Beyond Iceland’s air monitoring?

Nordic cooperation in security and defense matters has not been, historically, a very reliable thing in times of crises. These countries have lots in common, and they do work together in security and defense questions. But transforming this fellow-feeling and this web of relations into a reliable defense cooperation with common guarantees has never been easy. Despite their proximity, these countries have diverging strategic interests and defense structures. The various components forming their public opinions also see defense matters differently. Agrarian parties, social-democrats, nationalists, conservatives, “pro-European” have all different visions on Nordic cooperation, security threats, military organization.

Things have stirred on this front recently, with the debates on Iceland’s air monitoring. But there is more to come, as it seems, especially between Sweden and Finland – at least this is the way one could interpret the various signals coming out this week, with Stockholm at the foreground and Helsinki reacting.

It all started last week, in a text for Dagens Nyheter signed by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Defense Minister Karin Enström. The text, untitled “Försvarsmateriel kan ägas gemensamt i Norden“,  advocates the establishment of common defense programs between the Nordic states. It insists especially on bringing together defense capabilities and resources, and calls for a refocusing of Swedish foreign policy on the Baltic-Nordic area. The text mentions several examples of cooperation (amongst which the monitoring of Iceland’s air space) and generally makes a case for more work in common between Nordic countries.

In times when everybody looks into doing more (defense) with less (money), and despite the absence of immediate conventional threats (from Russia, let’s say it clearly), the timing makes sense. Sweden has discussed recently its defense capability, and debates have taken place in Finland as well. Furthermore, both Finland and Sweden are outside NATO, which should make Nordic initiatives even more attractive to them, as an alternative between a toothless European defense and an Atlantic organization still largely rejected by their public opinions.

Looking at things from a Finnish point of view, the reactions to Bildt’s and Enström’s paper seem all too classical: cautious and determined by domestic political considerations. Everybody seems to play his or her part. Carl Hagglund, the Finnish Defense Minister, quickly welcomed the Swedish proposal. He also declared that, if Sweden was attacked, Finland would help. Others, especially amongst the nationalist Perussuomalaiset, were about as quick to say that defense is a national thing, defense resources cannot be owned in common, and that Nordic defense initiatives would bring the country dangerously closer to NATO. Jussi Niinistö, head of the Parliament’s Defense Committee and a Perussuomalaiset MP, saw behind the Swedish initiative the effect of a long-term weakening in Sweden’s defense, that the Swedes would like to compensate by cooperating and using Finland as a buffer-zone against Russia.

Under the surface of these political discussions, will there be a significant surge in Nordic common defense initiatives beyond common participation in crisis management operations and agency-level contacts? Are we going to witness a real debate on what exactly a possible Nordic defense could entail, and against which threats? Let’s see how all of this unfolds.

As food for thought, let’s end up on this:


In a radio interview in Sweden, former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, contrary to Sweden’s official position, urged Sweden to join the “new” NATO. He argued that it was wrong to shut the door to membership. In his view, membership should be discussed in Sweden and in Finland. The director of the Finnish Institute for International Relations, Tapani Vaahtoranta, said in an interview with the (Swedish-language, Helsinki) newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet that Bildt’s overture had not sparked off discussion of Finland’s possible membership of NATO among politicians. He believed that Finland would wait for Russia’s reaction when NATO announced its enlargement plans in the summer. According to Vaahtoranta, there were big differences between the Finnish and Swedish starting points. Finland is a frontier country, whereas Sweden has Finland and the Baltic republics as a buffer between itself and Russia.

These are elements that are still very much at the heart of the debate: even with a Russia largely unable to present a conventional threat to Finland or Sweden, the debate is still understood as centered on Russia. Other elements, both in Sweden and in Finland, echo today’s debates: links between the two countries, the NATO debate, domestic differences, etc… And yes, it is the same Carl Bildt.

The extract comes from a series of English-language “Chronologies of Finnish Foreign Policy” published by the review Yearbook of Finnish Foreign Policy. These were published in print for many years, and are now on a website maintained by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. A very interesting window on Finnish foreign policy from the 1970s to the 21st century. Here, for all interested.

Ps. Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja reminds us in his blog today that there is already quite a lot happening between Finland and Sweden in defense and security matters. And indeed the Nordic Countries pool and share already a lot of training capacities, organize common maneuvers, monitoring operations, etc. They have also cooperated for long in crisis management operations. So why the sudden fuzz?

Should we interpret Bildt’s and Enström’s text as a clarion call for new discussions on a common NATO-membership? Both are on the Swedish Right, traditionally more inclined to jump the ledge into NATO-membership despite strong public opposition. Tuomioja certainly seems to interpret it that way, ending his post with ominous words: “Strengthening concrete cooperation, especially with Sweden, is possible without changing the basic security policy options that each Nordic country has chosen.” Understand: no NATO for us, thanks, but yes to more concrete cooperation.

The debate has been fueled by a seminar held Monday in Sweden, during which the Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet declared that Finland and Sweden should join NATO. NATO’s secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared during the same seminar that Sweden’s defense was already supported by NATO, despite the Swedish reluctance to face its responsibilities and participate in the Organization.

What we can say is that the debate, at the moment, is mostly happening inside Sweden. Is it linked with cuts in Swedish defense budget? A Swedish will to sell JAS fighters to Finland under the guise of “Nordic cooperation” (a possibility underlined by lieutenant-colonel Timo Ristimäki in Finland and researcher Jakob Westberg in Sweden)? Or do we just see ripples on the surface, new flares in the domestic Swedish debates announcing a push for closer cooperation with NATO? Will we see essentially the same debate than in the end of the 1990s, with the same players and the same ideas on both sides? In Finland, this seems extremely likely: the traditional players have taken traditional positions, with conservatives (mostly pro-NATO) keeping a low profile, Swedish people’s Party being mostly pro-NATO, Perussuomalaiset, Agrarian Center, Social-Democrats and most others opposing it. However, it seems quite likely that decisions pertaining to Finland will be taken in Sweden…

pps. Sauli Niinistö shimes in: no, there should be no Swedish-Finnish defense alliance, and defense is a national thing. At heart, the public message is the same than Tuomioja: we already do a lot; the Swedes have talked about sharing and pooling of resources, not about common defense; let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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One Response to Beyond Iceland’s air monitoring?

  1. Pingback: Northern Future Forum: Uniscan reborn? | The ogre of the tale

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