“It’s time for action!” “There could be war in Sweden.” “Who are you if war comes?”

These were the messages and no longer rhetorical questions that Sweden’s top political and military leadership shared at Sweden’s annual security conference in early January 2024. Since 2017, officials have not ruled out the possibility of an armed attack. But restating these challenging questions in such stark terms caused a ripple effect across society, with a slew of headlines such as: “Did the Supreme Commander and government go too far with their warnings?” and “Many children are now afraid of war coming to Sweden”. Supreme Commander Micael Bydén later went onto children’s television programming to reiterate that he was not worried about war coming to Sweden right now, but about the country’s and citizens’ preparedness to respond to crisis or war in the future. Indeed, Sweden is facing the “gravest security crisis since World War II.” As a result, it is not only attempting to rapidly rebuild its military capabilities but its civil defense as well.

Sweden’s civil defense is the counterpart to military defense. Together, they constitute the country’s “total defense,” which draws upon the collective strength of the armed forces, public and private sector, and civil society to withstand crisis or an armed attack. After decades of cuts in defense expenditures in the post-Cold War era, infamously referred as a “strategic time out,” Swedish civil defense is starting from historically low levels. In the face of Russian aggression, Sweden is rediscovering its own total defense culture. Now in NATO, Sweden’s civil defense planning and capabilities can serve as a model for strengthening national and collective resilience across the alliance.

Eric Adamson is a Swedish security and defense analyst working in the total defense sector. He was previously a project manager at the Atlantic Council’s Northern Europe Office in Stockholm and the Swedish Defense Association covering the NATO accession process.
Jason C Moyer is a program associate for the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His current research focuses on Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession. He has written more than 30 articles on transatlantic relations and leads the Wilson Center’s Transatlantic Writers’ Group.
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