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Europe: Analysis From Washington: Movement On NATO's Northern Flank

Prague, 7 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt's suggestion on Saturday that Sweden drop its traditional neutrality and seek to join NATO appears likely to transform the current debate on the expansion of the Western defense alliance.

While the words of a politician out of office seldom carry much weight, Bildt's status as a statesman and theorist and his current role as an international mediator in Bosnia virtually guarantee that his comments will receive a great deal of attention.

In a radio interview, Bildt for the first time in his career urged that Stockholm think the unthinkable -- drop its longstanding neutrality and seek to formally join Western security structures.

Bildt based his argument on what he said was Stockholm's current unwillingness to sufficiently fund its own defense establishment. But his words are likely to have a much greater impact beyond Sweden's borders than within them.

That is because within Sweden, Bildt's suggestion seems likely to be dismissed by some since Bildt also serves as leader of the parliamentary opposition to the current government.

Indeed, senior members of Sweden's Social Democratic government immediately rejected Bildt's proposal. Foreign Minister Lena Hjelm Wallen, for example, pointedly noted that Stockholm would continue to guard its "freedom from alliances."

But beyond Sweden's borders, Bildt's specific suggestion and the implicit argument on which it rests are likely to affect the security policies of Scandinavia, Russia, and Europe as a whole. There are three reasons for this.

First, by urging his countrymen to take this dramatic step, Bildt undercuts both American and Russian thinking about the Nordic role in the security architecture of Europe.

On the one hand, by suggesting that Sweden must join NATO, Bildt has in effect rejected American proposals that the Nordics as a group could provide some kind of alternative, non-NATO defense for the Baltic countries.

And on the other, by highlighting Sweden's and by extension Scandinavia's increasing orientation toward the West, Bildt will certainly exacerbate Russian concerns about Scandinavia's role in the future.

Second, and following in the footsteps of Finland's senior foreign policy thinker Max Jacobson, Bildt has implicitly argued for a dramatic expansion of the alliance rather than the limited one now being contemplated.

While that will certainly lead others in the region -- including the Baltic states and possibly Finland -- to press to get into NATO, the costs of such expansion and the certainty of Russian opposition could lead some current members to oppose any immediate expansion.

And third, by suggesting that yet another verity of the past must be discarded -- in this case, Swedish "neutrality" -- Bildt has called attention to both what has changed and what has not changed in Europe. And for Bildt, both are critically important.

What has not changed is that many Swedes feel that they live in a very dangerous world, one that requires them to find a way to protect themselves from outside threats.

In the euphoria of the end of the Cold War, many people lost sight of this fact, but Bildt's words suggest that he and his many Swedish supporters are not among them.

But what has changed for Sweden and others as well is equally striking. Bildt's statement suggests that many Swedes now recognize three things that they have long been loathe to acknowledge.

First, they can no longer provide the resources to defend themselves by themselves.

Second, they can no longer rely, as they did during the Cold War, on the penumbra of security that living next to NATO used to provide.

And third, they must seek to join NATO both to help reenergize that alliance and to avoid being left in a gray area between that alliance and a possibly resurgent Russia.

As a result, Bildt seems set to do for the issue of NATO expansion what he earlier did for discussions about the status of the Baltic states between Russia and the West.

Writing in the prestigious American journal, "Foreign Affairs," Bildt argued that the way Russia chose to deal with the Baltic states would serve as a "litmus test" of Russia's ability to transform itself and join the West.

That insight has had a significant impact on Western thinking about that subject ever since. His current argument about the need for Sweden to join NATO seems likely to do the same -- even if it changes relatively few minds in Stockholm itself.