Sweden seeks to answer worried students’ questions about NATO and war after its neutrality ends


STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) — The teacher’s opening question to students in Stockholm is blunt: “Has joining NATO increased the threat to Sweden?”

Sweden became the Western military alliance’s 32nd member in March. The abrupt end to the Scandinavian country’s 200 years of neutrality following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and officials’ warnings about the Russian threat to Sweden itself, worry many. Teenagers are no exception.

Masai Björkwall helped design a national program to educate students on the history and geopolitics of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after students at Viktor Rydberg Junior High School earlier this year anxiously asked if war might come to Sweden.

Their fears had been sparked by comments from the country’s top military commander and the civil defense minister that there was a risk of war and that Swedes must prepare. The statements spread quickly, and the national children’s help line reported an increase in questions about war.

Sweden’s last war ended in 1814.

“Of course we have to deal with the students’ worries about risk for conflict and war, and explain why we joined. We have had the policy of neutrality for so long, several hundred years,” Björkwall said. “So I have to teach about what has happened in the world, what has changed that made us change our policy.”

For teens unfamiliar with NATO, war and world politics, Björkwall’s new syllabus seeks to demystify topics his students see online.

One lesson included a discussion of the implications of NATO’s Article 5, the alliance’s collective defense clause under which an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all allies. The discussion stressed that the clause doesn’t lead to an automatic military response.

Student Linnea Ekman didn’t see any increased threat, pointing out that Article 5 does not require sending troops.

Another student, Edith Maxence, was concerned about the world becoming more divided as Sweden takes sides.

“I feel safe that Sweden is with NATO, but I feel unsafe that (…) it might start a war,” said the 14-year-old.

She isn’t alone. Children’s Rights in Society, which runs the national child help line, has seen increasing numbers of calls from children asking whether NATO membership increases the risk to Sweden.

Callers rarely asked about war before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But the secretary-general of BRIS, Magnus Jägerskog, said that nearly 20% of calls were about war in the week after military chief Micael Bydén and Civil Defense Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin made their comments in January highlighting the risk.

Addressing such concerns is where the program Björkwall helped design comes in.

Together with UR, a publicly funded civic education agency that creates educational content for teachers and students, he and others produced a series of video programs on NATO along with teaching materials. Launched in March, these programs have now reached an estimated 100,000 Swedish children.

For his final-year students, Björkwall has a more challenging question: Should Sweden align with authoritarian countries? He uses as examples Turkey and Hungary — NATO allies that delayed Sweden’s membership for months after Nordic neighbor Finland had joined.

The class is divided, with nearly half of the students unsure.

“We found it hard to make one conclusion,” said 15-year-old Adam Sahlen but acknowledged that “the military gets stronger and better if we cooperate with others, especially Turkey for example.”

Björkwall said he’s careful to avoid advocating one position over another: “I want them to be mature, democratic citizens that can vote consciously later on.”



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