​Consensus and continuity determine Swedish foreign policy

10 June 2021

Map over Afghanistan.

Wikman examines the building of political support for Swedish military contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan 2002–2014.

The Swedish Government was able to undertake and justify Swedish military involvement in Afghanistan in 2002–2014 by describing it as a traditional Swedish contribution while differentiating it from American military operations in the region. Both consensus and a sense of continuity in foreign policy formulation are required to achieve broad support. This is a finding of a new dissertation from Uppsala University.

Lars Wikman, PhD at Uppsala University with an
affiliation to the Swedish National Defence
University and Stanford University in the United
States. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“It is generally accepted that foreign and security policy questions must not be the subject of domestic policy conflicts. Achieving consensus becomes a goal in itself, but this is hardly something that occurs spontaneously. Actively highlighting some policies and downplaying others, known as framing, makes it easier to build support for a position and minimises political opposition,” says Lars Wikman, who recently defended his dissertation at Uppsala University. Wikman pursued his doctoral studies as part of the Swedish Armed Forces PhD programme with an affiliation to the Swedish National Defence University and Stanford University in the United States.

In his doctoral thesis, Don’t Mention the War, Wikman examines the building of political support for Swedish military contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan 2002–2014.

In addition to providing a detailed description of how the decision-making process occurred, the dissertation also describes the development of security policy in Sweden in the 21st century. The relationship to NATO and the United States are important factors, since Sweden’s involvement in ISAF in Afghanistan opened doors for the country in international politics.

Three central parliamentary decisions

The dissertation examines three central parliamentary decisions on Swedish involvement in ISAF:

  • to enter Afghanistan militarily in 2001–2002
  • to expand the military contribution and take geographic responsibility for a large area in northern Afghanistan in 2003–2005
  • to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan in 2009–2010.

In addition to archival studies, the dissertation is based on 55 interviews with politicians, civil servants and officers from all levels of the decision-making process, from ministers to desk officers.

For a military intervention to obtain broad political support, it needs to follow the common view of what the long-term line of Swedish foreign policy entails. This is closely linked to Sweden’s credibility as an international player. In his dissertation, Wikman describes how the foreign policy line both enables and constrains the freedom of action of all involved parties.

Fits into the foreign policy line

The dissertation revolves around several strategies that the stakeholders use to make the policy fit into the foreign policy line and in this way win support for their proposals. A policy that deviates too much from the foreign policy line risks being attacked as divisive to national unity, which is a cardinal sin within foreign and security policy.

When it comes to Afghanistan, the UN human rights and humanitarian operations were emphasised to bring the military contributions in line with Sweden’s previous international commitments. Above all, a distinction was made between the war in Afghanistan and the Swedish participation through a geographic and organisational division of the international missions in the country.

When the war shifted to being described as part of ISAF’s mission, support for the project began to cool. The character of the consensus shifted during the course of the mission from complete unity to broad political support across party lines, where opposition from the Left Party and the Green Party was marginalised politically.

Two parties with a unique position

Eventually, opposition within the Red-Green coalition was undeniable, and internal divisions within the Social Democratic Party aligned with a need to unite the opposition ahead of the 2010 election.

“The Social Democratic Party and the Moderate Party have a unique position in foreign policy issues as guarantors of stability and continuity. In spite of the divisions within the Social Democrats, the leaders of the parties had a shared focus for Swedish foreign and security policy. Even if the 2010 election campaign resulted in some skirmishes, the parties agreed on a way forward after the election with an agreement across party lines to withdraw the combat troops. A compromise was framed in a way that both proponents and opponents of the mission could support it.

It is not always necessary to achieve direct political support. Often, it is enough just to avoid outright opposition. The Government, regardless of its political stripes, has a strong role in these questions but the requirement for consensus means that the Government neither can nor wants to drive a hard line against the opposition to the same degree that it does in other questions. The Government is dependent on the opposition’s support or acquiescence.”

Last modified: 2021-02-14