Rethinking Conscription: The Scandinavian Model

In recent years, conscription as a recruitment practice has been experiencing a modest but notable comeback. However, because the draft is widely seen as outdated and unfair, Norway and Sweden have experimented with a new model of conscription that is very much unlike the one we know from the Cold War. This “Scandinavian model” of conscription based on selectivity and gender-neutrality is sometimes lauded as a modern, 21st-century system of addressing the recruitment needs of the armed forces as well as maintaining a connection with society. The aim of this article is to explore why this model had developed, what it entails, and whether it can serve as an inspiration for other countries.

Following the dramatic improvement of the security situation after the end of the Cold War, the majority of European countries shifted to all-volunteer forces, abolishing conscription which was widely considered to be a thing of the past. Increasing Russian aggressiveness over the past decade, however, seems to be reversing this trend as several countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Sweden brought back some form of the draft. [1][2]  Yet, the perception of conscription as outdated, unfair, and generally unfit for its purpose has never disappeared completely. [3] While the deteriorating security situation, especially in the Baltics, has provided some form of legitimisation for this practice, this has not been the case everywhere. So how is it possible that countries like Norway and Sweden that do not face dire threats to their security have successfully maintained or reintroduced conscription?

This article argues that the reason for that lies in the fact that Norway and Sweden have succeeded in transforming conscription according to the changing geopolitical as well as societal circumstances. In the two countries, a distinct version of conscription sometimes referred to as the “Scandinavian model” [4][5] has evolved over the past two decades. Its primary attributes are considerable selectivity and competitiveness combined with gender-neutral approach which will be explored below in more detail. This modernised model has the potential to provide the armed forces with a stable source of recruits and, at the same time, enjoy relative legitimacy.

Swedish Conscripts. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

Selectivity and Competitiveness

Conscription in Norway and Sweden in no way resembles the traditional Cold War model in which the bulk of the male age cohort was being drafted. During the 1990s and 2000s, as there was no longer any imminent threat on the horizon, the two countries dramatically downscaled their militaries primarily through the reduction of conscript intakes. Nowadays, conscription is so selective that it is, in most cases, basically voluntary – while in Norway slightly more than 14 % of the entire age group complete their military service, in Sweden the proportion is even much lower with only around 4 % being conscripted. [6][7] Therefore, the primary objective of conscription is not to produce masses of soldiers for wartime deployment nor to integrate and socialise the youth. Rather, conscription serves as a reliable means of attracting suitable and motivated people, a sufficient part of whom will then choose to remain in the military and become active-duty soldiers. [8]

Source: Author’s own dataset based on armed forces annual reports and government documents

The selectivity of conscription goes hand in hand with its competitiveness – only those who show high motivation and perform exceptionally well in mental and physical examinations are selected for military service. Thus, the practice is highly attractive and, by extension, very competitive. Being framed in the context of individual ambitions, the appeal of conscription is further reinforced by the fact that it provides an opportunity for young people to improve their CVs or to learn new skills. [4] So, while the element of national duty has not disappeared entirely, conscription is nowadays presented more as an opportunity for those good enough to be selected. [9]

Gender Neutrality

Despite this aura of exclusivity in the practice of conscription, the armed forces are in fact trying to present themselves as inclusive in terms of the recruitment of different social groups. [5] In this respect, the gender neutrality of conscription, another element of the Scandinavian model, has been crucial. In 2015, Norway became the first country in the world to actively implement gender-neutral conscription, that is, the conscription of men and women for military service under the exact same conditions. [10] Sweden followed suit three years later. The gender neutrality of the practice is closely intertwined with its aforementioned selectivity. Had conscription been closer to universal, it would have been more problematic to make it gender-neutral, as this would have meant that women would also be forced to perform military service. Conscripting women against their will would not have been politically feasible, not even in the Nordic countries, which have one of the highest levels of gender equality in the world. [11]

