This is not a blog about Sweden, but much of it will seem like it is. Recent Nordic events certainly warrant comment. Of late, Russian fighter bombers have both flirted with and actually penetrated Swedish airspace and foreign submarines, presumed Russian, have been detected prowling Sweden’s sovereign waters just off Stockholm. This increase in Putin’s northern adventuring is of particular concern in a Europe feeling tangibly less secure post-annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the subsequent war in Ukraine. Mirroring the larger European mood, Sweden, perhaps particularly so, is suffering some loss of confidence in the endurance of her own sovereignty. In an opinion piece in Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, the leadership of the influential Center Party neatly summarizes the reason, “We lack the ability to defend ourselves.”
It is not just the politicians. In the daily news journal Politico, a pair of retired Swedish Naval commanders noted the current difficulty of defending their country’s 2,700-kilometer coastline from underwater intruders. “The Russians can do whatever they like in Swedish waters,” cautioned one. Indeed, “the risks involved with intruding into Swedish waters are so negligible,” agreed the other, “that the biggest risk facing a sub is that it has an accident.” This was not always the case.
During the Cold War, the Swedish navy was a formidable presence in the Baltic. Comprised of dozens of ships and submarines, their submarine hunters boasted an array of support mechanisms ranging from torpedoes, depth charges, and anti-submarine-warfare grenades to swarms of support helicopters able to spot submarine movement from on high; they possessed one of the most capable air forces in the world; their coastline was guarded by multiple artillery battalions secreted along a network of mountain hideaways; and their army, nourished by the Viking tradition of ledungen – a standing army supported by local defense forces of citizen-soldiers always at the ready – could mobilize hundreds of thousands of battle-ready men within hours. But circumstances, naivety, and poor decisions conspired, as they do, to hobble this capability.
The upkeep was, of course, expensive. When the Cold War ended and the Velvet Revolution helped finalize the tearing down of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter, the Swedish mindset changed. The short story is that a military that took hundreds of years to develop was dismantled in a bit more than a decade. According to one source, by 2004 merely six percent of Swedish combat units remained, there were no more local defense forces, the Air Force was cut in half, and the Navy as well. In 2013, General Sverker Göransson, Supreme Commander of Sweden’s military, was asked how good the Swedish military was. He reportedly answered, “We can defend ourselves against an attack against a localized target…for about a week.” One place, one week. And Russian bombers crowding your airspace and her subs playing in the waters just off the beaches of your major cities.
Sweden is in a pickle, no mistake. Concerns about their security have led the Swedes to renewed interest in joining NATO. Recognizing they are no match for a belligerent Russia on their own, they are eager for the security assurances that come with membership. But their quest for security is helping to make the entire region less secure as Russia saber-rattles dire warnings against any Swedish effort to join the alliance. To be sure, the question of whether, from a Western perspective as well as her own, Sweden should NATO is complex and there are good reasons both for and against it. While interesting, these arguments won’t be taken up here.
In view, rather, is the Christian view of budgets, in particular, here, defense budgets. Much is made by our more progressive brothers and sisters of America spending more money on defense than the next however-many-countries combined. Some folks point to the manipulations of the Military Industrial Complex and fear those with vested interests in warmaking. Many point to Eisenhower’s “The Chance for Peace” speech in which he laments the opportunity costs of defense spending:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
Such as these insist the choice is a simple one: spend our money on bread or bombs. The Swedish predicament, it should be plain, problematizes such easy binaries. There are couple things to observe.
First, when it comes to budgetary issues, a nation, like a family, must budget for both its values and its responsibilities. These ought not to be, pace Niebuhr, competing factors. Paul’s letter to the Roman church teaches us that the government bears the sword for specific reasons. God’s mandate for the sovereign power is that they maintain the human goods of justice, order, and peace, without which human flourishing cannot take place. Our responsibilities emerge from, rather than compete with, our values. Having spent too little money (or spent it unwisely) on her national defense, Sweden inadvertently abdicated this responsibility and is now reliant on those who spent sufficiently to protect her. Worse than this, Sweden’s martial weakness risks having emboldened a Russia interested in ensuring that the current buffer zone along its northwestern border, established up to now by Swedish and Finnish nonalignment, remains a buffer by taking measures of its own to make sure competitors remain more than an arm’s length away and giving her more geographic freedom to influence the Baltic states.
This in turn shows that, two, strength is stabilizing. Those who quote Eisenhower’s speech above need to remember that while he lamented that these military expenditures took away from better things, he nevertheless understood that the spending had to happen. “A vital element in keeping the peace,” he said several years after his “Chance for Peace” address, “is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.” Eisenhower understood that peace in our world is best assured through strength – both of arms and the willingness to use them – sufficient to be recognized as such by those who might intend us harm. The just war tradition instructs us that this strength is always initially defensive and only rises to the offense when justice demands.
This may be tragic. But given the conditions of our world it is tragically necessary. Much of our world’s resources have been gathered up by the need to manage the fact that human beings defy God’s law. Not just every bomb or army – but every key, security system, pin code, police cruiser, rape whistle, and all the gates, lockboxes, self-defense products and innumerable other devices remind us that there are bad men at our doors and at the throats of our neighbors. We are right to try and keep them out. And if they will need go out on their own then, in the last resort, we are right to throw them out.
America spends much money on defense, to be sure, but it has never been on our own defense alone. The American security umbrella – both conventional and nuclear – has been, on the whole, all things considered, a source of stability and security and a force for the preservation, or rectification, of justice, order, and peace throughout the world. None of this is to say that defense budgets cannot be trimmed down – Tom Cotton has famously demonstrated some of the ridiculous expenditures. Fraud, waste, and abuse is particularly egregious not only because it takes money away from worthy causes but because it makes hash of our efforts at arguing for funds sufficient to meet our God-given responsibilities.
But it is to remember that how a nation spends its money is a testimony of its values. Ideally, these are not the competing values of whether to buy bread or bombs but of a willingness to buy those bombs because we know we live in a world that would deny our children bread. Or even a place at the table.