I was at a meeting in Stockholm 15 years ago with a group of members of parliament from NATO member countries and their Swedish counterparts. We were there to discuss a range of issues, including Sweden’s participation in NATO operations. Our Swedish hosts took us by boat to a beautiful island for dinner, where a member of the NATO delegation asked a Swedish member of parliament why they did not simply join NATO given the existing close level of partnership. She said that the time was not right given the security environment, and then turned to me (as the native English speaker) to ask, “What’s the expression in English?” — pointing to the boat that brought us to dinner. “Don’t rock the boat,” I replied.
Clearly Sweden and Finland have decided that it is time to rock the boat. The fact that two non-aligned states in close proximity to Russia want to join NATO now has strategic implications, but — contrary to what most argue — enlarging the alliance to bring in these two states will change it much more than previous enlargements did. Previous NATO enlargements were pitched as part of integrating the Central and Eastern European states into Western institutions, particularly the European Union, more than explicit protection against Russia. Sweden and Finland, however, are joining NATO solely for the American security commitment in the face of Russian aggression.
This is likely to exacerbate tensions in the alliance between those members focused on building European strategic autonomy, particularly France, and those more concerned with maintaining a strong transatlantic security relationship heavily dependent on American military power. If Sweden and Finland were confident in the European Union’s ability to achieve meaningful strategic autonomy backed by military power, there would be no need to join NATO. Further, Sweden and Finland bring more financial and military assets to the table than the states in previous rounds of enlargement and will use that to shape NATO in their interests as much as possible. This is likely to lead to a greater NATO air and naval presence in the Baltic, as well as more of a NATO focus on the Arctic. On both points, Sweden and Finland will sit closer to the British position, which has particular political significance in the post-Brexit environment.
Not All NATO Enlargements Are the Same
Sweden and Finland are joining now because of their heightened sense of vulnerability following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What is not as obvious, perhaps, is that fear of Russian military action was not the main factor that drove many Central and Eastern European states to apply for NATO membership in the previous rounds of enlargement. NATO has enlarged since the end of the Cold War at the request of aspirant states. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were brought into NATO. In 2004 the alliance formally approved the entry of countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), as well as Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, and Montenegro and North Macedonia followed in 2017 and 2020.
In all of these cases, accession was preceded by a lengthy process to bring each aspirant member up to certain standards. The question was not just military compatibility and capability, but also the strength and depth of democratic institutions. Each aspirant member went through a lengthy Membership Action Plan process, in which progress was continually assessed in areas such as building an independent judiciary, establishing transparent election processes, and constructing a market-based economy. Much of this does not relate directly to the needs of a military alliance, but that only underscores that NATO is a political-military alliance.
Many of the demands of the accession process dovetailed closely with the reforms undertaken by each of these countries in their quest for E.U. membership, which was precisely the point for most of these states. In the 2000s, E.U. membership was seen by many of these countries as the more significant prize and fulfilling the criteria for NATO membership was a means toward that end. Meeting the milestones set down in the Membership Action Plan was a way to establish progress toward completing the European Union’s acquis communitaire, a much more voluminous package of reforms that must be voted into law by each applicant to the European Union. NATO membership was seen as a significant step forward on the path to E.U. membership, and the two were often discussed as part of a package leading to “Euro-Atlantic integration.”
Security from Russian actions and territorial integrity were clearly priorities for the Baltic states, but most of the countries that have joined NATO over the past 20 years do not share a border with Russia and were more concerned about their integration into the European Union than any threat that Russia posed to them. It is worth remembering that when the “big bang” enlargement of NATO occurred in 2004, NATO and Russia had recently upgraded the relationship to form the NATO-Russia Council, Russia had a full diplomatic mission at NATO headquarters, and President Vladimir Putin was still widely viewed as a reformer. In short, most of the states that joined NATO between 1999 and 2020 lacked the financial and military resources to be significant contributors to the alliance’s military capabilities, and they were more concerned about integration into a broadly conceived West than their security from Russia military action. They had limited capability and incentive to use their political capital to shift the alliance in any significant manner — just being a member of the club fulfilled most of their goals.
Finland and Sweden have little in common with the states that have joined NATO since the end of the Cold War. They are joining now solely to get a security guarantee backed by American military power. They are not new democracies seeking incorporation into European structures — rather they are highly developed market economies and longstanding members of the European Union. Their militaries and defense industrial bases are superior to those of many NATO members. As non-aligned states, they maintained their military capability after the end of the Cold War to a degree that most other European states did not. Those factors will affect their direct and indirect contributions to NATO and give them far more influence than the states that joined in previous enlargements. They bring significant financial and military resources to the table and likely will use that as leverage in NATO policy discussions.