The rationale behind the adoption of gender-neutral conscription was twofold. First, men and women were given equal rights and obligations in relation to military service, an area that had been one of the last glaring examples of gender inequality. The fact that the military abides by the principle of gender equality, something that the Scandinavian countries hold high, indicates that it is a modern institution that reflects the values of its parent society. But while normative arguments of this kind played a crucial role, practical factors were also of great importance. [12] Thus, the second major reason was that the extension of conscription to women allowed the armed forces to access a largely untapped source of possible recruits. This way, the widening of the recruitment pool ensured that only the most qualified and motivated people, regardless of their gender, are selected for military service [13]. This was particularly important as the two countries, but especially Sweden after the deactivation of the draft in 2010, struggled with the recruitment of suitable people. Moreover, with their extensive participation in international missions at the time, Norwegian and Swedish militaries needed more soldiers who would be willing to be contracted for deployment abroad. It was especially female soldiers who were sought for as their presence was, in line with the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, believed to be essential for the success of international missions like peacekeeping. [14]

Furthermore, as conscription is traditionally regarded as a bridge between the military and its parent society [15], the extension of the draft to women means that twice as many people come into contact with the armed forces. But as the actual performance of military service involves only a fraction of the population, the experience with the military is for most people not very extensive. Nevertheless, conscription still provides some link between society and the military because of the practical implications of the fact that all young people are eligible for the draft (information campaigns at schools, obligation to fill out a self-declaration form, etc.). One of the tangible benefits could, for example, be higher and more well-founded support for the armed forces. [5] Thus, conscription, albeit considerably selective, can help to reduce the civil-military gap that is said to plague countries with all-volunteer forces.

Norwegian Conscripts. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Scandinavian Model in Practice

While the recruitment process is in both countries very similar, Sweden differs from Norway in that it maintains a parallel system for volunteers who can apply to perform military service without being drafted. [16] Nevertheless, at the start of the conscript recruitment process, everybody who turns 18 is required to state their motivation and health status in a questionnaire. Based on the answers, around 27 % of people in Norway and 19 % in Sweden are mustered which means that they have to undergo an examination of physical and overall capabilities and an interview. [17][18] Depending on how well they perform, some are called to serve and are assigned to a particular branch of the military where they will carry out their military service. Selected conscripts then serve for 12-16 months in Norway and for 6-15 in Sweden. Remarkably, during the service itself, male and female conscripts usually share living quarters to improve cohesion and reduce instances of sexual harassment. [19]

Regarding the participation of women, the share of female conscripts completing military service has been increasing in both countries. Norway, especially, has been very successful in attracting women – in 2022, they accounted for over 36 % of all conscripts. [20] In Sweden, the increase was rather slower [7], but the examined timeframe is too short to draw conclusions. In the near future, however, it is not realistic to expect that female and male conscripts will be represented equally in the two countries. [13] This would require deeper societal shifts in the understanding of gender roles.
Source: Author’s own dataset based on armed forces annual reports

A Model for Other Countries?

The Scandinavian model has certainly been present in the debate about conscription and has already served as an inspiration. Most prominently, in January 2023, the Danish defence minister proposed the extension of conscription to women. [21] Since conscription in Denmark is also considerably selective and women already participate in relatively high numbers, this will not presumably pose a major problem. But is the model viable outside of the Nordic context? In the Baltic countries, it seems that this version of conscription has not gained much ground so far. This can be attributed to the fact that, in the Baltics, more conscripts are needed to deter Russia or perhaps because gender equality is not such an imperative. On the other hand, the Scandinavian model could be relevant for countries where the numbers of conscripts decrease, and male-only conscription is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Switzerland, Austria, and Finland are prime examples of this situation. For instance, amid growing pressure on gender equality, the Swiss defence ministry is currently investigating a possible reform of conscription. One of the examined scenarios involves the introduction of a gender-neutral needs-based system. [22] Finland has, especially among young people, also seen calls for greater gender equality of conscription. [23] [24]

All in all, demographic (shrinking youth cohorts) and socio-cultural (growing emphasis on individualism and gender equality) trends seem to be pointing towards the need for the reconceptualization of conscription. By providing an updated, 21st-century version of the draft, the Scandinavian model arguably has the potential to do this. [4][5] Its primary asset is the way it reconciles the recruitment needs of the military with respect for the values of contemporary societies, in effect making conscription more efficient and legitimate. Moreover, it is perfectly compatible with the increased professionalism of the military. While this is not to say that this model is ideal or suitable for every context, it can provide us with new ways of thinking about conscription without getting stuck with the Cold War images of the draft. This is especially important at present amid the deterioration of the security environment in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when conscription as a way of bolstering national security has once again grown in relevance.

Article reviewed by: Dávid Dinič, Tomáš Zwiefelhofer


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