive and highly capable defence industrial base will be a major asset for NATO. Russia’s war with Ukraine is providing a reminder of the scale of munition and spares usage in any major state vs state war. 

But the delays associated with Sweden’s road towards NATO membership also highlights five areas of concern. 

First, Turkey’s opposition and, to a degree, Hungary’s procrastination on the issue of Sweden’s membership highlights at least one fissure within the NATO alliance: not all NATO members view Russia as the principal security threat. In both cases, Sweden’s membership has become embroiled in wider domestic issues and is a reminder that for some members the threat posed by Russia is either not the main priority or an opportunity to negotiate concessions in other areas from NATO members.

The drawn-out accession process is a reminder that as an organization NATO requires unanimity to pass major decisions.

Second, the drawn-out accession process is a reminder that as an organization NATO requires unanimity to pass major decisions. This is both a strength and a weakness. Crucially, it would suggest that the Article 5 guarantee – which enshrines collective defence – may not be as strong as many have previously claimed, especially if we are to see a second Trump presidency. 

Third, the perennial tension between the EU and Turkey means that the Berlin Plus arrangement, whereby the EU can access NATO military assets and infrastructure, is in fact dead as Turkey would almost certainly veto any such proposal.

Fourth, Turkish concerns over Kurds living in Sweden and the anger across parts of the Islamic world over Quran burnings in Sweden highlight the potential impact of minority interest groups on the wider alliance. It is a reminder that while NATO is an alliance of states, their individual foreign and defence policies can be significantly influenced by the actions of small groups that do not necessarily reflect the views of the wider population. The response of Turkey to actions within Sweden can only embolden such groups by highlighting the potential impact they can have.

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Fifth and final, the rapid offer of NATO membership to both Sweden and Finland is in stark contrast to the foot-dragging over the potential membership of Ukraine and Georgia. For Georgia, in particular, this suggests that they are vulnerable to further Russian interference in their internal affairs. How NATO might prevent this short of offering membership is unclear and any support for Georgia remains dependent on its neighbour Turkey’s willingness to grant access to the rest of the alliance.

While Sweden’s membership of NATO will strengthen the alliance, the delays associated with its application and the ratification process highlight several real concerns about NATO’s credibility. In the short term, the alliance will want to complete the work on preparing for the defence of its eastern members. In the longer term, the key question that needs to be settled is that of a more global role for NATO: is it merely the security guarantor of Europe or the bedrock for the wider defence of the West and the liberal international order?