How will Sweden relate to NATO’s nuclear weapons policy?


On Wednesday May 18, 2022 Sweden and Finland handed over their letters expressing the countries’ interest in joining NATO. This is historic since it marks the end of Sweden’s 200-year and Finland’s 77-year long history of neutrality and peace. 

In Sweden, the decision on joining NATO was made hurriedly, leaving the Social Democrats (the government) little time to think it through carefully. Several outstanding questions remain unanswered: How will Sweden relate to NATO’s nuclear policy? Will there be nuclear weapons on Swedish territory? Can Sweden work for disarmament as a member of the alliance? While it is theoretically and legally possible, it will require tough political negotiation for Sweden to remain completely outside NATO’s nuclear doctrines. The most important step for Sweden to take now is to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

(This is a guest post by ICAN Partner Organisation Svenska Läkare mot Kärnvapen - SLMK)

The debate

Whatever you think about NATO, it is clear that the debate about Swedish NATO membership has been one sided. Few opponents have been heard in the media, and when they have spoken they have received hate mail, phone calls, twitter comments and other harassment.

So, it might be misleading to call it a debate; it is rather a question about when Sweden will join NATO. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, loud voices in both parliament and the media have argued that Sweden must join NATO and that is the only solution to Sweden’s security. They claimed that if Finland joins NATO, we must too. But at least until the end of March, the Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson (Social Democrat) kept saying that Sweden’s neutrality has served us well.

Fast forward to April 11: The Social Democrats announced that they would start a “security policy dialogue” within the party with the purpose of updating their security policy analysis, since Sweden’s security policy had fundamentally changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (it was only last November that the Social Democrats decided that they would not support NATO membership).

But according to many Social Democrats, this so-called dialogue was a monologue that took only about a month. They felt steamrolled by the party board; some called it a show trial and a betrayal because the party board had already decided that the Social Democrats should be in favor of NATO membership. We can’t say what is true or not, we can only reflect and comment on the time frame and how the party could change its position so quickly on such an important question.


The decision

Around two months after Russia’s invention of Ukraine, the Social Democrats officially changed their minds and on May 16, Sweden decided to join NATO.

But what about the fact that NATO is a nuclear alliance? Magdalena Andersson said at a press conference that Sweden will make a unilateral reservation against the deployment of nuclear weapons, that Sweden can still be a voice for and work for disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and that Sweden will be a strong and constructive voice in the global struggle for a world order based on international law. With that said, Sweden will keep working with the Stockholm Initiative and will not sign the TPNW.

The left and the green party say that it will be harder for Sweden to work for nuclear disarmament, and that Sweden should join the TPNW and establish a law against nuclear weapons on Swedish territory. But the conservative and liberal parties dismiss the idea of such a law and say that it will only affect the US, UK and France. The Christian party says that such a law is unnecessary, and the Social Democrats are also against it.


Civil society

Civil society in Sweden (and also the Swedish public) have been left out of the decision making. ICAN partner the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society has often been the only critical voice in debates, and the debate climate has been tough. But without that critical voice, nuclear weapons would have been totally left out of the discussion.

But there is no time to lose and we have an interesting time ahead, dealing with what Sweden will demand in the negotiations with NATO and how Sweden will act from now on in the international arena. We in civil society in Sweden maintain that the most important and crucial thing that Sweden can and should do is to immediately join the TPNW to make sure that Sweden stands outside of NATO’s nuclear weapons activities.

It is also important that Sweden enacts a new law prohibiting nuclear weapons on its territory, reserves the right not to endorse NATO's statements criticizing the TPNW, and makes clear that Sweden will never be involved in planning, preparing or practicing to use nuclear weapons.

As a NATO member, Sweden must persuade the alliance not to threaten to use nuclear weapons (even as a first-strike capability) and to end its dependence on nuclear weapons and work for their total elimination. No NATO member has done this before; it will require political negotiations, diplomatic skills and a strong political will from our elected representatives. But that is the only acceptable way for Sweden to proceed. Sweden's decades-long work for disarmament must not be thrown overboard as we join NATO.


Picture credits: NATO via Flickr