Both countries may apply next week, but Sweden’s choice is harder.
Finland has been a byword for non-alignment ever since the cold war, when the Soviet Union forced it to remain neutral. As recently as January, Sanna Marin, the prime minister (pictured, right), declared it “very unlikely” her country would join NATO during her current term of office.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended many predictions. On May 12th Ms Marin and Sauli Niinisto, the president, both declared that Finland “must apply” for membership in the Atlantic alliance as soon as possible. The country’s coalition government is expected to approve that decision on May 15th, and a formal request will probably follow next week. Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, intended to push nato back from Russia’s borders, has instead brought it closer.
The Finns co-ordinate their defence policies closely with Sweden, which is also formally neutral. Under Magdalena Andersson, its new prime minister (also pictured), Sweden too is moving towards joining nato, but more cautiously. As in Finland, the crucial moment will come on May 15th, when Ms Andersson’s Social Democrats will make their decision. The party is expected to back membership, reversing its longstanding commitment to non-alignment. Sweden too will probably start its NATO application process next week.
Visits by Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, to Helsinki and Stockholm this week have played a role. Mr Johnson, as he told The Economist, committed Britain to defending both countries if attacked. That helped soothe fears that Russia might retaliate during the period after they apply for nato membership but before they are accepted, when NATO’s Article Five guarantee of mutual defence would not have taken effect.
It is not surprising that Finland is leading the way. Sweden’s reluctance to join nato was always partly out of concern for its neighbour Finland, which the Swedes feared might be left isolated if it did so. Now that the Finns are shifting, Sweden is too. But the difference is also rooted in the two countries’ politics and sense of their own identities.
Swedes sometimes date their neutrality to the end of the Napoleonic era, when they began staying out of European wars after a series of unfortunate experiences. But the modern policy dates to the foundation of NATO in 1949. Finland’s treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, after the two countries fought a war in 1939-40, required it to stay out of the alliance. Sweden worried that if it joined, the Soviets might force Finland to become a member of their own alliance, the Warsaw Pact.
“Staying out of NATO was a strategic decision to assist Finland,” says Janerik Larsson of the Free Enterprise Foundation, a think-tank in Stockholm. Sweden built up a large domestic defence industry and robust armed forces, spending some 3-4% of its gdp on defence in the 1960s and 1970s.
But whereas Finnish non-alignment was a pragmatic concession to Soviet might, Swedes began to grant it a moral dimension. Under Olof Palme, a Social Democratic prime minister who served several terms from 1969 until he was assassinated in 1986, the country charted a human-rights-oriented foreign policy that kept both America and the Soviet Union at arm’s length. To protest against American abuses in the war in Vietnam, Palme had marched with Hanoi’s ambassador to Moscow, and Sweden offered sanctuary to American deserters.
“There used to be an expression that it is good to be neutral, to be Swedish is to be neutral, and therefore it is good to be Swedish,” says Pal Jonson, an MP for the centre-right Moderate party who chairs the defence committee of Sweden’s parliament. The sense of exceptionalism was not exclusive to the left. Carl Bildt, a Moderate who served as foreign minister in 2006-14, took to calling Sweden a “humanitarian superpower”. But the Moderates switched to backing nato accession in 2003, during America’s war in Iraq. For the Social Democrats, Mr Jonson says, “military non-alignment has been an issue of identity.”
Most Swedish parties now side with the Moderates. The small Liberal party has backed accession since 1999, the year of NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo. The Centre Party and the Christian Democrats switched in 2015 after Russia’s first invasion of eastern Ukraine. “That was the result of what we saw Putin doing in our neighbourhood; we read the message and changed our position,” says Kerstin Lundgren, a Centre Party MP and the party’s spokeswoman on foreign affairs. The Sweden Democrats, a big far-right party with racist and ultra-nationalist roots, long opposed nato membership but switched their stance last year.
Yet the commitment to neutrality is still strong on the left. The Left party, a far-left socialist group, firmly opposes membership. Hakan Svenneling, the party’s foreign-policy spokesman, told the newspaper Dagens Nyheter that Finnish politicians had “not really reflected on the risks that nato membership entails”. The country’s small Green party opposes joining the alliance too.
Ms Lundgren says she struggles to understand such reasoning. Social Democrats who oppose accession say that non-alignment “creates stability and security for us and our region”, without explaining how. Many seem worried by the idea of living under NATO’s nuclear umbrella, rather than reassured. In practice, Mr Jonson observes, Sweden’s non-alignment ended in 1995 when it joined the eu: “We don’t have a strong independent Swedish voice in international affairs, we try to have a strong common European voice.”
Political considerations may be important for Ms Andersson. With parliamentary elections due on September 11th, she must take care not to lose left-leaning voters to the Left and the Greens. But polls give the Social Democrats a share of 32%, their highest level in years. Ms Andersson’s personal popularity stood at an enviable 59% in a recent survey by Morning Consult. Most think she favours nato accession, but has been skilfully manoeuvring her party towards that position without pushing too hard.
“She’s done that in a magnificent way, many non-Social Democrats like myself are very impressed,” says Mr Larsson. It makes sense for Sweden to move more slowly than Finland. If the country is to set aside a centuries-old policy of neutrality, it will need a broad consensus to do it.■
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Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at a meeting to discuss NATO membership