Sweden’s Psychological Defense Agency

Sweden's Psychological Defence Agency

At the start of this year, Sweden officially launched the Psychological Defense Agency. The purpose of the agency, as the agency’s website explains, “is to safeguard our open and democratic society, the free formation of opinion and Sweden’s freedom and independence.” The website further explains the need for, the scope of, and imperative to be proactive for psychological defense.

Psychological defence must be able to identify, analyse, meet and prevent undue information influence and other misleading information that is directed at Sweden or Swedish interests both nationally and internationally. It can be disinformation aimed at weakening the country’s resilience and the population’s will to defend itself or unduly influencing people’s perceptions, behaviours and decision making.

Psychological defence must also strengthen the population’s ability to detect and resist influence campaigns and disinformation. Psychological defence contributes to creating resistance and willingness to defend among our population and in society as a whole.

The agency’s deputy director, Magnus Hjort, explained to The Washington Post why now: “The security situation in our near European environment has deteriorated for some time now and therefore we need to rebuild our total defence.” Note the use of “rebuild” and how the framing aligns as the flipside of the offensive means of political warfare. The latter is for another time, with the former (“rebuild”) the topic of this post.

In April 2009, I convened a discussion with a Director-General of the Swedish Ministry of Defense, Mr. Mats Ekdahl, who was then serving as the chief of Sweden’s Board of Psychological Defense. This invite-only event came a few months after I convened the Smith-Mundt Symposium in January 2009 (Scribd link), took place in the same venue, the Reserve Officers Association, and was basically for the same purpose: to build a better understanding of our own defective understanding of information in foreign policy. With the Smith-Mundt Symposium focused on US thinking and structures with input from academia, practitioners, the military, the media, and Congress, the event on Sweden’s Board of Psychological Defense provided a different perspective for a similar yet different context.

Entitled “Public Affairs in a Global Information Environment,” the half-day discussion opened with comments by Mr. Ekdahl followed by a panel discussion with Mr. Ekdahl, Dr. Daniel Kuehl (National Defense University) representing a US military information viewpoint, and a senior professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee representing a Congressional viewpoint. The panel was chaired by the Hon. James Glassman, the former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who represented the informational perspective of our foreign ministry. Unlike the Smith-Mundt Symposium, which was public with both audio and transcripts of the event available (C-Span had committed to broadcasting the event, but “hearing-palooza” on the Hill happened the same day and they told me and others they literally didn’t have a camera to send to cover my event), the main discussion was off-the-record. The purpose was to have as open and frank discussion as possible with attendees coming from across government, including at least three departments, several agencies, at least two “centers,” among others. However, a write-up, chiefly authored by my friend Dr. Craig Hayden, of the event is available here.

Not mentioned in the report, which was not widely distributed before now, is the support of the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate, whose leadership I had been working with and whose conference where I put together and chaired a panel introduced me to the Board of Psychological Defense, and the support of Sweden’s Embassy in Washington in facilitating Mr. Ekdahl’s travel to DC for this and other meetings I arranged (and those I didn’t).

I have been asked about the new agency in light of the serious – and undeniable – problems with the US approach, or lack of, to foreign and domestic influence operations, which goes beyond a hyperfocus on technology with “solutions” almost always reactionary in concept. Sweden starts with significant advantages over the US, and this does not include it being a small country with fewer people, more (especially compared to the US) heterogeneous population, greater participation in democratic processes, etc. The “Swedish model” – in my presentations, “I like the Swedish model” would always get the cheap laugh – had a high degree of interconnectedness across government and with the private sector. The US simply does not have that, with exceptions proving the rule. A direct import of the Swedish model could not work in the US, just as a direct import of the Psychological Defense Agency wouldn’t work. My concern is too many will simply look at the tactics and narrow operational constructs of this new agency rather than the integrative, proactive, multi-disciplinary, non-platform specific, and multi-stakeholder approaches that enable the agency and from which it may provide value.

Edited 11 January 2022 11:20 CET to embed the Scribd document and minor edit.