A winter evening in Stockholm, lights glinting in the harbor, snow falling outside. “And what about us,” I am asked, “up here in the North? What happens to us?” My Swedish companions are journalists, analysts and civil servants, people who care about their country’s national security. Though neither elite nor wealthy, they do share a worldview. They think their country’s prosperity depends on the European Union and its open markets. They also think their safety depends on the United States’ commitment to Europe. And since President Trump took office, they suddenly find themselves staring into an unfathomable abyss.
It’s not party politics that bother them: These are conservatives, by Swedish standards, and Republican presidents have suited them in the past. Trump’s tweeting and bragging don’t bother them that much either, though they find these unseemly. The real problem is deeper: Sweden’s economic and political model depends on Pax Americana, the set of American-written and American-backed rules that have governed transatlantic commerce and politics for 70 years — and they fear Trump will bring Pax Americana crashing down. Nor are they alone: Variations of this conversation are taking place in every European capital and many Asian capitals too.
The Swedes do have specific, parochial concerns, and one of them is Russia. For the past several years, Russia has played games with their air force and navy, buzzing Swedish air space and sending submarines along the coast. Jittery Swedes have brought back civil defense drills, and until November, it looked as though other changes were coming. Once, Swedish neutrality was a useful fiction, both for them and for the United States, because it gave Sweden a role as a negotiator. Now, Swedish support for joining NATO is at an all-time high. But they seem to be late to the party. If the U.S. president feels lukewarm about NATO, then what is the point?
The health of the European Union worries them too. Sweden is a small country, but it has big companies, all of which have major investments and trading arrangements all across Europe. Brexit probably caused more distress here than anywhere else in Europe: Sweden had long counted on Britain to help make the arguments for more open, less regulated European markets. In the past, the United States made some of those arguments too. But what now? If the United States is dedicated to “America First,” then American diplomats are hardly going to help Sweden wave the flag for free trade, as they did in the past.
What worries them most of all, though, is something else: Over and over again, they ask me about Stephen K. Bannon. But in the course of the evening, it becomes clear that they’ve read more about him than I have and know more about him than I do. White supremacist ideology is alive and well in Scandinavia — Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a 2011 attack in Norway, is its most famous exponent. Sweden also has a home-grown populist party, the Sweden Democrats, who share Bannon’s pro-Russian and anti-Muslim sympathies. My Swedish companions think their country has absorbed and assimilated large numbers of refugees in the past couple of years pretty well, but of course there are tensions, and tensions can be exploited. Will the U.S. administration, consciously or unconsciously, now help Nordic nationalists make their case?
None of my companions go as far as the extraordinary editorial in the German magazine Der Spiegel, which has just called on Germans to “stand up for what is important: democracy, freedom, the West and its alliances,” and which asks Europeans to start planning political and economic defenses “against America’s dangerous president.” But, yes, these Swedes would like to create new forms of European security. A Baltic-Nordic security pact should be on the table. European defense structures should get attention and investment.
The world is more dangerous than they imagined; the alliances and institutions they have long relied upon may be crumbling. “We are on our own here,” one of them writes to me the next day. Which pretty much sums up how the rest of America’s allies feel right now too.