How Sweden’s NATO bid became a geopolitical bargaining chip

  • Themes: Geopolitics, NATO, Sweden

Sweden’s frustrating NATO accession experience should serve as a warning to other countries that any major international initiative risks becoming a lightning rod for other nations' grievances.

Close-up of the flags of Sweden and NATO.
Close-up of the flags of Sweden and NATO. Credit: designer491 / Alamy Stock Photo

Sweden’s NATO application was meant to be so straightforward. Few countries have ever been so suitable, militarily and politically, for membership in the alliance. Sweden also had impeccable timing, with Russia so bogged down in its war against Ukraine that it would be unlikely to carry out its long-signalled threats of ‘serious consequences’ if Sweden applied for NATO membership. The world, alas, was turning more combative. In the nearly two years since Sweden submitted its membership bid, it has become the depository of all manner of political grievances that bear little relation to Sweden. Get ready for more geopolitical hostage-taking.

‘This is a good day, at a critical moment for our security. Thank you so much for handing over the applications for Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO. Every nation has the right to choose its own path. You have both made your choice, after thorough democratic processes. And I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners. And your membership in NATO would increase our shared security,’ NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on 18 May 2022. He had just received Finland’s and Sweden’s membership applications, submitted by the two countries’ representatives to NATO, Klaus Korhonen and Axel Wernhoff, who, in honour of the historic day, sported shirts and ties in their respective country’s colours.

However, even though the two countries’ diplomats thought they had done their homework and secured all NATO members’ consent for their accession, Turkey balked, with Hungary as its wingman. In the summer of 2023, the two capitals let Finland through, but Turkey’s beef was never with Finland in the first place. It was with Sweden, specifically the fact that the country has long granted asylum to Kurds.

Following a June 2022 ‘Trilateral Memorandum’ between Sweden, Finland and Turkey on the issue, in July 2023 Sweden and Turkey agreed to continue implementing the memorandum’s obligations, which mostly meant that Sweden would aid Turkey’s fight against Kurdish terrorism. ‘Sweden will present a roadmap as the basis of its continued fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations towards the full implementation of all elements of the Trilateral Memorandum’, NATO HQ explained after the 10 July meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan and Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. In return, Erdoǧan promised Turkish ratification. A few attention-seekers resident in Sweden, alas, saw an opportunity for to get their 15 minutes of fame by insulting Erdoǧan and burning the Koran, which caused rather overblown outbreaks of anger not just in Ankara but in various other Muslim capitals – and condemnation by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Hungary, meanwhile, stepped out of the wingman shadow to declare that ratifying Sweden’s NATO accession was impossible so long as Swedish opposition politicians continued to criticise the state of democracy in Hungary.

The hurdles to Sweden’s accession were never really just about Kurdish terrorism. While the application was perfectly timed, it also arrived at a moment when the world was becoming a lot more contentious. It wasn’t just the invasion of Ukraine: it was also the intensifying standoff between China and the West, the respective sides’ jockeying for new friends and partners, and then of course the Israel-Gaza conflict. Erdoǧan, who re-established Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Israel in 2022, has reacted strongly to the heavy civilian casualties caused by Israel’s bombing of the enclave. Indeed, the conflict appears to have dramatically reversed recent improvements in Israeli-Turkish relations.

Inevitably, Sweden’s NATO bid is now being drawn into this completely unrelated matter. ‘We would like to remind anyone waiting for Sweden’s membership of their more pressing responsibilities regarding the conflict in Palestine’, Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, on whose parliamentary support Erdoǧan’s AKP party depends, said earlier this month. His party, Bahçeli added, would vote to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership if the alliance recognises an independent Palestinian state and Israel pays reparations.

Peace in the Middle East clearly has no connection to Sweden’s NATO membership, but such is today’s global acrimony that all manner of grievances are being thrown at Sweden’s NATO application. The bid has, in fact, become hostage of a global meltdown, and no matter what Sweden promises Turkey or Hungary, various global grumbles are likely to emerge, for which Sweden’s NATO bid can serve as a convenient lever.

Indeed, Sweden’s frustrating NATO accession experience should serve as a warning to other countries. Any major policy initiative presented by any nation today risks becoming a lightning rod for other countries’ grievances, regardless of whether those grievances have any links to the policy initiative. Against this background, it’s a miracle that COP28 ended with agreement on the need to phase out fossil fuels. Then again, dealing with climate change is in everyone’s interest. But what happens when a policy initiative concerns something slightly less ambitious? The post-Cold War days of diplomatic goodwill are fading fast, and unfortunately, so are the days of good diplomatic manners.


Elisabeth Braw