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Why Sweden joined NATO - a paradigm shift in Sweden’s foreign and security policy


Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström at Selwyn College, Cambridge, 16 April 2024.

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Dear Master Mosey, dear students, ladies and gentlemen,

Over 200 years ago, in 1812, the soon to be Swedish King, Karl XIV Johan, laid out the foundation of neutrality and non-alignment for our country. Few political decisions have been so fundamental in defining Sweden’s modern history and identity. Since then, this choice of direction has formed the roots of our foreign and security policy.

It is a great honour to be back at Cambridge University today to talk to you about the shift in Swedish foreign and security policy and our priorities going forward. I will share how Sweden navigates at this time of great upheaval, and how we are actively engaged in shaping the security in our neighbourhood – one that we share with the UK - and in Europe.

Even though the history of Sweden’s policy of neutrality and military non-alignment is long and well-known, it has not been linear. Sweden’s stance has often been tested in times of turmoil and changing conditions. 

As an example, during the Crimean War in 1853-1856, Sweden let the British use parts of the island of Gotland as a naval base in the conflict with the Russian Empire. This also serves as a reminder of the historic importance of the UK as an actor in the Baltic Sea. 

During the Finnish Winter War, after the Soviet invasion, extensive military support was provided to Finland.  In the initial stages of the Second World War, the coalition government made concessions to Germany. In its final stages, Danish and Norwegian units were trained in Sweden. In the former case, Sweden considered itself forced to deviate from neutrality; in the latter case, we wanted to do so. 

When the Cold War took hold of Europe, the idea of a Scandinavian defence union was suggested, but Norway and Denmark chose – based on their geographical positions and their past experiences – to join NATO. Sweden chose – based on our geographical position and our past experiences – non-alignment in peacetime with a view to neutrality in war. Consideration of Finland’s situation weighed heavily, both then and later on. 

The fall of the Soviet Union fundamentally changed Sweden’s situation, and the development of Swedish security policy for a new era began. 

Sweden joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1994 and became a member of the European Union in 1995, leaving our policy of neutrality. That same year, Swedish troops served under NATO command for the first time, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Since then, we have participated in major NATO peace support operations: in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. We have built interoperability for our armed forces and exchanged assessments on the Baltic Sea region. 

In 2017 Sweden joined the Joint Expedition Force (JEF) which brings together partners who share a common view on security, and a strong will and ability to act jointly with a focus on the security situation in Northern Europe. 

Step by step, this cooperation and this solidarity have been consolidated as pillars of our security policy. The UK has been a close partner to us along this path over the last 30 years.


Becoming a NATO member is a paradigm shift in Swedish foreign and security policy, but it is also the natural and final step of a journey Sweden has made in recent decades. Sweden’s NATO accession is the culmination of a long farewell to the policy of neutrality and non-alignment. 


A little more than 20 years ago, I was sitting in the same chairs as you are now. It feels like yesterday. Little did I know then that I would have the great honour to be back here today to give this speech. 


My personal bond with the UK is the fruit of the close and longstanding relationship between Sweden and the UK, for which I am very thankful. In particular the close people-to-people links and academic ties are exceptionally strong. About 140 000 Swedes reside in the UK, and about half of these in London, which makes it the foreign city with the most Swedish residents in the world. 

Over the last couple of years, our bilateral cooperation has deepened significantly. In 2022, the UK and Sweden signed a political declaration of solidarity and a Memorandum of Understanding to deepen cooperation on life sciences. 

In the last year, both myself and the Swedish Prime Minister Kristersson have had the privilege to welcome our British counterparts to the island of Gotland - the island that we allowed the British use as naval base during the Crimean War. 

Last summer, I had the pleasure to host minister Cleverly there to discuss how to deepen our foreign and security policy cooperation and in October, Prime Minister Sunak visited to sign a bilateral Strategic Partnership. This Partnership will strengthen cooperation on foreign policy, security and defence, energy and climate, research and trade. 

Our cooperation on security and defence, already advanced through the Joint Expeditionary Force, will be further enhanced as Sweden is now a member of NATO. The UK was an indispensable partner and provider of support in Sweden’s application process that began almost two years ago.


Two years ago, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine – an irreversible turning point, for Swedish, British, European and global security. Although Sweden’s cooperation with NATO began decades earlier, the Swedish membership of NATO is a direct result of Russia’s illegal, unprovoked and indefensible war of aggression. 

Russia’s objective with its war of aggression is to control Ukraine, recreate an empire and violently overturn the European security order – to replace right with brutal might. 

In December 2021, prior to the invasion, Russia issued demands amounting to ultimatums for new agreements on Europe’s security. The Russian Secretary of State Lavrov sent a letter where he said that Sweden and Finland would never be allowed to join NATO and that we should accept our position in a Russian sphere of influence. This would have restricted Sweden’s self-determination and security in crucial ways, as well as strengthened Russia’s in its attempts to deny every state it’s right to independently make its own security policy choices.

Russia has for a long time demonstrated its willingness to use military force for political objectives. In Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine since 2014, in Syria since 2015 and by using the Wagner Group in a number of countries on several continents.

We must plan and prepare for a prolonged confrontation with Russia. We must counter Russia’s expansion of power by constraining its influence, its freedom of action, and – ultimately - its ability to do harm. 

