Finland and Sweden, Welcome!

Politics - March 18, 2024

On 4 April 2023, Finland became a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Eleven months later, on 7 March 2024, Sweden joined. This was a historic moment. Both Finland and Sweden had long maintained non-alignment in peace and neutrality in war, although both were, and are, liberal democracies with a free and open economy and therefore socially, economically and culturally a part of the West. The last time Sweden fought a war was in 1814 when she dispatched an army to Norway to suppress a rebellion: The Norwegians had not appreciated that the European powers had given their country to Sweden as a compensation for Finland which had been lost to Russia in 1809; instead, they wanted to establish an independent state. The result was a compromise, a personal union between Sweden and Norway. In the twentieth century, however, Finland was not as fortunate as Sweden. She had to fight three wars in 1939–1945. First, there was the ‘Winter War’ against the Soviet Union which attacked Finland in late November 1939. Then, there was the ‘Continuation War’ in 1941–1944 when she sought to recover the territories lost in the Winter War. The third war was in 1944–1945 against Nazi Germany which had occupied the north of Finland: the Soviet Union had made it a condition for peace that the Finns would drive out the Germans.

The Kalmar Union

From a Nordic point of view, the accession of Finland and Sweden to the North Atlantic Treaty is remarkable because this is the first time since the dissolution of the Kalmar Union in the sixteenth century that the Nordic countries are formally on the same side internationally, despite all their social, economic and cultural similarities. The Nordic countries all belonged to the Kalmar Union from 1397 to 1523, under the Danish monarch, although each of them kept their own laws and institutions. Later Denmark and Sweden were to fight against each other in several wars, the most consequential being the Great Northern War of 1700–1721 when Sweden was defeated by an alliance of Russia, Denmark and some German states. As a result, she had to abandon any dream of becoming a significant European power. In the nineteenth century a movement arose which sought to reunify the Nordic countries, the so-called Scandinavism, but it fell to pieces when Sweden refused military aid to Denmark in the 1864 war with the German Confederation about Schleswig. Instead, the Nordic countries went separate ways. Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905 and Iceland from Denmark in 1918, whereas Finland, formerly a part of Sweden, but a grand duchy under the Russian tsar since 1809, declared her independence in 1917.

Finland’s Pragmatic Heroes

The Nordic countries all managed to stay out of the First World War (even Finland under the Russian tsar), but this was not the case in the Second World War. When Stalin and Hitler divided Europe between themselves by the Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, Finland fell into the Russian sphere of influence, and accordingly the Red Army attacked in late November. Under Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Finns fought back heroically, although they had to sue for peace in the spring of 1940. Mannerheim was, I think, one of those rare men whom Aristotle called magnanimous: their place is at the head of the table, and they know it and insist upon it. ‘Now a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much,’ Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics. But the Winter War was not only a local war: it changed the course of the Second World War because it exposed severe weaknesses in Stalin’s Red Army which consequently led Hitler to believe that he could crush the Soviet Union in a few months. This proved to be a fatal mistake.

In retrospect, perhaps the 1939–1940 Winter War was avoidable. Stalin’s initial demands were reasonable from a Russian point of view. The second-largest city of the Soviet Union, Leningrad, was only 32 kilometres from the Finnish border which Stalin therefore wanted to have moved westwards, offering some other (and larger) territories in exchange. The Finnish Foreign Minister, Eljas Erkko, bowed to public opinion and refused to make the concessions required, with the result that Stalin decided to occupy and possibly annex Finland instead of just having the border moved. Mannerheim was one of the few Finns who thought that concessions should be made, although he fought with great skill and courage once war was upon his country. The 1941–1944 Continuation War was also a mistake. But in the Second World War the Finns learned their lesson, guided by Mannerheim and the shrewd pragmatist Juho Paasikivi. They had to accommodate themselves to the fact that they were living next to a mighty totalitarian state which was ready to break any rules or covenants if deemed opportune. During the Cold War, the smear word ‘Finlandisation’ was sometimes used about Finland’s foreign policy of non-alignment, with special regard for the Soviet Union, while it was in fact based on a realistic view of the country’s circumstances and especially about her vulnerability. She had carefully to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, between excessive deference and imprudent defiance.

Sweden’s Non-Alignment

Hegel’s famous observation is often misunderstood, that what is real is rational and what is rational is real. It basically means that one has to understand reality instead of only making speeches against it. Things are what they are for a reason, although they can of course often be changed over time. Finland’s foreign policy after the Second World War was rational, and so were the different policies of the other Nordic countries, in their circumstances. Sweden managed to stay out of the Second World War, maintaining her neutrality but perhaps not always strictly, leaning towards Nazi Germany in the first phase of the War, between 1939 and 1943, and towards the Soviet Union in the second phase, between 1943 and 1945. One example was when Sweden allowed the Nazis to move arms and troops across her territory, mostly from Norway to Finland, with the leading Swedish Social Democrat Allan Vougt notoriously claiming that the trains would not disturb anyone because they would run at night. Another example was when after the War Sweden extradited to the Soviet Union refugees from the Baltic countries, many of whom had been forced to fight on the German side and none of whom regarded himself as a Soviet citizen. But perhaps the Swedish government had little choice in both cases, and it may have decided to err of the side of caution. Arguably, also, Swedish non-alignment in the Cold War best served Swedish interests. Although it is an exaggeration to say that states have no friends, only interests, friendship and social and cultural affinity play only a small role in international relations. This was demonstrated after the War, in 1948–1949, when the idea of a Nordic defence union was explored. Iceland, far out in the North Atlantic Ocean, was excluded from the deliberations, and Sweden made it a condition for such a union that Finland’s participation would be acceptable to the Soviet Union—which it was not.

