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Nordic application for NATO membership

Mike McCartney

23rd May 2022

A realist and liberal view of international relations in context

You may have read that Nordic neighbours, Sweden and Finland are set to abandon decades on neutrality by, if successful in their application, joining NATO.

According to the Guardian:

"In the words of the Swedish prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, Sweden and Finland submitted their historic Nato membership applications this week “hand in hand”. But they have not travelled the same road to the alliance’s Brussels headquarters.

Finland’s neutrality, experts say, was only ever functional, the only possible way of dealing with the fact that it shares an 830-mile (1,340km) border with Russia, won independence from Russia only in 1917, and twice repelled everything the Red Army threw at it during the second world war.

“Finnish security policy has always been entirely pragmatic; we’ve just gone for what’s best for us, with no real ideological considerations,” said Minna Ålander, an expert on northern Europe at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

A dramatic shift in public opinion has led the way. Last year one poll put support for Nato membership in Finland at 34%. Last week it stood at 76%. “So yes, I think we can say it’s seismic,” said Ålander. “Logical, yes; something we’ve been preparing for, and working towards the possibility of, absolutely. But I don’t think anyone will tell you that for Finland this isn’t a historic change.”"

So how can we explain Sweden's jettisoning of its policy of militaria alliansfrihet (military non-alignment)?

"The change in Sweden is equally monumental, said Gunilla Herolf, a senior associate research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “We have maintained one doctrine for 200 years,” she said. “That’s a big deal. It means something to people. It becomes an identity issue.”

Ask Swedes for three things that define their country, she said, and many might reply “hunting elk, eating fermented herring – and non-alignment”. With Finland serving as a buffer against Russia, Sweden, which has fought no wars and joined no alliances since 1812, could fashion its neutrality along more idealistic, ideological lines."

See the full Guardian article here.

So, to briefly recap. Realism is a fundamentally self-interested and some would say cynical view of how nation states are best to go about conducting foreign policy. Think Machiavelli, but as a country. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a more optimistic world view, and supporters argue that co-operation will lead to mutually beneficial outcomes, and they strongly favour action by the likes of the United Nations.

The role of NATO in this regard gives rise to different interpretations by International Relations scholars, some of whom view it as being realist in origin, balancing the power of the Soviet Union. Some have questioned how NATO has managed to survive in a post Cold War era, and have emphasised how following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it expanded to include countries like those that form the Baltic States, as well as Poland the Czech Republic.

I think now that Russia presents much more clear and present danger than at any time in recent history, and the actions of the Swedes and Finns are classic Realpolitik, then it seems to have returned to its realist foundations.

Quite a good article here by Stephen Walt from the Financial Review

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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