Speech from Tobias Billström

Opportunities and challenges for Swedish foreign policy

Published

Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström, held at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs 21 December 2022.

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It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, which plays such an important role in foreign policy discourse in Sweden.

I would also like to congratulate the Institute on the new centres of expertise on Russia and China. These additions are important not only for the Institute, but also for improving the understanding of the Government Offices – and indeed of all of us – of the new complex world we now face.

The dramatic events of this year evoke the great turning points in history, where there is a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’.

I will therefore begin with five reflections on the implications of the return of war to Europe for Sweden and the world at large. This will hopefully provide a framework for the demanding and important tasks that Swedish foreign policy faces.

This naturally takes us to the concrete tasks that will shape foreign policy in the near future: Sweden’s accession to NATO, shouldering the Presidency of the Council of the EU and providing continuing support to Ukraine.

All in all, this necessitates a change in course in Swedish foreign policy. I am not going to pre-empt the Statement of Foreign Policy to be presented in February next year, and for this reason I will focus on the security policy challenges that are currently shaping Swedish foreign policy.

Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom – even though it might feel that way in the December darkness. There are tremendous long-term opportunities for Swedish foreign and security policy in the coming decade.

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Some dates are forever associated with major historical events. One of them is 24 February 2022. Although Russia’s escalation had progressed over many years – decades, in fact – the invasion was a clear turning point.

We are now experiencing one of the rare moments in global politics when one event becomes a lens through which we view almost everything else.

Through its war of aggression on Ukraine, Russia has attempted to undermine the peaceful European security order and has shown almost immeasurable contempt for the principles of the UN Charter.

If Russia succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe, it will not stop there. We must therefore remain clear that it is not only Ukraine’s freedom that is at stake, but the freedom of Europe and the world we want to live in.

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Firstly, fundamental Swedish interests are being challenged in Ukraine.

President Putin’s war is being waged not only on Ukraine, but also on the whole of Europe and the values that underpin the EU. It is being waged on the entire global world order that is based on international law. Putin has chosen the free democracies as his enemy because we stand for what he wants to dismantle – open society.

We were made aware of Putin’s objectives on 17 December last year. The demands made by Putin would in practice mean creating a sphere of influence dominated by Russia on the European continent. States like Sweden would not have the sovereign right to make their own foreign and security policy decisions. Putin’s demands were also aimed at dividing the EU and NATO.

Anything other than Russia’s failure in Ukraine would fuel Moscow’s military aggression and motivate other authoritarian powers to do the same.

Ukraine will remain a major test for the rules-based international system in the coming years. And it may not be the last. Therefore it concerns us all.

Defending the rules-based international order is particularly important for democracies like Sweden. We depend on a world order based on international law, including the principle of sovereignty, which is rooted in liberal ideas that afford us an open world.

President Zelenskyy is therefore absolutely right in saying that his soldiers are fighting not only for the survival of Ukraine, but also for our security and our values. In Ukraine, democracy, human rights and international norms are being defended.

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Secondly, we must be able to support Ukraine for a long time to come.

Ukraine has heroically regained important territories in recent months and the war seems to have reached a critical phase. But victory is by no means guaranteed and the war has not reached its end.

We are now at a stage where support for Ukraine and pressure on Russia must increase.

A few weeks ago, the Government presented a new support package for Ukraine – the ‘winter package’ – which is larger than all the previous support packages combined. We are giving the Ukrainians the air defence systems they so desperately need to protect their people and critical infrastructure. And we are stepping up the pace and scope of our humanitarian aid for the winter.

Last week, the Council of the European Union adopted the ninth sanctions package against Russia since its full-blown invasion of Ukraine was launched in February. It includes sanctions against nearly 200 individuals and entities, and a number of sectoral measures.

I was in Kiev recently with my fellow Nordic-Baltic Foreign Ministers. We met President Zelenskyy and my Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. We also witnessed the aftermath of Russia’s indiscriminate terror attacks on Ukrainian buildings and infrastructure.

And last Friday I met a great number of Ukrainian volunteers who are temporarily here in Sweden to recover from the war. Their accounts have made a strong impression on me and reinforced my conviction that we must continue to provide support to Ukraine.

We are painfully aware that more is needed – and that Europe as a whole needs to raise its level of ambition. This will be one of Sweden’s top priorities when we assume the Presidency of the Council of the EU at the turn of the year.

