Alternative to NATO? Finnish and Swedish bilateral relationship with the US

By Niklas Ylander

In recent years, American president Trump has violated the relationship with its European allies. Despite the confrontative policy of Trump, the non-NATO countries Finland and Sweden have continued to deepen their military ties with the American administration. This was confirmed as late as in March 2019 with the Swedish military exercise Northern Wind. What is the logic behind this bilateral move, when the US is growing more isolationist-oriented by the day?

In connection with the US presidential election in 2016, Trump continuously argued that NATO simply was “obsolete”. After Trump’s victory this would send shockwaves among the European allies. Even though Trump would soon change his mind, like he often does, this was the start of a new era of unpredictable politics. In this context, increasing defence cooperation between the US and the non-aligned Finland and Sweden is remarkable. The high priority of this bilateral relationship with the US was confirmed by the signing of the Trilateral Statement of Intent in 2018 between the three countries. Why is this happening? Why are two progressive Nordic countries enforcing their relations with a more isolationist-oriented US, and not simply joining NATO?      

Finland and Sweden have been very active in their relationship with NATO. It started with the cooperation for non-aligned countries with NATO Partnership for Peace in 1995. Lately they have also received the status as Enhanced Opportunities Partners which is only given to countries with a special relationship with NATO. These military programmes aim at for example to increase the ability for Finnish and Swedish forces to interact with NATO forces. The Host Nation Support agreement, signed in 2016, was another step closer to NATO because it created a legal framework to request military support from NATO countries in case of a conflict. Frequent military exercises in the Nordic region are involving NATO members and especially the US. The Host Nation Support and the military exercises are important for Finland and Sweden in order to receive military support as soon as possible if in need. Russia, the outspoken threat to Finland and Sweden, is known to act quickly in case of military conflicts, such as it did in Georgia and Ukraine.  

It has been said by many analysts that Finland and Sweden are actually more integrated into the NATO structure than what several NATO members are. However, a membership of the defence organization has been seen as unrealistic due to the lack of popular support among Finnish and Swedish citizens. Even if support for NATO has increased since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, especially in Sweden, it is not enough to ensure a credible majority. From this viewpoint, closer ties to the US bilaterally is logic.

The Trilateral Statement of Intent is an important sign of this relationship with the US. According to analysts, attempts have been made to avoid the attention from president Trump. The Trilateral agreement is signed by the defence ministers of the three countries and therefore it has not been approved by the heads of state. Hence, Pentagon is upholding close relationships with the two non-aligned Nordic countries, without involving President Trump.

This is understandable in the light of the situation in the White House. According to former Trump officials, White House is “out of control”. A couple of days before Christmas last year, James Mattis, the defence minister, chose to resign as he thought that President Trump was not prioritising the allies of the US. Many saw Mattis as a symbol of stability, despite his neo-conservative worldview which emphasizes US military supremacy. Regarding the relationship with Sweden he was quoted for saying “we will stand by Sweden… It’s not a NATO ally, but it is still, from our point of view, a friend and an ally.” Oddly enough, similar statements have not been said about Finland. The Trilateral Agreement of Intent, which was said to be a ”historical” achievement by the Swedish defence minister, has an uncertain future when the defender of stability Mattis is not involved anymore, against the president who uses Sweden as a negative stereotype in speeches, most known as the “last night in Sweden” statement.

The US relationship with the two Nordics countries is important. A new political reality unravelled in the Baltic sea when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO. After the Russian aggression against Ukraine NATO had to plan how to help the Baltic countries in case of conflict. In order to send troops to the region NATO needs access to Swedish and Finnish ports and air space. This is a long term geopolitical reality that goes beyond the violation on the US relations made by President Trump. There are institutions, for example Pentagon, that have an institutional interest to maintain these relations, even when the president is on Twitter.    

Finland and Sweden have an interest in maintaining strong ties with the US, in order to keep the US engagement in Europe and in the Nordic region. “The competition for the attention of the US is tough”, according to a Swedish state report. Therefore, military exercises like Northern Wind with American presence are vital to maintain this relationship. From this perspective, a Nordic engagement in NATO only as partner countries, without membership in the alliance, is not enough to increase the military security. A direct channel of dialogue to the greatest military power on the planet is needed on a bilateral basis, especially when the US attention partly has shifted to Asia.

On the other hand, others are arguing that for the US, the transatlantic security arrangement with Europe is strictly based on the NATO commitment and the famous article 5 on collective military security. This was said by the former US permanent representative to NATO, Douglas Lute, in 2015, one year after the war in Ukraine started, where NATO chose not to engage even though Ukraine was in a position to start negotiating to join the defence organization. Without a NATO membership Finland and Sweden are not bound by any commitments in case of military conflict, but are simultaneously not guaranteed to receive any help from NATO.

It is uncertain if Finland and Sweden will join NATO in the near future, despite the deeper integration into the organization. A confrontation with the sceptic voters will be needed for the last push for membership. A Finnish membership would risk to unleash Russian hostilities which would be seen as too dangerous by the realist-oriented political establishment in Helsinki. Meanwhile Swedish decision makers, sudden awaken by the war in Ukraine, will follow any changes in the Finnish position. Before this happens a deeper bilateral relationship and close personal ties with the US will to be prioritised to ensure an American commitment to the Nordic region. As noted, security policy is for long time horizons and Trump will, even if he is re-elected, be gone from White house in a couple of years.  

Niklas Ylander has a master’s degree in political science with a special interest in Scandinavian politics. After his studies in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, he is constantly wondering about the differences and similarities between the countries.

Photo: flickr, World Economic Forum (Swedish PM, Stefan Löfven, and Finnish PM, Juha Sipilä)

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