Lost Futures: Sweden Joins NATO, and the Left Loses a Western Alternative

By Noah Schwartz

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with the Prime Minister of Sweden, Magdalena Andersson
Image: Flickr/NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Following the Senate’s overwhelming confirmation of Sweden’s and Finland’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership bids, much has been written regarding the strategic promise of both countries. Finland and Sweden give the alliance a crucial foothold in the Baltics and the Arctic. However, commentators have not discussed the political-economic ramifications of the Swedish social democratic model joining NATO.

NATO is often viewed as purely a security alliance, but there is a crucial economic component to the alliance. To become a NATO member, a state must be “progressing toward a market economy.” Enforcement of this requirement is so extreme that NATO waged a dirty war in Italy to ensure that Italy never strayed from the NATO economic consensus.

NATO serves as a way to lubricate the flows of capital across Europe. The 2nd article of its treaty alludes to this, saying, “they [member states] will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.” 

NATO membership means easier access to contracts and trade, particularly within the defense and aerospace industries. Swedish defense giant Saab’s CEO Michael Johansson said on the subject of Sweden’s bid for NATO membership, “You become a part of the inner circle, and so you can access that market more equitably.”

Journalist Lily Lynch described the process of Natoization in Sweden as a fundamentally civilizational question. Joining NATO means joining the West. As Lynch put it in an article for the New Left Review

One right-wing commentator recently wrote that by joining NATO, Sweden was, at last, becoming a normal Western country…Here we get a sense of what ‘joining the West’ means: binding oneself to a US-led power bloc and simultaneously doing away with any nominally socialist institutions – a process that has already been underway for decades.

There were years when Sweden was precisely an abnormal Western country. Under the radical leadership of Prime Minister Olof Palme, the country existed as a vision of a well- administered technocratic social democratic welfare state that was the yearning of much of the American New Left. Even today, Senator Bernie Sanders still cites Sweden as an example of his political program.

Palme’s economic program, called the Rehn-Meidner model, was a mishmash of Keynesian New-Deal-style reforms and some genuinely radical policies such as the Solidarity Wage Policy, which, if taken to completion, would have transferred Swedish firms from private ownership to worker control. 

Palme’s foreign policy was trailblazing with a central tenet of non-alignment. For example, his bold comparison of American war crimes in Indochina to Nazi war crimes resulted in a freeze of relations between Sweden and America, and he was the first European leader to visit revolutionary Cuba and praise the revolution for overthrowing the brutal Batista regime. Furthermore, he condemned the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring.

Although Swedish NATO membership is the final nail in Palme’s vision of a non-aligned social democratic utopia, the crumbling of the Swedish social democratic dream has been a long historical process. Declining profitability among Swedish firms in the 1980s led to austerity and the end of a genuine social democratic alternative, while someone mysteriously assassinated Palme in 1986.

While Sweden being a member of NATO means a lot politically, it also holds symbolic importance. It says that in this newest iteration of a divided Europe, there will be no Tito-led Yugoslavia or Palme-led Sweden. Non-alignment is something to be relegated to the Global South, and many will still formally condemn and ostracize it there. 

The French-Algerian philosopher Jaques Derrida coined hauntology to describe how our present being is ‘haunted’ by lost futures. This term is perfectly applicable to the Swedish ascension to NATO. Sweden once represented a vision of an economic and geopolitical alternative to the West while being a part of it. As Sweden continues the process of Natoization described by Lynch, however, Swedish politics will continue to be haunted by what could have been.

Furthermore, Sweden is a sovereign country, and under the Helsinki Accords, sovereign countries can dictate their alliances. However, there is something quite melancholic about seeing Sweden subjected to the same grubby NATO politics that the rest of Europe is. 

This grubby style of politics includes the backstabbing of Kurdish groups within Sweden. To bypass Turkish objections to joining NATO, Sweden had to crack down on Turkish nationalism and back away from criticism of Ankara, specifically as it relates to the Kurds. 

“Kurds have been betrayed many times in history,” Swedish-Kurd Osman Aytar said. “Maybe Erdogan is betting that he can invade new parts of Rojava and the West will be quiet just because of this NATO membership issue. If the West just shuts its eyes, he will be happy.”

Offering up the Kurds as a blood sacrifice to Erdogan is exceedingly cruel. However, if Sweden wants to join the West, it has proven it is ready. After all, what is not more Western than leaving the Kurds out to dry?

To the Swedish left’s credit, they recognized the absurdity of bowing to Turkey, an authoritarian state that has annexed territory from its neighbors, to receive protection from Russia, an authoritarian state that has annexed territory from its neighbors. 

Green Party spokesperson Märta Stenev commented on the Swedish-Turkish deal, saying, “We are going from a tradition of working for peacekeeping to a situation where we are bowing to an authoritarian regime with such a long list of human rights violations on its conscience.”

Palme once told a group of Swedish social democrats, “Politics, comrades, is to want something.” For decades, the ‘something’ that the Swedish and Western social democratic left have wanted was a non-aligned social democratic regime in the vein of Palme’s Sweden. Swedish NATO membership shuts the door on that future. Now the Western Left will have to create its own future instead of looking toward Sweden.

Noah Schwartz is a senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese grand strategy and Left Realism.

2 thoughts on “Lost Futures: Sweden Joins NATO, and the Left Loses a Western Alternative

  1. This is a very interesting article. The points about the importance of the event being not only political but symbolical is revealing and I agree. This definitely marks almost an end of an era.


  2. What an interesting read! I appreciated the thorough landscape of history and context this piece displayed as it definitely helped me better understand why this event is so pivotal. I love hearing from new political voices and Noah Shwartz states his opinions and ideas in such a way that is insightful while also being easy to understand. Really looking forward to hearing more from this talented young writer!


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