We are only at the beginning of a long and difficult journey. This is a conflict that will likely be protracted and that is taking place on several fronts, not only in Ukraine.

The EU and NATO must give Ukraine the support needed to defend its democracy. This is not only our moral duty – it is also essential for lasting peace in Europe.

This Government will have a strategic and long-term policy for Ukraine that ensures that time is not on Russia’s side.

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Thirdly, we must prepare for a harsher and uncertain world.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marks the end of one era and the beginning of another.

The three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain were without any serious conflicts between major powers. Globalisation accelerated and economies grew. Liberal and democratic renewal took place all over the world.

We in Europe – with the exception of the tragic conflicts in the Balkans – experienced a period of relative peace, integration and cooperation. In Russia too, during the post-Cold War years, optimism was in the air.

Yet, the progression towards an increasingly intertwined world now seems – at least for the foreseeable future – to be broken.

There has been a shift in the balance of power, through for instance the emergence of an economically and militarily stronger China. At the same time, digital and economic developments are causing fragmentation of power between different actors – not only states, but also cities, companies and networks.

In this new era, competition is intensifying for values, for how societies should be organised and for which rules of play should apply in the international arena.

China and Russia are trying to alter the global playing field, change the definition of fundamental concepts, advance their positions and create economic and political dependencies that strengthen their position.

If history is anything to go by, large, rapid shifts in power spell instability and heightened crises of conflict. I believe that the phase we are now entering will present heightened risks of international disorder, rather than order. This will put tremendous strain on the international system. A system to which all influential actors are prepared to subscribe is simply not within reach.

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Fourthly, the free democracies must stick together.

The joint response of Europe and the United States to Russia’s attack is a sign of strength. Contrary to what Putin had expected, the transatlantic link has proved strong. The EU and NATO are more important than they have been for a very long time. The EU and the UK are now focusing on what unites them.

The war has also had a mobilising effect in other parts of the world, in states such as Australia, Japan and South Korea.

We can see that morality and the law are on our side. All states have the right to make their foreign and security policy choices without pressure from others. This is a principle that 143 UN countries endorsed in their condemnation of Russia’s war. The interest that binds them is to maintain the rules-based international order.

One of our most important foreign policy tasks – besides supporting Ukraine – is to build on our relations and cooperation with the states that share these fundamental principles.

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Fifthly, Europe needs to be stronger and act more strategically.

As threats grow and become more complex, we Europeans need to join forces in standing up for our allies, shouldering a greater share of the burden to defend our common values and the order of international rule of law.

Europe needs a credible and resilient framework for defence and deterrence against continued aggression. The United States will continue to be indispensable in this task, but we Europeans need to shoulder greater responsibility. The European members of NATO must become more capable. The EU also needs to be stronger.

At the same time, foreign policy becomes even more complex as the boundaries between war and peace become more blurred.

Issues such as energy, technology and trade are also security policy issues.

Critical technologies, raw materials and minerals are now at the heart of a new kind of arms race between the leading economies. Semiconductors are not only components of computers but also of the strategic competition to gain the technological upper hand.

Constant attacks are being launched in cyberspace against Sweden and Swedish interests.

We Europeans need to build common geoeconomic resilience. We need to reduce our vulnerabilities and dependencies.

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Work on bolstering our resilience starts here in our own country – Sweden.

Sweden’s foreign policy derives its strength from the tradition of gathering support across party lines on the major issues. The broad support in the Riksdag for the change of course in security policy represented by our application to join NATO is key.

We must strengthen our resilience in many ways, including through investments in Sweden’s defence capabilities. The Government is determined to achieve the defence expenditure target of two per cent of GDP by 2026.

We are also reinforcing our national capabilities to respond to disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks and hybrid influence, including through the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency and the National Cyber Security Centre. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is bolstering its capabilities for international cooperation to detect and respond to cyber threats.

The Swedish Prime Minister recently appointed, for the first time, a national security advisor and established a National Security Council within the Prime Minister’s Office to strengthen the Government’s coordination of national security issues.

