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Debating NATO: Sweden and Finland keep their distance

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Debating NATO: Sweden and Finland keep their distance
Photo: NATO
12:32 CEST+02:00
Sweden and Finland have become more willing to debate possible NATO membership, writes Tallinn-based journalist Justin Petrone. But opposition to the alliance remains strong.

Despite the continued dominance in Sweden and Finland of a solid majority opposed to future inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the public debate about joining the alliance has grown less controversial in recent years, several experts say.

However, they also emphasize that both countries are still a long way from joining the alliance.

According to Pål Jonson, vice president of the Swedish Atlantic Council, Tomas Ries, director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and Risto Penttilä, director of the Finnish Business and Policy Forum, there are various reasons for the recent warming in the domestic debates within both Sweden and Finland.

These new factors include the election of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's centre-right government in October 2006; the accession of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the alliance in 2004; as well as the influence of highly globalized business communities and political elites in both countries.

Jonson, Ries, and Penttilä described the current Finnish and Swedish discourse on NATO during a panel discussion at the second annual Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn two weeks ago. The conference was hosted by the International Center for Defense Studies, a foreign policy think tank based in the Estonian capital.

‘Critics associate NATO with Abu Ghraib'

Through his role at the Swedish Atlantic Council (SAK), Jonson is well acquainted with the debate over relations with NATO in Sweden. For Jonson, one of the greatest factors influencing Sweden's relationship with the alliance has been the Reinfeldt government's pledge to deepen its relationship with NATO.

In February, for instance, Swedish Defence Minister Sten Tolgfors said that the country — which already takes part in NATO's Partnership for Peace programme as well as the alliance's ISAF force in Afghanistan — was looking into joining the NATO Response Force, a 25,000-strong crisis reaction force.

Despite this warming of the political elite to NATO, the public, as well as the majority of parties represented in the Riksdag remain opposed and the distance between the current Swedish debate and actual membership in the alliance is great, Jonson said. A recent poll in Sweden, for instance, found that 53 percent of Swedes oppose NATO membership while just 29 percent support it.

Jonson told The Local that much of this opposition could be attributed to the idea that Sweden, by remaining neutral, held the “moral high ground” during the Cold War. He also pointed out that the alliance has endured criticism in recent decades, reinforcing the idea that Sweden benefits from non-alignment.

“Critics today tend to associate with it with the War in Kosovo, US dominance, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, and these kinds of things,” he said of NATO.

He added that the country's political elite have reached no consensus and that Sweden's government is wary of pushing the issue, partly due to the defeat of the referendum on joining the euro zone in 2003.

“That showcased the government's inability to mobilize support for political decisions,” he said of the 2003 referendum. “That has increased the hesitancy of the political establishment for raising the issue again.”

The Four Souls of Finland

Across the Gulf of Bothnia, Tomas Ries from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs argues that the Finnish NATO debate is being coloured by what he calls the “four souls of Finland.”

The old Cold War policy of neutrality, he argues, was the product of a fusion between ardent Finnish nationalists, whom he he calls “Kalevala Finns” and hard-nosed realists, who he describes as “Koivisto Finns” – in honor of Mauno Koivisto, who served as president of Finland from 1982 to 1994.

Interrupting this schema in recent years, however, have been two new emergent political groupings, the so-called idealist position, that opposes participation in the alliance, which Ries has dubbed the “Moomin Finns” in reference to the popular Finnish children's books, and a more globalized position centered around the business community, that supports integration into NATO. Ries calls this group the “Nokia Finns.”

“Nokia Finns emerged first in the business community when Finnish companies were getting involved in the Western business world in the 1980s,” he said. “In the 1990s, through Nokia joining the business community and through European Union membership, you had a boom, and you saw the rise of a new generation of people who became pretty globalized.”

The “Moomin Finns” instead have taken a more pacific stance on the issue of joining the military alliance. “The idealist position emerged in the late 1990s,” Ries said. “Until then it was considered naive to have these idealistic values,” he said. “But Finland started to join this Western postmodern political community where ideals became increasingly important in politics.

“There is also an attitude that Finland will get in trouble if we get involved in the alliance,” he said. “Some idealists want to keep Finland in its corner. They believe that if they don't bother anyone, no one will bother them. And that's not so idealistic,” said Ries.

Like Jonson, Ries described the debate in Finland as lacking a sense of urgency. “Insular is the word,” he said.

But other developments, like the expansion of NATO to the Baltics, have also had their influence. “I would imagine that now, after the Estonians come out of their internal NATO meetings, and the Finns come hat in hand and say, ‘Can you tell us what happened at the meeting?' – Baltic membership has an impact,” he said.

He also said that the ongoing debate has softened the Finnish discourse on the topic of the alliance. “The whole NATO question is becoming more and more domesticated,” he said. “There are more reports and discussions about NATO and gradually it becomes less controversial,” he said.

Diverging paths

According to Risto Penttilä, a quarter of the Finnish public supports NATO membership, but slightly more than half have continued to oppose it. He told The Local that the result of Baltic membership has meant that Finnish foreign policy thinkers have continued to “emphasize Finland's unique geopolitical position, so it hasn't really moved the debate forward and it hasn't made Finland more likely to support inclusion in NATO.”

There are also two new elements in the debate, according to Penttilä.

“Finland's policy has been predicated on the assumption that if Finland wanted, and Russia got nasty, Finland could join NATO at any time,” he said. “Now that the Americans supported MAPs [Membership Action Plans] for Georgia and Ukraine and it didn't materialize, it puts the entire premise of this position into question,” he said.

Another factor has been NATO's operations in Afghanistan. Some against joining the alliance argue that fully joining NATO would behoove Finland to send its troops, currently in northern Afghanistan, into the more volatile southern provinces, Penttilä said.

Despite these new factors, Penttilä said that Finland is unlikely to join the alliance any time soon. “The debate hasn't really moved anywhere in the past 10 years,” he said. He also said that the fact that Finland has joined NATO's Response Force this year while Sweden has not shows that the countries may have difficulty in coordinating their positions in the future.

In Sweden, post-euro referendum wariness, coupled with current geopolitical realities, have favoured the partnership approach of the Reinfeldt government, as opposed to a drive to completely join the alliance, according to Pål Jonson.

“There is no sense of urgency to joining NATO right now,” he said. “There is no monolithic threat from Russia towards Sweden right now. So there is more of an influence deficit than a security deficit that is stopping us from joining the alliance.”

Justin Petrone

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