- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
The last two years have upended the international order. The Islamic State’s push into Iraq in 2014 blurred the Middle East’s borders, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine brought back realpolitik back to Europe’s doorstep, and a failed military coup in Turkey earlier this month triggered widespread purges — shaking the stability of a vital Western ally. And that’s not even mentioning Europe’s migration crisis and an unpredictable U.S. election this year that has left much of the world feeling uneasy.
For Sweden — a country of nearly 10 million people and self-described “humanitarian superpower” — the global shake-up has proven itself to be a test. The Scandinavian country has traditionally relied on a mix of diplomatic and economic power in its foreign policy — electing to use multilateral organizations like the United Nations and generous financial aid programs to achieve its goals around the world. But in a new era of hard power, Stockholm is aiming to blend its unique brand of Nordic idealism with coldhearted practicality, a duality expressed in Sweden through its role not only as one of Europe’s largest per capita donors of foreign aid, but also one of the continent’s largest per capita exporters of military hardware.
In interviews with Foreign Policy last week in Washington, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist focused on the levers of influence that a smaller country like Sweden has its disposal, and how to the country now must find a way to deter military might without abandoning its values.
They also pointed to a need to strengthen international law.
“For small nations to be respected, international law is crucial,” said Hultqvist. “We can’t see anything positive if big powers try to create their own laws and their own principles to imprint that on the international community.”
Since assuming the role of defense minister in October 2014, Hultqvist has faced a growing portfolio in hot spots around the world. As a member of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, Stockholm has sent military advisors to Iraqi Kurdistan and announced in July that it planned to double their number, from 35 to 70. But despite a series of challenges in the Middle East, the defense minister’s biggest test has been back home in Europe: responding to an increasingly assertive Russia.
Following the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, relations between Russia and Sweden have soured. Russian jets have repeatedly prodded Swedish airspace, and Swedish authorities launched a massive hunt for a foreign submarine in 2014, suspected to be Russian. Adding to the tensions, the Swedish Security Service described Russia in its annual report released in March as the country’s biggest security threat.
“We cannot accept the Russian perspective that they want to have a sphere of influence,” Hultqvist said. “We don’t accept the thought that big nations need a backyard. We don’t want to be in a backyard, we are a sovereign nation.”
Neither Sweden, nor its neighbor Finland, are currently members of NATO — a legacy of both countries’ histories of military neutrality and complex relations with the Kremlin. But Crimea has forced Stockholm to respond. Sweden joined Western sanctions against Russia and has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine following the outbreak of war. In February, the Swedish military returned to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea for the first time since the end of the Cold War as part of a billion-dollar increase in defense spending announced in 2015. In May, Stockholm inched closer to NATO, signing a host-nation support agreement that will allow the alliance to more easily operate in the country. Hultqvist, however, insists that the current government has no plans to join NATO, a sentiment echoed by his colleague Wallström, the foreign minister, citing low public support for joining the bloc in Sweden.
“There was a shift after Crimea and Ukraine, but now we are back,” said Wallström, referring to a 2015 poll that showed for the first time more Swedes in favor of membership than against it and a subsequent poll released in July showing a reversion back to a majority of Swedes against joining NATO. “Because what happens if Donald Trump wins? What happens with Turkey? It’s the second largest army in NATO. So, you know, that means something.”
Despite the realpolitik calculations of dealing with Russia, Wallström has championed a foreign policy seeped in idealism since assuming her role in the fall of 2014. As foreign minister, she has said that under her leadership Sweden will become the only country in the world to conduct a “feminist foreign policy,” a perspective that emphasizes the role that women must play in ensuring peace and security.
“I don’t think a feminist foreign policy is idealistic. It is the smartest policy you can have at the moment,” said Wallström. “Every peace agreement has a better chance to succeed if you involve women.”
By some measures, the doctrine has been a success for Sweden on the world stage, earning it both notoriety and accolades. In its annual scorecard, the European Council on Foreign Relations rated Sweden, along with the United Kingdom, as having the second largest influence on shaping European Union foreign policy in 2015, with only Germany listed as more influential. But Wallström has also encountered her share of detractors. In Sweden’s parliament, her critics in the opposition — and even some in her own diplomatic corps — have decried her feminist foreign policy as naive.
But her biggest row has been abroad. After criticizing the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, as well as the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, Wallström found herself in a diplomatic standoff with Riyadh that culminated in the country withdrawing its ambassador from Sweden and Stockholm canceling an arms deal with the kingdom. The outcome infuriated Swedish business leaders who feared trade losses, but the foreign minister remained unrepentant over the row.
On Turkey, Wallström has also found herself walking a fine line between values and needs. A deal struck between Brussels and Ankara in March to limit the flow of refugees into Europe has given the continent, especially Sweden, which accepted 160,000 asylum-seekers in 2015, some much needed relief. However, a worsening atmosphere for human rights in Turkey — which has only deteriorated further following the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — has also meant dealing with an increasingly authoritarian government in Ankara. Like other Western nations, Sweden voiced support for Erdogan following the failed coup, but Wallström remains critical of developments inside the country and warns that if some proposed measures are adopted, such as reinstating the death penalty, Turkey will be barred from one day joining the EU.
“I don’t think anyone feels happy about this. We have seen the developments in Turkey going in the wrong direction with a more polarized and repressive regime under Erdogan,” said Wallström. “But one has to see that Turkey has taken on a huge responsibility in hosting refugees and that they are doing their best to help and get them established.”
In the face of these crises, both Wallström and Hultqvist remain resolute that Sweden is on firm footing and that they are pursuing the best decisions for the country’s interests without abandoning its values.
“[Russia] isn’t going away. Same with Turkey. We cannot move them,” said Wallström. “There is no military solution to all these things, we have to continue to insist on diplomacy to solve concrete problems.”
Photo credit: SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images