A New Nordic NATO?

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This series—featuring scholars from the Futures Lab, the International Security Program, and across CSIS—explores emerging challenges and opportunities that NATO is likely to confront after its 75th anniversary.

In the future, the new Nordic unity caused by Finland and Sweden’s accessions will draw NATO’s political and military-strategic attention more toward the greater Nordic space, ranging from the Arctic over Scandinavia to the Baltic Sea area. 

In military-strategic terms, the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO adds a significant area to defend but also strategic depth and new operational opportunities. These states also bring two sets of sizable and relatively modern armed forces into the alliance (as well as two model liberal democratic political systems, adding productively to NATO’s political and military decisionmaking). NATO’s machinery is already busy including the entire Nordic space in formal defense plans so the alliance can also deter and defend the territory of Finland and Sweden. NATO has conducted military exercises focused on defending the Nordic High North. This new geography also provides opportunities for the alliance to defend its overall territory—for example, by using Sweden and Finland as lily pads for follow-on forces in a defense of the Baltic states. The Nordics have opted to join the relatively new Joint Force Command (JFC) Norfolk, and as the Norwegian minister of defense noted recently, “being under the same joint operational level command, as well as having the same regional defense plan, will be a good framework for developing the Nordic defense cooperation.” The choice, however, also leaves the Baltic states, together with Poland and Germany, in JFC Brunssum—and a NATO seam down the middle of the Baltic Sea area. Whether that will foster issues of coordination, planning, or policy remains to be seen. Having all the Nordic countries in the alliance enables new forms of cooperation between them on deterrence and defense as well as on defense planning. The chiefs of the Nordic air forces have, for example, signed a declaration calling for a joint Nordic air force. And the existing interstate Nordic Defence Cooperation framework (NORDEFCO) recently published a Vision 2030 that shows the way forward for deep regional defense cooperation in a NATO context. 

The like-minded Nordics will agree on some policy topics in NATO, but it is unlikely that they will become a bloc (which is also frowned upon in NATO). In reality, the five Nordic countries, in spite of their shared heritage, have divergent interests, which in itself will lead them to emphasize different policy dimensions, even of the overall “High North” agenda in NATO. Discounting Iceland, which is technically a microstate without armed forces, the big four Nordics each have geographical agendas that set them apart, also in a NATO context. The Kingdom of Denmark includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands, a source of both pride and practical concern. Norway has Svalbard and Jan Mayen, including the tricky legacy of cooperation with Russia. Sweden has the military challenge of Gotland and its eyes on the Baltic Sea and the Baltics beyond it. Finland, the best prepared of all of these states with regard to conventional national defense, is fixated both on Russia and the new sensitive logic of the U.S. defense cooperation agreement that grants U.S. presence on bases on its territory not far from Russia’s strategic heartland in the Kola Peninsula. To paraphrase the former Norwegian minister of defense, Johan Jørgen Holst, geopolitically speaking the Nordics are like a family standing shoulder to shoulder, but each of them look in different directions. Each Nordic state brings different perspectives to NATO, and in the coming years the alliance will have to more clearly define what its role is in the High North and how far that geography extends.

NATO’s completion of its northern puzzle is furthermore significant in broad geopolitical terms. More than a mere incremental addition to NATO, the new Nordic defense situation is a historic achievement that is likely to influence the Nordic countries’ strategic cultures. The unification of the Nordic countries inside NATO spells the end of the greater Nordic space as a centuries-old geopolitical buffer zone. From the end of the Napoleonic wars and for more than 200 years, this space was defined outside-in in geopolitical terms. Boxed in by Russia from the east, by the United Kingdom from the west, and, increasingly, by Germany from the south, the greater Nordic space, including the Baltic states, was subject to great power interests and a balance of power which varied over time.

After World War II, the Cold War divisions repeated the buffer zone’s logic: Denmark and Norway in NATO (but not without initial quibbles and talk of a Scandinavian defense union, which for the same reason had no legs). After the end of the Cold War, Finland and Sweden dropped their formal neutrality but stayed “alliance free.” All four states in various ways had special relationships with Russia: Finland’s dual approach of conventional military strength and political expediency gave name to “Finlandization”; Sweden fostered a double reality of deep military connections to the West and a public political discourse closer to the Non-Aligned Movement; Norway cultivated a pragmatic cooperation with Russia, especially on Svalbard; and Denmark finally, on its own behalf, regarded its sovereignty of the Island of Bornholm with some reticence. A geopolitics of the mind played out in all four countries. While de facto on the Western side in the great global struggle between capitalist democracy and communism, their political discourses, in various ways and to different degrees, often equated the Nordic experience with a way apart from the rest of the world, somehow elevated above the fray, outside of the logic of great power tensions. As Johan Jørgen Holst noted in 1984:

"The Nordic area constitutes a geostrategic unity shaped by . . . the prevailing constellation of contending powers. It forms in addition a psychostrategic unity shaped by a feeling of community and a recurrent nostalgia for Nordic separateness and autarky. Since the former constrains the manifestation of the latter, the two are in constant tension."

The preconditions for an ideational Nordic Sonderweg are now gone. The Nordics are no longer hypothetically above the fray or outside the tensions. The border between Russia and NATO runs along the Nordic countries. Outside of the NATO framework, they have all recently signed extensive bilateral defense cooperation agreements with the United States. They now also share their fate more directly with that of their Baltic brethren. In addition to having to defend themselves, Finland and Sweden are getting ready to accept the idea that a hypothetical war of Western survival can be fought on their territories and adjacent waters, that their armed forces in case of war will relinquish operational control to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), and that these can also be employed to defend other parts of the allied territory. Relations with Russia will be less ambiguous, and Russia will thankfully have far less to gain by playing divisive subversion politics. How the Nordics respond to that deeper change will also matter for their ability to fulfill their roles in NATO in the coming years and decades.

Henrik Breitenbauch is the dean of the Royal Danish Defence College and a senior non-resident fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He writes in his own capacity and not on behalf of any Danish public authority. Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for Futures Lab in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Petersen Chair of Emerging Technology and professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfighting.

Henrik Breitenbauch

Dean, Royal Danish Defence College and Senior Non-resident Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council
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Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program