Better Off Alone: Sweden Makes Single Work

February 14, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Sweden Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Neutrality

Better Off Alone: Sweden Makes Single Work

Countries, like people, don’t like to be lonely on Valentine's Day. But two centuries of neutrality have served Stockholm very well.


It’s hard to be single on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much Buzzfeed tries to cheer you up. But with pizza and bitter, lonely tears, you’ll pull through. There are even people who prefer being alone on the big day. The same is true for countries: across history, many have deliberately stayed out of alliances. A few have even tried to cut themselves off from the outside world entirely. It doesn’t always go well—to paraphrase an apocryphal Leon Trotsky quote, you may not be interested in the world, but the world is interested in you. Neutral Belgium and Luxembourg got steamrolled at the beginning of both World Wars. The United States and the Soviet Union were painfully drawn into the Second World War after trying to stay out. But a few countries have made single work—with Sweden among the most successful.

Believe it or not, Sweden was once a major European power—an empire, no less, ringing the Baltic with its possessions in the seventeenth century. Yet a string of setbacks saw Sweden beaten back and, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, deprived of some of its core territories. A new approach was needed—but first, some cleanup. The Swedes joined the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon, kicked his Danish friends out of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and forcibly took the Norwegians under their wing. Sweden hasn’t done much since.


It’s gone well for the Swedes—it kept them out of the conflicts of the middle of the nineteenth century and both of the World Wars, with their most major deviation (a somewhat sympathetic approach to Germany in WWI) being abandoned when it started to hit the pocketbooks of ordinary people. Remaining neutral in the Second World War was a major achievement, given that all of Sweden’s neighbors participated in the conflict at one point or another. Keeping out wasn’t easy or cheap: the Swedes increased their defense budget more than tenfold and had to navigate both Allied and Axis demands. Yet the benefit was great: while the lands around them were torn, while cities were reduced to ash, while the Holocaust murdered millions, Sweden was safe. At the margins, they were able to extend their safety to others, taking in refugees and extending diplomatic protection to thousands of Jews inside the Third Reich.

They continued their neutral approach during the Cold War, leaning slightly to the West and weathering numerous crises, including a 1981 incident in which a Soviet submarine became trapped inside Swedish waters for days. There were costs—for example, the Swedish foreign ministry has been accused of soft-pedaling the case of Raoul Wallenberg, who had disappeared into Soviet custody at the end of WWII, in order to preserve relations with Moscow. But there were benefits, too—Sweden developed an impressive arms industry as it prepared to keep NATO and the USSR at bay, and it preserved its independence and democratic institutions at a time when many European states suffered from superpower interference in their politics.

The Cold War’s end didn’t get the Swedes out of the woods. They still face violations of their territory by Russian and NATO forces operating in the tense Baltic, and loose immigration policies are causing tension in a once-homogenous society. But Sweden’s leaders have to be commended for their approach, which delivered them into the twenty-first century as a prosperous, democratic country. This happy fate was not always in their own hands. During the World Wars and the Cold War, the great powers clashing all around them could have forced Sweden to join in. But a strong military and deft, sometimes painfully pragmatic diplomacy augmented Stockholm’s main asset: luck.

Today, Sweden’s neutral approach doesn’t mean isolation. They trade actively with the world—hello, IKEA—and carry out peacekeeping operations. Their neutral status has also allowed them to play a mediating role in international disputes—they help keep the Korean DMZ quiet, for example, and they have served as a diplomatic protecting power for several Anglophone nations in North Korea and for the British in Iran, allowing limited contact and consular services to continue through crises. Sweden is also an EU member, giving it a more salient role in foreign affairs than a truly neutral country, but even here its instinct for aloofness has served it well—the Swedish people voted to stay off the Euro in 2003.

Other countries have made the best of singledom. Finland preserved itself during the Cold War, although it enjoyed less political autonomy than Sweden; a host of others stayed out of the World Wars. Switzerland took to neutrality earlier than Sweden, and with more conviction—it didn’t even join the United Nations until 2002. But it’s also been a more cynical actor, hosting ill-gotten financial gains and the occasional fugitive from justice, and its record during the Holocaust was far from sterling. The Swedes make the stronger claim to greatness in neutrality.

Like being single on Valentine’s Day, neutrality and isolation are rarely anyone’s first choices. But Sweden has shown that a little loneliness need not be cause for tears.

John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tonyingesson. CC BY-SA 4.0.