Asked what the purpose of NATO was, the Western military alliance’s first secretary-general Hastings Ismay came up with one of the greatest sound bites of all time: “To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” These days we would more politely say “integrated” of the Germans, but the British diplomat’s pithy strategic point still holds 70 years later.
That is why I have always been so furious with Utopians of both the left and the right who could not see the enduring realist value of NATO as outlined by Lord Ismay. Instead — like tech staff trying to push endless unnecessary computer upgrades on the rest of us to justify their useless positions — they fruitlessly spent their time trying to reinvent the wheel, the “new reasons” for NATO to exist. Over the past generation, too many analysts have urged the world’s most successful military alliance to expand willy-nilly, to the point of endangering its self-evident usefulness.
Instead, the central realist question must be asked: Does the proposed membership of Finland and Sweden add value and security to the most important military alliance in the world, or would they drain away its vital essence? For realists care little about any prospective member joining NATO; instead, they must care about the continued viability of NATO itself. It is for precisely this reason that taking in these two long-standing Baltic neutrals serves Western interests.
It is one of a series of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic miscalculations that has made a gift to NATO of Swedish and Finnish accession. Sweden has been neutral since the days of Marshal Bernadotte turning on his former master Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century. Likewise, Finnish neutrality, a strategic outcome of the Russo-Finnish war, has for decades been ensconced as a basic fact of life in Europe. Yet both countries’ long-standing neutralist orientation came undone in a matter of months, as the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine made Nordic neutrality seem an invitation to further Russian aggression, rather than a guarantor of Sweden and Finland’s security.
Public opinion, long strongly in favor of continued neutrality, shifted dramatically following the Russian invasion. A Yle poll in Finland in May found a decisive 76 percent in favor of the country’s accession to NATO, an increase from 60 percent in March. This mightily contrasts with the minority 20 to 30 percent of Finns who favored joining the alliance before the Russo-Ukrainian war. Likewise, in Sweden, a Demoskop poll in April found a majority of 57 percent of Swedes in favor of joining NATO, a marked increase from just 42 percent in January. The first hard-headed reason for the West to favor NATO’s expansion in this case is that public opinion (which will have to drive defense increases) is solidly in favor of the accession.
Second, the two Nordic countries pose no democratic or economic questions as to whether they fit into the Western alliance. Both are uncontroversially strong Western democracies with first-rate, advanced economies. Neither will need — as has shamefully happened in the recent past — nursing to join an alliance they are simply not ready for, in economic or democratic terms. Instead, both have the immediate economic capacity to increase their defense spending and meet NATO targets.
Third, both Sweden and Finland already have a strong history of working with the alliance, through their membership in the Partnership for Peace program since 1994 and as members of the EU since 1995. The two Nordic countries have extensive experience of coordinating with the alliance in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan, which will make the upcoming transition smooth.
Likewise, Finland is already spending 1.9 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and this is projected to increase above NATO’s required 2 percent threshold by 2023. Sweden is more of a problem child here, currently spending only 1.3 percent on defense, though it has projected meeting the 2 percent target by 2028. Given the leverage the alliance has, it must pressure Stockholm into making a commitment to meet that target now, rather than after its accession. The last thing NATO needs is even the hint of more strategic free-riders weighing it down.
Fourth, by merely looking at a map, it is at once obvious how the Nordics’ accession makes good geostrategic sense from the West’s point of view. These two countries’ accession will help NATO with greater access to the Baltic Sea, already an area of primary alliance interest due to members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Sweden’s navy, Finland’s air force and both countries’ highly capable intelligence services (especially adept at gaming out Russia) are all strategic pluses for the alliance.
Finland also has a 1,340-km border with Russia, which will be forced to further dilute its waning overall troop numbers to defend a demarcation line that until now it has been able to take for granted. Further, Finland’s active duty troops are augmented by a whopping 900,000 capable reservists, as the country still maintains conscription.
For all these many practical strategic reasons, NATO accession for Sweden and Finland amounts to a strategic opportunity for the West and an own goal for Putin. Bless him, Lord Ismay would heartily approve.
This post was originally published in Arab News.