Finland’s and Sweden’s Interests and Influence
NATO is funded by direct financial contributions by the members and, far more importantly, by indirect contributions in terms of military personnel and equipment tasked by national authorities for NATO operations. As for NATO’s common budgets (which are distinct from national defense budgets), Finland and Sweden are likely to pay approximately 1.2 percent and 2.2 percent respectively, based on the formula that divides the costs among the members based on GDP. That may not be much compared to the U.S. share (16 percent), but it puts Sweden and Finland in the same category as Denmark.
The real influence of Finland and Sweden, however, will come from their indirect contributions. Finland and Sweden are quite distinct in some ways (Finland, for example, still maintains a conscription-based military), but both are better prepared than most NATO members to defend their territory as well as to deploy forces as part of missions out of the region. In fact, both were significant contributors to NATO missions prior to applying for membership, particularly in the Balkans. In sum, they are not likely to remain in the background in North Atlantic Council meetings, where the ambassadors from each member state meet to discuss NATO policy. NATO is an alliance of theoretically equal states operating by consensus, but those states with the capability to sustain significant forces as part of NATO missions have a weight in the room that those who cannot do so simply lack.
How might this change NATO? First, there is likely to be a push for much more NATO focus on the Baltic region. This is not new, and NATO has devoted particular attention to the region through ground troop deployments and exercises in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. However, the alliance’s activities in this region are likely to become much more focused on maritime and aerial operations. While the small Baltic states rely on other NATO members for their air defense, Sweden and Finland have substantial and sophisticated air forces. Both countries are widely viewed as punching well above their weight in terms of their ability to sustain an air campaign. With the addition of Sweden and Finland, the Baltic Sea effectively becomes a NATO lake. As such, the alliance’s military activities in and around the Baltic Sea will likely become deeply integrated with the territories and armed forces of Sweden and Finland, to include basing.
Sweden and Finland will also likely drive more attention to the Arctic region as a zone of competition with Russia. NATO has a longstanding interest in the “high North,” but competing concerns have generally relegated this to the back shelf in terms of NATO priorities. Yet, a wide range of military and non-military concerns revolve around the Arctic for all the countries involved, and it will not escape Sweden and Finland’s notice that, with their accession, every country on the Arctic Council will also be a NATO member except Russia. The Arctic will likely become much more of a central issue for NATO, and this may exacerbate some tensions in the alliance. France, for example, is generally a proponent of a more Mediterranean focus for the alliance. NATO is obviously capable of doing both, but the balance shifts toward a northerly geographic focus with the addition of two more Arctic states.
Sweden and Finland’s geographic interests will align more closely with those of the United Kingdom than those of France. In the post-Brexit environment, this will likely heighten tensions in the alliance between those who favor a strong transatlantic relationship and those who seek to raise the prominence of the European Union as a security actor under the rubric of “strategic autonomy.” France is a longstanding leader on this issue and President Emmanuel Macron has recently used France’s term as the rotating president of the Council of the European Union to push for strategic autonomy. By applying for NATO membership now, Sweden and Finland are signaling where they stand in that debate. Once again, their motivation for joining NATO now is to pull themselves into a formal security relationship with the United States. Keep in mind that both are E.U. members and that the European Union has a mutual defense clause as part of the Lisbon Treaty. If ensuring Sweden and Finland’s security were seen in Helsinki and Stockholm as a goal that could be met through the European Union and greater European security autonomy, there would be no need to join NATO. Both clearly want to be part of a security arrangement backed by American power. As a recent report from the Swedish Defence Institute makes clear, Sweden sees the United States as the only power capable of guaranteeing European security, not the European Union or its members based on their collective military capability. This is clearly at odds with France’s drive for greater European security autonomy.
Every NATO enlargement changes the alliance, but adding Sweden and Finland will be more transformative than previous rounds. Sweden and Finland bring significant capabilities and resources to the table that will be a welcome addition to the alliance. But these capabilities give them influence that can be expected to further shift NATO’s focus to the Baltic and Arctic regions. At the same time, Sweden and Finland’s accession may heighten longstanding tensions in the alliance, particularly with France. It will require a deft diplomatic hand to balance priorities and maintain alliance solidarity in what promises to be a challenging period in the transatlantic relationship and European security.
Zachary Selden was the deputy secretary general for policy at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly from 2008 to 2011 and the director of the Defence and Security Committee at the same institution from 2003 to 2007. He is currently an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and author of Alignment, Alliance, and American Grand Strategy (University of Michigan Press, 2018). The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author.
Image: Finnish Defence Forces