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Finland has special status in Sweden’s international relations. We Swedes admire Finland’s strategic clarity of vision in foreign policy. We are geographically, historically and culturally intertwined with Finland. As security in our neighbourhood is deteriorating, it is thus natural that Sweden and Finland go hand in hand

Together with Finland, we will complete the process of accession to NATO and live up to our commitments as a member. We are implementing all aspects of the trilateral agreement with Türkiye, including combating terrorism.

Sweden and Finland will act in solidarity and as committed Allies that safeguard the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic region.

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NATO membership marks a paradigm shift in Swedish security policy. Sweden and Finland will be part of the common defence commitments that bind Western democracies together. This is crucial now that the security situation is changing in our neighbourhood.

Swedish and Finnish NATO membership will strengthen both our own security and that of the entire Alliance. We will be an integral part of a Euro-Atlantic security zone.

We can take pride in this. Sweden and Finland will be net contributors to NATO with sophisticated defence capabilities and industries. Sweden will contribute to the security of the entire Alliance with tremendous expertise on the ground, on and below water, and in the air.

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The Nordic region is our strongest community and one of the world’s most integrated and competitive regions. The combined GDP of our five Nordic countries makes us the tenth largest economy in the world. Nordic cooperation will be further strengthened by Sweden and Finland becoming NATO members.

With Sweden and Finland in NATO, all the Nordic and Baltic countries will share the same security platform. The Alliance will be able to take a collective approach to defence planning and security in northern Europe – an area extending from the northern Arctic to south of the Baltic Sea. We look forward to working closely with Poland and Germany on these matters. 

With our Nordic-Baltic friends, we have good opportunities for in-depth dialogue on security in our neighbourhood. The EU’s Hybrid Centre of Excellence in Helsinki, the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn and the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga complement each other. These centres of expertise reinforce our contribution to Euro-Atlantic security within the NATO framework. We have already taken steps to continue developing Nordic-Baltic cooperation and I look forward to continuing with this.

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Europe is Sweden’s home and the EU our closest foreign policy platform.

The Swedish Presidency of the Council of the EU will be informed by a simple basic premise – or at least one that is simple in theory. The EU needs to be stronger and more strategic.

Intra-European solidarity is becoming more important. Reconciling various interests into a cohesive whole is the basis of the common European foreign and security policy. In this respect, Sweden’s embassies in European capitals have the important task of building networks and bridges with other states.

Cooperation with Germany and France is important for creating a stronger EU. At the same time, arrangements for inclusion of the UK need to be developed. Sweden wants to be at the heart of the EU’s foreign and security policy cooperation.

We must also develop the EU’s geoeconomic resilience by strengthening competitiveness, reducing vulnerabilities and ensuring that economic flows function even in times of pandemics, natural disasters or geopolitical unrest.

We need to diversify the EU’s external trade relations and strengthen supply chains, energy supplies and access to cutting-edge technologies and markets. The EU’s internal market also provides opportunities to set standards that also influence the rules of play for global trade.

A strong Europe and a strong transatlantic link are mutually reinforcing. Europe needs to assume greater responsibility for both European and transatlantic defence. The EU and NATO must complement – not compete with – each other.

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Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will impact all aspects of the Swedish Presidency. While the EU has taken great strides in the past year, more is needed.

The most comprehensive EU sanctions ever are in place.

The EU is providing extensive military, financial and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, but further assistance is important at this stage.

Another important task is to consolidate and broaden the scope for our democratic values, human rights and the rule of law. The Eastern Partnership initiated by Sweden and Poland during the previous Presidency in 2009 is still relevant but needs to be updated and made more flexible.

In addition to the countries of south-eastern Europe that already have a European perspective, the door has now been opened for future EU membership for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The EU has thus set out on a path towards the inclusion of another 60 million Europeans in our community of free democracies.

The EU must play a central role in rebuilding Ukraine after the war. This work must be linked to closer ties between Ukraine and the EU. This is important not only for Ukraine but also for the EU. Ukraine’s desire for freedom reminds us of the core premise of EU cooperation – promoting peace and freedom in Europe.

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As developments in the Indo-Pacific region are of great importance to the future of Europe, Sweden will also work to implement the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The region includes several partner countries that are important to us, such as Japan, India, Australia and South Korea.

In relations with China, our interests are best served by close coordination between Europe and the United States. Sweden will work to strengthen EU unity on China policy and to improve our common preparedness to meet the challenges presented by China’s increasingly aggressive agenda. China’s harsher tone towards Taiwan is a cause for concern. To address this, the transatlantic dimension of the EU’s China policy needs to be consolidated. Nevertheless, we also need to continue to cooperate with China on a number of issues, such as climate change.

