Date: 11 June 2018

The frosty NATO – Northern Europe cooperation

The security policies of Sweden and Finland are frequently considered as identical and are put in one pot. This simplification is symbolised by the stress on the northern non-alignment, which is frequently being confused with the Cold War neutrality. In truth, there are many real differences in the policies of Sweden and Finland. Both at the governmental and the social level, there are differences in the approach to the military challenges in the Baltic Sea and to the potential NATO membership.


The prospect that Sweden and Finland, which traditionally stay outside the military blocs, would acquire a NATO membership is still very remote. The status of being outside military alliances is a major part of the awareness/identity of Swedes and Finns. But it mostly concerns the attitude of Finns than Swedes whose views on NATO and on reactions to possible new dangers have been changing gradually during recent years.

The Finnish “conservatism” versus the Swedish “openness”

Recent changes in the stance of the Swedish public opinion are caused by the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the Russian navy’s provocations in the northern part of the Baltic Sea. This is visible in the thorough public opinion polls in which Swedes and Finns are asked to express their views on the issues connected with security. After 2012 the support for the Swedish membership in NATO has risen significantly. Before, only 20% of Swedes supported the membership in the alliance. The rate has risen twice in 2 years (2015) when almost half of Swedes voted for the membership. In recent years, the rate of support has fallen slightly (by several percentage points) and neared 40%. The flexibility of the Swedish attitude to the cooperation with NATO partners shows their stance on the foreign help in case of an armed conflict. Almost 60% of Swedes stress that in such a situation the help for Sweden would be positive, or even desirable.

The Finnish approach is quite the opposite. Their concept of functioning in the global world has not changed much since the times of the Cold War. The characteristic aversion to NATO is still on a high, stable level and fluctuates between 60 and 70%. Also in contrast to Sweden, the wave of the ”NATO-enthusiasm” in 2013-2015 very quickly fallen almost to the starting point. The level of several per cent supporting the membership in NATO in 2012 rose to almost 30% (2015) and 3 years later again fell to almost 20%. The stability of the Finnish attitude is also visible in the assessment of the military self-sufficiency of the state. Most of Finns claim that in case of armed conflict the state is able to defend itself[1].

The Finnish caution and the Swedish thaw

The public opinion polls correlate with the long-term decisions of politicians and the direction of the security policy development led by Stockholm and Helsinki. The conservative Finnish approach to the cooperation with NATO is visible in the parliament where only two parties are pro-NATO. Even though, they do not postulate the accession to NATO in the nearest future. The pillar of the Finnish security policy is to maintain the balance between east and west. Such a policy means a limited cooperation with NATO structures and staying in good relations with Russia. Finland gradually expands the cooperation with NATO. But it is focused not on the incorporation, but on the development of its own potential. The second pillar is the development of its own defensive capabilities, assuming that the state will be able to defend itself unaided. This approach is paradoxical because on the one hand, Finns need the cooperation with the USA and NATO to modernise and develop their own potential, but on the other, they are afraid that by doing so they would provoke Russia, which is considered to be the main threat.

As a result of Russia’s aggressive attitude, Stockholm took more drastic steps. In last few years, Sweden signed several agreements extending the cooperation with the NATO structures, including the signed in 2014 (ratified in 2016) ”Host Nation Support Memorandum of Understanding” which allows the NATO soldiers to stay in Sweden. The gradual intensification of the Swedish cooperation in the security area with the Euro-Atlantic partners was named a “Hultqvist doctrine” (Peter Hultqvist is the Minister for Defence of Sweden). In foreign policy, it assumes the closest possible relation with NATO but without the formal incorporation, and in the internal policy the reinforcement of the local security potential (return of conscription, remilitarisation of Gotland, return to the concept of the total defence).

The prospect of two countries from the northern flank of Europe joining NATO still seems to be a remote issue. But the increasing cooperation between this region and NATO will bring positive results. Greater engagement of Sweden will also influence the verification of the current Finland’s stance. Helsinki observes the actions taken by Stockholm with curiosity and concern. For Helsinki, the prospect of the Sweden’s incorporation to NATO would mean the loss of the key partner and staying in the so-called grey safety zone.


[1] Data from FIIA

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