At the heart of our efforts is our firm commitment to standing up for Ukraine’s freedom and sovereignty. This is and will remain the top priority for Sweden’s foreign policy. 

Ukrainian soldiers are not only fighting for their own security, their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their freedom. They are also fighting our security and our values. 

The outcome of the war will shape Ukraine and Russia, but also Europe for decades to come. No one desires peace more than Ukraine, whose people suffer the consequences of Russia’s brutal aggression. But peace at any cost would only invite further aggression. It is up to Ukraine – and Ukraine only – to decide if and when the moment is right to negotiate. 

And let us not forget that Russia could end the war at any time, by simply withdrawing its troops. But it doesn’t. 

Some argue that supporting Ukraine is costly. Let me be clear: not doing so will incur a far greater cost.

Our greatest responsibility today is therefore to provide Ukraine with all the political, financial and military support necessary to win the war. Sweden is also a driving force within the EU for harsher sanctions and for restricting Russia’s possibilities to fund its war of aggression.  

The UK and Sweden are amongst the most prominent donors to Ukraine. Sweden will do what is needed to provide as much support as possible. We need both endurance and a strong sense of urgency. Sweden works closely with the UK, from everything from the training of soldiers to providing artillery, and I applaud the solid and long-term UK support for Ukraine – politically, financially and militarily. This also reflects the very strong public support for helping Ukraine in both countries. 


40 days have now passed since Sweden became NATO’s 32nd member. The moment Sweden’s instrument of ratification was handed over to US Secretary of State Blinken in Washington marked a new beginning. A future for Sweden as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty. As an Ally. 

Sweden will be safer in NATO and NATO will be stronger with Sweden as an Ally. Unity, solidarity and cohesion will be guiding lights for Sweden as a NATO member. To safeguard this unity is to safeguard the strength of the Alliance. 

Within NATO, Sweden will stand for fair burden-sharing. Sweden’s defence spending will exceed two per cent of GDP this year, and this should be considered a minimum level. We Europeans need to take greater responsibility in transatlantic relations, thereby creating a stronger Europe in NATO.

All countries around the Baltic Sea, except Russia, are now members of the Alliance. This fundamentally redraws the security map in our part of Europe. Sweden and Finland will allow an increase of NATO’s operational depth and tie the High North, the North Atlantic and the Baltic regions more closely together. 

Sweden’s geography and military assets can significantly strengthen the Alliance’s ability to carry out operations in Northern Europe. We will work with our Allies to make the best possible use of these assets in support of NATO’s deterrence and defence. We fully embrace the possibilities to considerably facilitate collective defence of our neighbouring countries.

The Swedish defence industry is an important asset and will contribute to NATO. It is also an area where cooperation with the UK is strong, and in our bilateral strategic partnership, we set out to substantially strengthen our joint defence industry collaboration to ensure that NATO and its partners continue to generate a strategic advantage. This includes defence innovation in vital strategic areas such as space and underwater technology, cyber and security.

Sweden is joining NATO at a time when emerging technologies lie at the core of geopolitical competition and play an important role in the defence of Ukraine. We want to contribute to maintaining NATO’s technological edge and countering threats in the cyber domain. Swedish strategic assets include an advanced private sector – not least in telecommunications – a strong defence industry and a national space capability in the making.

A strong transatlantic link is indispensable for Europe’s security. However, it must never be taken for granted. It is therefore fundamental that we maintain and intensify relations with the United States, as Lord Cameron and I argued for in a joint OpEd in Foreign Policy two weeks ago. The US standing tall in an alliance with over 30 nations will increase the safety of both Americans and Europeans.

Sweden will contribute to the security of NATO as a whole in accordance with the Alliance’s 360-degree approach and act resolutely and in a spirit of solidarity in the fight against terrorism. Our broad geographical commitment extends to NATO’s engagement with global partners – not least in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions are increasingly closely linked in security terms. Sweden therefore welcomes the deepening of NATO cooperation with partners such as Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand. 


That brings me right up to the present, from 1812 to 2024. Before I hand over the word to you for questions, I would just like to say few words on the future. 

No matter whether we look 40 days, 2 years, 20 years or 200 years ahead, I am certain that the values of Cambridge and its ability to generate knowledge and spread enlightenment all over the globe for the benefit of all will endure. I believe the same could be said for the strong relationship between Sweden and the UK. However, neither will do so undefended. 

In rain or shine, we must protect what we believe in, and I acknowledge that there seem to be plenty of rainstorms in the forecast. We live in a time when a lot is at stake. Things we might have taken for granted are no longer so certain; there are powers that want to reshape the world in a way that greatly differs from the values of this university and our two countries. Powers that also seek to sow and exploit division among friends. 

This will place great demands on us, on me as a policy-maker of today and on you as the policy-makers of tomorrow. Great demands also mean great opportunity to make a difference. Many alumni of Selwyn College are proof this is a school of possibilities and great deeds. So, I want to take the opportunity, as I believe is also my responsibility, to encourage you to make a difference. Because it will be needed. 

I hope I have in some way been able to inspire you in this direction today. Rest assured, there will be a plenty of tasks for you to dig into.

Thank you.