The defense agreement was confirmed in 2005 by a Social Democrat government, and was controversial even then in the Swedish public debate. In September 2014, after eight years in opposition, the Social Democrats returned to power. The party was soon under pressure to take advantage of a clause that made it possible to cancel the agreement before May 15, 2015.
Saudi Arabia’s government reacted strongly. It temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Sweden, for example, and shunned Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström. Wallström, who says she wants to promote a feminist foreign policy, had criticized Saudi Arabia for violating human rights and described the country’s penal system as “medieval.” As a result of these comments and the public debate in Sweden about canceling the defense agreement, Wallström was removed from the list of speakers at the Arab League meeting in Cairo in March, where she had previously been invited to be a guest of honor.
As a professor of political science, I have commented on politics for 20 years, and I have never been contacted by international media as much as I have at this time. How can it be, journalists ask, that Sweden – one of the largest arms exporters in the world – chose to cancel a military cooperation agreement on moral grounds? Won’t Sweden lose valuable export markets in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East? Does the new Swedish government – which is a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens – want to profile Sweden in the international arena as a moral superpower?
Sweden suspended its military cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia for more than just moral reasons. The country has a long historical tradition of upholding moral values in its foreign policy, and that tradition rests on both idealistic and realistic grounds.
During Olof Palme’s years as prime minister in the 1970s, Sweden was one of the strongest critics of the U.S. war in Vietnam, to the point that for two years (1972–74), the United States refused to accept a Swedish ambassador in Washington. Sweden also criticized (perhaps more than any other European state) the Soviet Union for its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was also a leader in the efforts to bring about political and economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Such positions have not just been expressions of moral considerations. They have also favored Sweden’s security interests. During the Cold War, for instance, Sweden was a militarily non-aligned state with an ambition to remain neutral if war came to Europe, even though it was highly integrated – both politically and economically – in the West. By maintaining an independent foreign policy, Sweden tried to show that despite its dependence on the West, it was not automatically allied with the West on important international issues.
In the same way, Sweden’s cancellation of the military cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia is an expression of both moral considerations and power politics. By conducting a foreign policy that does not automatically follow the other EU states, Sweden shows independence and an integrity that can strengthen its position on the international stage.
By moving from words to action, Sweden shows it takes morality seriously, even when it has negative consequences for Swedish exports. An independent foreign policy also gives a boost to Sweden’s ongoing campaign to be elected to the UN Security Council for 2017–18.
Moral considerations and power politics are not necessarily opposites. Sweden’s new, independent foreign policy proves that sometimes, they can actually walk hand in hand.
Ulf Bjereld is a professor of political science at University of Gothenburg in Sweden. He was also a member of the Steering Committee of the ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research) Standing Group on International Relations (SGIR) from 2001-2006 and the Chair of the Swedish Political Science Association (SWEPSA) from 1999-2001.