Three Nordic NATO Countries

Consequently, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland all decided to accept the offer of the United States to defend Europe against the totalitarian Soviet state and in 1949 joined NATO. Denmark and Norway had both been occupied in April 1940 by Nazi Germany, and Iceland in May 1940 by Great Britain. The responses of Denmark and Norway to the German attack were quite different. Denmark surrendered almost immediately: Her borders were indefensible against a German attack. It was the only rational policy to pursue. (The austere and aloof Erik Scavenius who as Foreign Minister cooperated with the Germans, was sometimes accused of being too friendly towards them, while the Social Democratic Leader Thorvald Stauning retorted: ‘Scavenius? He is not friendly towards anyone!’ After the War, Scavenius drily remarked: ‘Oh, was Denmark at war with Germany? We were lucky that the Germans did not discover this.’) Norway chose however to resist the attack. This was also rational in the circumstances, although British and French assistance was too little too late. It proved however much more difficult to occupy the whole of Norway than Hitler had envisaged. The Icelanders breathed a sigh of relief that it was Great Britain and not Nazi Germany that occupied their island, strategically placed in the midst of the North Atlantic Ocean, and in July 1941 they accepted an offer from the United States to take over from Great Britain their defence. The defence agreement between the United States and Iceland enraged Hitler who correctly recognised it as an important step for Roosevelt to enter the Second World War. It also meant that Iceland formally abandoned her neutrality.

The experiences of Denmark, Norway, and Iceland in the Second World War convinced their leaders that it was futile just to declare neutrality and hope for the best. They also had to prepare for the worst. It is not enough to make speeches against reality, and the grim reality at the end of the War was the Soviet Red Army which occupied almost all of Central and Eastern Europe. As Winston Churchill memorably put it, an iron curtain had descended across the European continent, from Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic. Therefore, in 1949 all three Nordic countries, after much hesitation and deliberation, decided to join NATO whose three main goals initially were, in Lord Ismay’s words, to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in. The strategy was to be strong enough that the Russians dared not attack. ‘Se vis pacem, para bellum,’ if you want peace, prepare for war, the ancient Romans observed. ‘If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?’ (I Corinthian, 14, 8). After Germany joined NATO in 1955, the main goals of the Organisation were reduced from three to two, to keep the Russians out and the Americans in. In the 1990s, when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it seemed for a while to some that NATO had outlived its purpose (just like many other international organisations set up at the end of the War, such as OECD, the IMF and the World Bank). The newly liberated countries of Central and Eastern Europe saw it differently. For them, it was a priority to join NATO: in 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland; in 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia; in 2009 Albania; in 2017, Montenegro; and in 2020, North Macedonia.

Putin Wants to Restore the Russian Empire

What the people in Central and Eastern Europe understood better than most other Europeans was that Putin and his clique refused to accept the territorial changes brought about by the collapse, first of the Romanov Empire in 1918 and then of the Soviet Empire in 1991. With the collapse of the Romanov Empire, the Russians lost their piece of Poland, and control over the Baltic states and Finland. They regained the Baltic countries in the Second World War, turned Poland into a satellite and Finland into a reluctant associate. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Russians lost the Baltic states anew, and also Belarus and Ukraine. They also had little clout any more in Poland, Finland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Belarus has indeed become a vassal, but it was the decision of the Ukrainians in 2014, in the Maidan Revolution, to reject a similar status that prompted Putin’s invasion and the annexation of Crimea and provinces in Eastern Ukraine. Emboldened by the lack of meaningful response from the West to this invasion and also to the little noted invasion of Georgia in 2008, Putin decided in 2022 to invade Ukraine again, trying to ensure that she would not join NATO and the European Union and instead become a vassal like Belarus. Moreover, a free and prosperous Ukraine is an existential threat to Putin’s brutal and corrupt regime which is not only silencing critical voices but also stifling the entrepreneurial spirit.

It was the 2022 invasion of Ukraine which alerted Finland and Sweden. Now their neighbour, Putin’s Russia, was weak enough that the two countries dared join NATO, but sufficiently strong to be a real threat. Although the GDP, Gross Domestic Product, of Russia is estimated to be only slightly higher than that of Spain, she has a large army and a vast nuclear arsenal. After all, she is the most populous country of Europe, with more than 140 million inhabitants. This makes, alas, for a lot of cannon fodder. If Putin manages to subdue Ukraine, he is likely to turn his attention to other parts of the former Russian Empire, first and foremost to the three Baltic countries and Finland. If he could subdue these four countries, in one way or another, he would become a real and imminent threat to Sweden (and of course Poland). Looming darkly in the background is Putin’s ally, Xi Jinping, the Leader of the Chinese Communist Party, waiting for an opportunity to seize Taiwan and take control of the South China Sea. China is now spending a similar amount of money on her military as all the European countries combined on theirs.

A New Kalmar Union?

The Nordic countries have a strong shared social, economic and cultural identity, and they have enjoyed friendly relations between themselves for a long time, especially in the Nordic Council (which might serve as a model for a more restrained European Union of the future). But it is only now that they are all united in an alliance with the other European democracies and with their North American partners. Sweden and Finland, with their robust civil spirit and well-equipped military, will contribute much to the common defence of the West. It is now almost as if the Kalmar Union has been restored, by choice this time, not by conquest. Consequently, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Icelanders, all founding members of NATO, can say to the Swedes and the Finns: Welcome! Welcome home! Here is where you belong. ‘We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.’