Sweden is ready to marry into NATO — but at what cost?

Emma Rosengren explains how gender analogies are hiding key issues at stake as Sweden joins NATO

Swedish flag with fraying edge against a background of water with a building in the background. Photo by Ryan Faulkner-Hogg via Unsplash.

‘Either you are in, or you are out. NATO’s relationship with Sweden is like with a woman: either she is pregnant, or she is not.’ Those were the words of former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen in an interview with one of Sweden’s largest newspapers in 2013. But what does pregnancy have to do with Sweden’s relationship with NATO, and what is the purpose of this analogy?

While pregnancies might seem remote from issues of international security, feminist scholars have shown how gender and human bodies are in fact integral features of security policy. In her study of the ‘logic of masculinist protection’, political scientist Iris Marion Young shows that both family ideals and militarized security policies rely on stereotypes about masculine protection and feminine vulnerability. Female bodies, such as Mother Svea, a well-known female symbol of the Swedish nation, serve as markers of the national territory. Within the logic of masculinized protection, the ‘good man’ uses weapons to secure both women and children in his family, and the feminized national territory. Essentially, gender gives meaning to security policy and serves as a basis for its legitimization.

Gender in Sweden’s history of nuclear non-proliferation

At the time of Rasmussen’s pregnancy analogy, the Swedish government was determined to remain non-aligned, outside of international military alliances. This policy evolved during the Cold War (most often referred to as the neutrality policy) and has been a central feature of Swedish national identity.

The decision to join NATO not only constitutes a sharp turn in Swedish security policy, but it also challenges how Sweden’s position in world affairs has been gendered as masculine in the past.

Feminist research has shown how links have been made between nuclear weapon possession, military strength and masculinity. This in turn has contributed to the feminization of disarmament, labeling it as a policy of the weak. However, Sweden has deviated from such logics.

As a non-aligned state, Swedish governments have historically emphasized the need to contribute to international security affairs, not least by advocating nuclear disarmament. After Sweden gave up its national nuclear weapon plans during the Cold War, acting as a non-aligned and independent voice for nuclear disarmament was associated with notions of masculinity and whiteness in Sweden, as my new research in International Affairs demonstrated.

The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Following Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Swedish politicians increasingly questioned the policy of neutrality , arguing that the war in Ukraine demonstrated the urgent need for Swedish NATO membership. Shortly thereafter, and without thorough societal debate, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson declared that her Social Democrat government would apply for Swedish NATO membership. A majority in parliament supported this decision.

In joining a nuclear alliance, some have argued that Sweden will give up its ability to perform an independent disarmament policy in the future. The NATO decision has also led Swedish media to portray Sweden in a feminized position.

Shortly before the Swedish government announced its intention to join NATO, one of the largest newspapers in Sweden described how the country was ‘being prepared for “Nato’s wedding vows”’. One talk show from Swedish state television described the issue as ‘The Swedes are newly in love — with NATO — and now it seems like we will throw ourselves into a marriage both with Sleepy Joe and the strong man of Turkey, Erdogan’. While non-alignment and nuclear disarmament was co-constructed with notions of masculinity in the past, Sweden is now portrayed as a bride ready to approach the altar.

Screenshot of svtplay.se website showing an image of Swedish prime minister in a wedding dress with Joe Biden, Reccep Erogan and the NATO logo in the background. Accessible here.

What do gender analogies hide?

With a humorous undertone, these descriptions pinpoint one of the key barriers to joining NATO for Sweden — the Erdogan dilemma. For years, the Swedish Social Democrats have supported the Kurdish population politically and financially, criticizing Erdogan’s regime for its violations of human rights. With the signing of NATO’s wedding vows in his hand, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened not to approve Sweden’s NATO application if certain criteria, including the extradition of 73 people blacklisted by the Turkish regime, are not fulfilled.

What is puzzling is not only how quickly Swedish security policy has shifted, but also how conservative symbols and metaphors about heterosexuality and gender have normalized and legitimized this shift.

Although seemingly remote from security policy, symbols and metaphors from the private sphere, such as the marriage and pregnancy analogies above, are often used to describe complex issues, such as NATO membership, in international security. In 1997, historian Frank Costigliola showed how the NATO nuclear alliance has been described in language that resemble a gendered nuclear family, with the United States as the male protector and the allies as women or children.

The representations of Sweden and NATO both reproduce conservative stereotypes about gender and sexuality and neutralize what is really at stake: no matter its high profile in international nuclear disarmament in the past, Sweden is about to join a nuclear alliance in the name of protection.

Conclusion

In her classical piece Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals, Carol Cohn writes: ‘The imagery that domesticates, that humanizes insentient weapons, may also serve, paradoxically, to make it all right to ignore sentiment human bodies, human lives.’

The use of feminized symbols and images in media descriptions of NATO membership make it easier to ignore how joining a nuclear alliance contributes to legitimizing the role of nuclear weapons in world affairs. Rather than talking about how Sweden is being prepared for NATOs wedding vows, we must talk about alternatives to masculinized protection logics, and more than anything, recognize the urgent need for imaginative nuclear disarmament policy.

Emma Rosengren is a researcher and lecturer in international relations at the Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University, Sweden.

Her free to access article ‘Gendering Sweden’s nuclear renunciation: a historical analysis’ was published in the July 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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