An interview with the Swedish Navy defence attache in Washington, Qatar's position on Syria, and China and Japan put the spooks on each other on joint exercises.
When Rear Admiral Jörgen Ericsson decided to try his hand at being a defence attaché, he set his sights on Washington dc – the only posting that requires the elevated two-star rank he earned after an illustrious career in the Swedish Navy. The city suited him well. “Everything that happens in the world is handled by Washington,” he tells monocle from the modernist embassy on the Georgetown waterfront.
Ericsson’s interaction with the world’s superpower is a daily schedule of meetings and briefings at the Pentagon – the vast, five-sided home to the US Department of Defense built by developer John McShain in 1941. “My first priority has to always be how to improve our bilateral partnership,” he says.
Sweden and the US have not always had the most comfortable diplomatic relationship: the country opposed the Vietnam war and took a firm stance against the invasion of Iraq. Its tradition of neutrality spanning hundreds of years made the decision to commit troops to the Nato mission in Afghanistan, and later contribute eight fighter jets to the Libyan mission in 2011, a significant game-changer. “The Afghan mission built good cooperation and Sweden has now become a true partner to Nato,” he says. “There are no real differences between the Swedish and American defence positioning.”
Ericsson’s main concern for the Swedish position is how to evaluate the US military pivot from Europe towards Asia Pacific, while adapting to Sweden’s decreasing military. Spending fell 20 per cent between 2000 and 2008 and more streamlining is in the offing. “Adjusting to form a smaller, more professional force has been happening in Sweden since the middle of the 1990s. Now it’s taken centre stage,” he says.
This shift may become even more dramatic given Europe’s ongoing debt crisis. Without Washington’s support, Ericsson believes that Sweden will have to face tough questions about how to maintain its defence capabilities. The solution for him will come from the integrated nature of defence and diplomacy. “You have to employ a comprehensive approach incorporating all elements of government,” he says. “You need to use all the tools in the toolbox.”
Joint military manoeuvres are the defence equivalent of a diplomatic handshake. So when China sent 16 naval ships and two submarines for its first joint naval exercise with Russia close to Japanese waters in April, hackles were raised in Tokyo. Still, Japan had a riposte. While the Sino-Russian alliance pivoted in the Yellow Sea, India limbered up for its first military-to-military manoeuvre with Japan, in a show of defence diplomacy that aimed at cementing its friendship with China’s rival.
In January, Qatar came out in support of military intervention in Syria. Now, the nation has signed a Military Training and Cooperation Agreement with Turkey, the region’s other emergent power. This will bolster their diplomatic relations and bring Qatar closer to Nato’s missile defence installations in Turkey – the likely launch site for any airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The Chinese training vessel, the Zheng He, is on a diplomatic world tour. The ship will make 14 stops in 11 countries to conduct military exercises with local sailors. The Zheng He is named after a 15th-century Muslim Hui Chinese Mariner whose voyages reached as far as Africa.
Sweden’s role in Washington
The Swedish Embassy to the United States was briefly based on the top floor of the Watergate Building. Since 2006, it’s been located in Georgetown overlooking Theodore Roosevelt Island in a contemporary building designed by Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen. Ambassador Jonas Hafström has a staff of 55, seven of which are defence workers.
Ericsson’s biggest challenge since coming to Washington has been to develop the necessary relationships not only with his American counterparts but also defence staff from other embassies around the city. “It’s these relationships that make the job possible but it’s difficult because you must make them – you can’t inherit them,” he says.
In the year since he arrived in the capital he has nurtured relationships with the Obama administration that have helped him achieve his primary goal as defence attaché: to strengthen the Sweden/US relationship.