Throughout the Cold War, Finland and Sweden maintained neutrality to avoid the crosshairs of U.S.-Soviet competition. Though both countries align closely with the Western liberal world order, neither has joined NATO. The time for non-alignment is past. Today, the global strategic calculus has changed, and both countries are weighing their security options. They often are coupled by the assumption they will opt in or out of NATO together, but it may be time for Finland and Sweden to go their separate ways in making this decision.
If managed properly, joining NATO would enhance Finland’s and Sweden’s defensive capabilities, strengthen European collective security, and improve the prospects of a liberal world order struggling against a host of relentless illiberal adversaries.
NATO arguably is the most successful politico-military alliance in history. It largely has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years. By tying each member’s security to all others through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — “an attack on one will be considered an attack on all” — each member can be assured it will not have to stand alone against an aggressor.
To be sure, Finland and Sweden already are important NATO partners. Both contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Sweden even led a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mazar E Sharif. Both continue to contribute to Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan; are members of the Global Coalition to Combat the Islamic State; and regularly join military exercises with NATO. Yet, neither enjoys the collective security benefit of Article 5. NATO membership would assure them the aid of 30 countries in a time of need, significantly increasing their individual security.
The 21st century has been hard on NATO. The inconclusive war in Afghanistan, the disastrous outcome in Libya, the bickering over defense spending, and the gradual drifting away of Turkey have worn down the organization. Yet, even with major challenges — persistent Russian encroachments on the liberal world order, the challenge of China’s state capitalism, and the continuing global struggle against Salafi Jihadism — NATO remains the bastion of freedom-loving, liberal states.
Russia’s territorial aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, and its provocative exercises and actions along the borders of the Baltic Nations, Norway and Poland, mean that NATO never has been more relevant. Like many current NATO allies, Sweden and Finland need to up their defense game; both invest less than 1.5 percent of their national budget on defense, but the 2 percent target by 2024 certainly is within their reach. Regardless, their formal accession to NATO would bolster an organization that can, and should, be a major pillar of 21st century security.
Make no mistake, the Western liberal order — built upon democratic governance, political and economic freedom, and the rule of law — is under assault. Russia’s unlawful seizure of Crimea, hybrid aggression in Eastern Ukraine, occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Republic of Georgia, and meddling in European (and American) politics have destroyed the dream of a Europe “whole, free and at peace” — at least for the foreseeable future.
There is little the alliance can do militarily to counter Russia, but military intervention is not the only possible response. Asymmetry can work to our advantage; embracing Finland and Sweden within the NATO family would send an unequivocal message to President Putin that Russia’s aggression has serious consequences. By joining NATO, Finland and Sweden would demonstrate the resilience and adaptability of the liberal world order, and that Russia’s misbehavior will have precisely the opposite of its intended effect: strengthening that order.
Are the Swedish and Finnish people ready for NATO? The path to security, whether by joining or not joining NATO, must be made by citizens of these countries. In both countries, there are pro- and anti-NATO advocates. Both countries have good reason for caution and fear; the Russian military is menacing and near.
In Sweden, the center of gravity is moving toward membership. Recent polls there show 43 percent in favor of NATO membership, with 37 percent opposed. In Finland, with its 833-mile shared border with Russia, the public view of NATO membership is decidedly and consistently cool, with only 22 percent in favor of membership (though 50 percent are in favor of close cooperation with NATO). However, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto recently invoked the possibility of NATO membership; his endorsement could sway up to one-third of the popular vote, according to local sources.
Nevertheless, the two countries might need to break ranks. Finland may have to chart a different course, since a failed referendum on membership would make close cooperation with NATO awkward later. In Sweden, the risk of a failed referendum is significantly lower.
NATO membership is not spontaneous. The membership process requires a consensus of current NATO members and is time-consuming, leaving applicant countries vulnerable while their applications wind their way through the bureaucracy, a period during which they do not enjoy Article 5 guarantees.
Some argue it was Georgia’s and Ukraine’s inching toward NATO and European Union membership that triggered Russia’s military reaction, and that Sweden and Finland shouldn’t poke the bear by moving toward membership. There is a difference, however. Ukraine and Georgia were within the Soviet sphere of influence and the Kremlin still considers them the “near abroad.” A Russian military move against Finland is plausible, but Stockholm is more than 500 miles from St. Petersburg and Russian forces would have to traverse the Baltics or Finland to get there.
There always has been a degree of ambiguity in deterrence. Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Does the status quo really protect our interests? Can we let Russian aggression and interference stand? This is where leadership comes in. Thought leaders, political and business leaders in Sweden, Finland and throughout the alliance, should make the public case that NATO membership is a security benefit for countries, for Europe as a whole, and for the liberal world order — and not a liability. That is the responsibility of NATO’s leaders, a job they could do better.
Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, and the editor of NDU’s journal, PRISM. He has served in various positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State, including chief operating officer for the USAID Office of Democracy and Governance, and rule of law specialist in the Center for Democracy and Governance. In 2002-2003, he served as the Department of State deputy for war crimes issues.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.]