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Transatlantic ties are strong and permeate Sweden’s foreign policy. In the past year, it has become clear how much Europe and the United States still need each other. Without American leadership, we would not have been able to respond to Russia’s aggression so robustly.

We have reason to thank our friends on the other side of the Atlantic – both the United States and Canada – for their actions.

Sweden also recognises that the United States’ heightened strategic focus in Asia and the Pacific region brings a special responsibility for us in Europe. It requires us Europeans to do our share of the work to keep the transatlantic link strong and vital.

We in Europe must build on the steps we have taken in the past year to safeguard the security of our own continent. Europe must be a reliable and constructive partner to the United States. Both in our own part of the world and with respect to global challenges. We will contribute ideas, support and initiatives where European and American interests overlap.

And we must not forget that the most important trade relations in the world are those between the EU and United States. Together, we make up around 40 per cent of the global economy.

In early 2023, Sweden and Luleå will host the ministerial meeting of the new EU-US Trade and Technology Council. The cooperation is still in its infancy, but has potential for the future.

Common transatlantic rules of play for technology and trade are key to our prosperity and to tackling global challenges. This benefits the green transition and can give Europe and the United States a head start in strategic future industries such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies. To achieve this, it is essential that we resolve issues that risk distorting competition in relation to the other side’s industries and innovation efforts.

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Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. The green transition requires cooperation between the world’s major economies, wherein  the EU plays a crucial role. The EU is a world leader in climate cooperation. Sweden wants to bolster this position during its Presidency.

The EU, with its 450 million inhabitants and the world’s largest integrated market, is the key to Sweden’s climate policy. It is through the EU that we can speed up the green transition and get other countries to follow suit.

Once again, the war in Ukraine is creating new dynamics – in this case, by propelling the transition away from oil, gas and coal. We in the West must endure high energy prices now, but at the same time we are accelerating our own green transition.

The clock is ticking – both market forces and political forces need to be an impetus.

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With a major war raging in the heart of Europe, security in our neighbourhood is the top priority of our foreign policy.

Yet, I want to be clear that our foreign policy will always have an important global dimension.

Sweden will, of course, remain active in the global agenda. Particularly in times of energy crises, economic unrest, food shortages, pandemics and a climate situation that is having an increasingly severe impact on the planet and human life.

We have important political and economic relations with many countries in the southern hemisphere, from Brazil to Indonesia, and close development cooperation with a number of countries. These relations now also need to include a common understanding of the new global security landscape.

Sweden will contribute bilaterally and through the EU to ensure that the broad consensus supporting Ukraine and against the Russian war of aggression remains intact. This is also the best way to empower the UN, international law and multilateral cooperation.

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Gender equality, human rights and the rule of law are core values for Sweden. We will always react when people are subjected to oppression and violence, as is now taking place in Iran. Sweden has in the strongest terms condemned the two executions that have been carried out.

The Government will continue to work bilaterally, within the EU and within the UN, to remain a driving force behind continued international pressure on Iran, so that Iran accepts its own population’s just demands for human rights.

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The war in Ukraine has now been raging for almost a year. It has claimed tens of thousands of lives. One-third of the Ukrainian population has fled. An estimated 8 000 kidnapped children appear to have been deported to Russia to be ‘de-nazified’. Like many others, I believed these types of atrocities belonged to the past. Reading about such developments is dismaying.

For many Ukrainians, this winter will be a long and painful survival test in dreadful conditions. In the run-up to the winter, the Russian war machine destroyed half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The other week, half a million of Kiev’s inhabitants lacked electricity, while suffering plummeting sub-zero temperatures and rocket attacks. Other cities have been enduring ruthless terror bombings of residential areas, schools and hospitals for the past month.

Putin is trying to break the Ukrainian people’s will and hopes that support from us in the free democracies will diminish over time. How wrong he is.

Rather than dividing the EU, he has brought European states closer together and we are more unified now than we have been in a long time. Instead of preventing states from joining NATO, both Sweden and Finland have come far in their accession processes.

Instead of buckling under his pressure, the world has sided with Ukraine.

We live in difficult times.

But also in a time for freedom.