Finland and Sweden Wait for the Baltic States


Risto E.J. Penttila International Herald Tribune

TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2006
The Baltic States used to be a problem for Russia. Now they are a headache for their Nordic neighbors, Finland and Sweden. Likely membership of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in NATO is forcing Finland and Sweden to reconsider their commitment to military nonalignment. Traditionalists in Helsinki and Stockholm do not like it a bit.

The Baltic enthusiasm for NATO and the Finnish-Swedish distaste for the organization stem from the same source: a refusal to believe that NATO has changed in any meaningful way. The Baltic states see it as directed against Russia and want to join it for that reason. The Finns and Swedes share the perception and reach the opposite conclusion: They want to hear nothing about membership.

But things are slowly changing. In Finland most experts privately confide that if the Baltic states join NATO, the country will probably have to follow. But there are two slight problems: the president and the people.

President Tarja Halonen was an active supporter of unilateral disarmament in her youth and has still not shed her distrust of NATO and American imperialism. If it were up to her, Finland would probably never join. But it is not. The new constitution has divested the president of most of her powers. She cannot be ignored (in foreign policy she leads ”in cooperation with” the government), but in reality it is Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen who holds the keys. And he is distinctly more pragmatic than the president.

The Finnish people are rather more militaristic than their president – 80 percent say they would be willing to take up arms to defend their country even if prospects were dim. But they have a remarkably low level of trust in foreign help.

”The Help That Never Arrived” is the title of a well-known book describing French-British plans to come to Finland’s rescue during the Winter War in 1939. It still describes the Finnish attitude to military help. Consequently, 80 percent of people oppose membership in NATO. As the foreign minister puts it, ”In order to join NATO we have to change the people first.”

Well, not quite. Finland is a country where people still expect leadership in questions of national security. When the government leads, people will follow.

Most experts believe that a turnaround in public opinion concerning NATO would be achieved in less thana year if the foreign policy leadership began to work the issue. For now, it suffices for Prime Minister Lipponen that Finland has reached a very high degree of interoperability with NATO. But decisions can be made quickly,if need be.

Things are trickier in Stockholm. Because of its past as a great power, Sweden still struggles with its national identity. According to a joke told in the neighboring countries, the Swedish government concluded at the end of the Cold War that there was only one superpower left: Sweden.

Jokes aside, it is hard for a country which considers itself a leading nation to join an alliance founded and led by others. This is confirmed by Sweden’s inability to find a comfortable role in the European Union.

The second burden of history is Sweden’s splendid isolation, also known as neutrality. This policy started as a pragmatic way of staying out of wars in 1834, but during the Cold War it assumed an air of moral superiority. Harsh criticism of Washington and a deep dislike of NATO were an integral part of Olof Palme’s ethical foreign policy in the 1970s.

The current prime minister, Goran Persson, shares the Palme ideals in social policy, but in foreign policy he has started to break with the past. On the Middle East, he has taken a much more balanced view than the late Mr. Palme, who almost invariably sided with his friend Yasser Arafat.

With regard to European integration, the two prime ministers are light years apart. While European integration could not offer anything to Mr. Palme, Mr. Persson is busy preparing the country for the single currency. But will he be able to take Sweden into NATO?

For now, the answer is ”no.” It is extremely unlikely that Sweden or Finland will change their policy of military nonalignment before the Baltic states are safely inside the alliance. But if the Baltic states join NATO without any deterioration in Russian-Western relations, it will be hard for anyone in Stockholm and Helsinki to find a reason not to join.

If Baltic membership leads to heightened tension in the region, there will be a new resolve to continue military nonalignment in Stockholm. The Finns, sharing a long border with Russia, may wish they had joined while the going was good.

It is difficult for the Nordics to admit, but as regards NATO, the Baltic states lead and their Nordic cousins follow.

Article was published in International Herald Tribune
Friday, January 25, 2002


Sähköpostiosoitettasi ei julkaista. Pakolliset kentät on merkitty *