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Scandinavian neutrality? A deeper look at an enduring assumption

by Arto Väisänen (EU International Relations and Diplomacy - Manuel Marin Promotion) for the European Security and Defense Network (ESDN)

Commentary on Carl Bildt in Project Syndicate October 17th, 2018:

Carl Bildt is and will remain an esteemed statesman, especially in the field of foreign and security policy in Northern Europe. His piece in Project Syndicate provides an up-to-date analysis on today’s big issue in Nordic security and defence, with the title proclaiming “The End of Scandinavian Neutrality”. Yet, while there remains an official legal definition of neutrality in international law, this term has been phased out from intellectual and academic analyses regarding security and defence in Northern Europe as it no longer reflects reality. Indeed, it can be argued that “Scandinavian neutrality” has been moribund since 1995, when both Finland and Sweden joined the EU, other Nordic countries having joined NATO during the Cold War.[1] Building on Bildt’s analysis, there are three other areas that merit deeper analysis: the recent changes in Sweden’s and Finland’s participation in NATO; the close nature of mutual defences between these two countries; and the domestic dynamics in Finland.

Firstly, regarding NATO participation, some officials have remarked that when it comes to mutual territorial defence, there remain “29+2” states within NATO. While this demonstrates the close cooperation that Bildt outlines in his article, he nonetheless does not mention Finno-Swede participation in some of NATO’s Centres of Excellence, along with the fact that both countries take part in NATO military exercises. This close relationship also partly originates from Finland’s and Sweden’s participation in NATO peacekeeping operations during the 1990s. While it has ensured a high degree of interoperability with NATO regulations, there still remain significant limitations regarding the alignment with NATO regulations and military procedures.

This is also the main criticism towards Bildt’s article, namely that it does not look at what this cooperation brings on a more practical level. While these partnerships indeed do provide some degree of support, the defence establishments in both countries are well aware, as non-members of NATO, that they would not be covered under Article 5 (mutual defence clause) guarantees (despite that Article’s largely symbolic role in NATO’s operational history). Furthermore, Finland and Sweden remain excluded from multiple forms of NATO’s procurement policies and regulations, which poses further challenges to their deeper cooperation with NATO. As such, while both countries remain as closely integrated to NATO structures as possible without being members, the practical implications of not being full members are still there and place some limitations in how closely they can interact with NATO. This has, however, been offset by their bilateral cooperation with third (NATO) countries.

Finnish and Swedish soldiers under joint battalion in NATOs Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, ©Puolustusvoimat

The second point reflects exactly this, namely that Finland and Sweden have signed a plethora of joint agreements and declarations between themselves, and have integrated their militaries as closely as possible. This is possible not only through shared security cultures and languages, but also because there are high levels of public support in both countries for close(r) relations. Historically, this cooperation goes back to the early stages of the Cold War, but has gained impetus since the annexation of Crimea and shared concerns about Russia’s behaviour in its neighbourhood. Such behaviour is reflected in aggressive disinformation campaigns and belligerent discourse directed towards Finland and Sweden.

Additionally, both countries have historically had “deep security” cooperation with the US, which, since the end of the Cold War, has been increasingly active: both have signed various bilateral agreements with the US over the last few years regarding national defence. Besides this, the Nordic countries have sought further internal cooperation through NORDEFCO. However, this has been difficult due to the complicated set of institutional memberships criss-crossing the Nordic states.

© Ylen uutisgrafiikka

Finally, despite all this activity at the international level, the domestic level should also be taken into consideration (as Bildt admirably does in the Swedish context, but perhaps less so in the Finnish one). Bildt makes the mistake of portraying the Finnish public and political decision-makers as relatively unified on how to approach NATO. This is a simplification: while the majority of current parties prefer to at least keep the option of NATO membership on the table, there remain significant differences regarding if and when it should be taken forward. The National Coalition Party (the centre-right, current junior coalition party) remains one of the only parties with a clear position in favour of NATO. The only other party with a clear position on the matter is the left-wing opposition party, the Left Alliance, which vehemently opposes NATO membership under any circumstances. Between these two parties, the common national position is embodied in the statements of the current President of Finland: NATO membership is not a contemporary issue due to long-term public opposition to it. It is widely accepted that NATO membership is not a “high salience” issue in Finnish politics, hence the lack of clear positions: voters simply do not care that much.

Overall, Bildt’s article remains a good piece about the general dynamics of the situation between NATO, Finland and Sweden. However, while it provides the reader with a solid understanding of the basics, it also bulldozes over the historical background, simplifying at the cost of accuracy. Furthermore, one should take into consideration the current complicated political situation in Sweden in his admiration of, to use his words, Finnish “hyper-realist” foreign policy. This simplifies the foreign and defence policy of Finland, especially in terms of relations with NATO, and, by extension, the US. As a final point, both Finland and Sweden hope for the continued existence of NATO, even if they are not members. Military and foreign policy decision-makers in both countries are fully aware of NATO’s stabilising role in the Baltic Sea through its deterrence to Russia, an argument on which Bildt also concludes.

[1] The oversight by Bildt regarding the history of Scandinavian neutrality is odd, especially as Bildt does make extensive historical references. However, his references continuously overlook the EU’s impact on neutrality.

The more, the merrier - Issue n. 2, 9 November 2018


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