The question is not properly clarified, despite claims to the contrary
This is a cultural article which is part of Then24’s opinion journalism.
The political processs that led to a Swedish NATO application has highlighted problems in the security policy analysis and debate. Swedish NATO advocates have argued that “reality” and “the world” have changed, and sometimes that the reality that justifies Swedish NATO membership has been there “all the time”.
Claims of an undistorted access to reality and the world, and absolute knowledge of security, are, however, rather to be regarded as rhetorical tricks with the aim of establishing a certain interpretation – and at the same time concealing that it is an interpretation.
Three key security policy concepts are security, threats and power, but these are seldom defined in analysis and debate, nor are they recognized as ambiguous and controversial. This may seem like an overly academic remark, but enforcing politics on a loose conceptual basis is an example of the exercise of power that can have major consequences.
The first concept – security – is central. After all the talk about safety, it is not clear what exactly the phenomenon really consists of or even what is to be secured. The ministry report that was the basis for Sweden’s NATO-the application repeats almost twenty times that Sweden is in a “new”, “changed” and “deteriorated” “security policy situation”. By repeating the same phrase over and over again, the report tries to establish the phenomenon without having to clarify exactly what it consists of. It goes beyond this mantra only in one respect: by claiming that continued freedom of alliance makes Sweden more vulnerable, as Russia has previously attacked non-aligned countries but never NATO members.
Nor is Sweden singled out as the only object of protection. After the end of the Cold War, individuals in other countries and the “international” are often regarded as worthy of protection alongside their own territory and population. In the ministry report, there are similar shifts between Swedish, European and international security, but without a discussion of possible goal conflicts. A Swedish NATO membership does not have to benefit security in all these contexts at all, let alone in the same way.
Have the threat against Sweden increased, according to the definition of threat as military capability plus aggressive intention?
Furthermore, many have confused the need for physical security with identity security. Advocates of NATO have understood Swedish freedom of alliance as an expression of an outdated identity, but identity aspects are at least as important in their own arguments – especially the desire to belong to the “West”. Although it is undoubtedly about an identity, “west” is referred to as a concretely delimited geographical area or an unambiguous set of values.
The second concept is threats. Have the threat against Sweden increased, according to the definition of threat as military capability plus aggressive intention? The Russian military has certainly behaved more brutally in its attempts to subjugate Ukraine than many thought was possible, but Russia’s military capability also looks far weaker than previously thought. Exactly what this means for Sweden, which compared to Ukraine has a different geographical location and a more subordinate role in Russian identity constructions, is not discussed in the ministry report or in the public debate.
In speeches and writings during the run-up to the war mediated Putin a desire to control Ukraine, or at least to exclude the “West” from such control. The example shows that “threats” are not always established as defined above, because then Putin would hardly have been able to argue that Ukraine threatened Russia. One conclusion is that the Putin regime also seems to value identity security, and interestingly enough according to the same simplified logic as the NATO proponents: Russia against the “West”.
After the end of the Cold War, a theory was developed that focused on the fact that politicians and debaters “speak out” threats in this way. When a threat picture is generally accepted, it is usually said that an issue or actor has been “secured” and as the next step, extraordinary measures are usually taken. As the Russian public debate is not free, it is difficult to assess how successful Putin’s security of Ukraine and the “West” really has been, but the perspective is in any case clearly useful.
The mantra of a deteriorating security policy situation is a textbook example of security in a Swedish context. The way in which the decision on a Swedish NATO application was made – without a referendum or intermediate elections – can further be seen as an extraordinary measure.
The analysis of security however, generally risks becoming too inward-looking. Russia has undoubtedly been secured in many countries around the world in recent years. However, the country’s attack on Ukraine shows that the analysis can not stop there. Sharper methods are needed to distinguish the security of threats that risk being realized from those who do not. In addition to capacity and intentions, the social dynamics of international politics must be taken into account, in accordance with security theory. The question is how countries’ threats, identity constructions and actions to protect themselves interact with the emergence of real threats.
In addition, there is a measure of wishful thinking, especially among NATO advocates, of an international policy based on common values and free from power.
The third concept – power – is surprisingly often forgotten in today’s debate, apart from the correct statement that Russia is exercising illegitimate force against Ukraine. In addition, there is a measure of wishful thinking, especially among NATO advocates, of an international policy based on common values and free from power. However, Turkey’s demands on Sweden also reveal NATO as an alliance based on common ground interestswith the exercise of internal power as a highly tangible reality to determine which interests are to be valued.
However, power in international politics is not only based on military capacity, but the ability to successfully define concepts, spread narratives about reality / the world and establish identities is central. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in violation of international law is just one of many cases that illustrate how such narratives can enable the use of force through the construction of a violated or embittered identity.
The NATO issue is not properly lit, despite claims to the contrary. It is unfortunate that Sweden has applied for NATO membership on the basis of an analysis and debate that has surprisingly often overlooked how complex and controversial central security policy concepts are. The search for such knowledge is also not free from aspects of power, but all other things being equal, the security policy debate and the analysis should take conceptual analysis more seriously.
Linus Hagström is a professor of political science at the Swedish National Defense College.