Sweden and Finland Want to Join NATO. What’s Next?

Sweden and Finland are both historically neutral countries. Though both are members of the European Union, they are decidedly not members of NATO.

But that may soon change.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have signaled a desire to join the US-lead western military alliance.

On the line with me to explain the significance of Sweden and Finland joining NATO is Ivo Daalder, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US Ambassador to NATO.

We kick off discussing Sweden and Finland’s historic neutrality before having a longer conversation about the process of NATO membership and what impact adding these two countries to the alliance may have both militarily and diplomatically.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How did Sweden and Finland relate to NATO before Russia’s attack on Ukraine? 

Ivo Daalder [00:02:35] Well, they both, for historical reasons, decided that their security and their independence was better preserved, not being part of an alliance than being part of an alliance. In the case of Sweden, that’s been more than two centuries. In 1814 onward, Sweden has had a formal policy of neutrality, and that policy persisted until the end of the Cold War. It was only after the Cold War that the question was raised whether Sweden ought to join any Western bloc, and it did, together with Finland in 1995, when they joined the EU. And of course, the EU also has a mutual defense obligation, so that’s changed the question of neutrality. But in 1995, the idea that there was a threat coming that required countries to join NATO just wasn’t part of the debate and the long-standing political sense indeed in both countries was that being members of the European Union, it was good from a political and economic perspective, but security challenges weren’t such that they felt it necessary to be part of NATO. What they did do, and this is true for both of them, they became very strong partners of NATO, and they joined the Partnership for Peace, which was a new arrangement put forward by to in the early to mid 1990s as a way to engage countries that hadn’t been part of NATO. Both countries that had been neutral during the Cold War, like Finland and Sweden and others, but also to the countries of the former Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Union and Russia was a member of the Partnership for Peace. And this was an arrangement in which countries could decide for themselves the degree to which they would cooperate with NATO. In the case again of Finland and Sweden, that cooperation was deep. Both countries participated in the Afghanistan operation. Both countries participated in the Kosovo operation that came after the Kosovo War and Sweden participated in the operation against Libya by flying their aircraft and providing intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance to NATO forces. So, there’s been a very close partnership, but no need to seek a formal defense guarantee. All of that changed on February 24th.

Why do people in Sweden and Finland want their governments to join NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:17] To your knowledge, or your assessment is it that this change stems from popular pressure in both Sweden and Finland to join NATO? This is not sort of, you know, foreign policy elites in the country saying now is a good time to do this. Rather that the people of Sweden and the people of Finland are signaling the strong desire to avoid the fate of what happened in Ukraine.

Ivo Daalder [00:05:44] I mean, clearly, public opinion has shifted very rapidly in both countries. In Sweden, over 50 percent of the Swedish population now supports NATO membership, and that rises to the mid-sixties if Finland joins at the same time.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:03] Yeah, I saw those same polls. That’s wild.

Ivo Daalder [00:06:07] In Finland it’s wild—it’s now 77 percent of the population that wants to join NATO.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:12] Oh, I saw 67 the last one, but that was probably a couple of days old. Wow.

Ivo Daalder [00:06:16] Yeah, it’s 77 percent. And people think that probably more or less that reflects, you know, three in four or four in five people in Finland. So, there is very strong support. It’s always difficult to see what is driving—is it elites or public opinion. Clearly, they’re moving in the same direction. In the case of Finland, you’ve got to go back to the New Year speech that the Finnish president gave in which warning about the buildup of Russian forces suggested that Finland had to possibly rethink its posture. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember the speech being seen as already representing a pretty big break from how Finland usually talked about these issues. But the reality was then it was clear that there were 175,000 Russian troops arrayed along the border of Ukraine that if you have a border with Russia, as Finland has of over 800 miles, you start to worry and you start to think—if they can do that to Ukraine, can they do that to us? And how do we best protect ourselves? And it’s in that context that the issue of NATO membership and particularly to be clear, the security guarantee from the United States that being a member of NATO entails became an issue that all of a sudden was spoken of publicly. The governments of both countries engaged in a study—the Finnish study is done—that shows that NATO membership is something that that really could improve security for Finland. The study in Sweden is still ongoing, but it’s supposed to be done in the not-too-distant future. It’s an old party conversation, of course. The leading party in Sweden right now, the Social Democrats, have long been opposed to NATO membership, and they’d have to change their minds. And in that sense, I think in some way public opinion is leading that party and to some extent, the government as well.

Is it possible for Sweden and Finland to join NATO? What would the process be for Finland and Sweden to join NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:32] So could you walk me through the process by which Sweden and Finland might become members of NATO?

Ivo Daalder [00:08:41] So Article 10 of the NATO treaty, which was signed in 1949, provides for the possibility of other European states to be invited to join NATO if doing so would improve the security of the North Atlantic area. So, NATO has a provision for allowing European states—there’s a geographic limit to who can be invited into NATO, and this provision has been used many times before, including during the Cold War in 1952. So, three years after the treaty was signed, the then 12 members invited Greece and Turkey to join. In 1955, West Germany, which had become an independent country in 1949, was invited to join. In 1982 Spain, which had thrown off the yoke of fascism with the departure of Generalissimo Franco wanted to become a member of NATO and was invited to join. And then, of course, after the Cold War, we had a series of enlargement decisions that ultimately brought another 14 members to NATO’s 30 members compared to the 12 members that were originally. So how does it work? You need an invitation. You can apply, you can say I would like an invitation, but you need an invitation and anything in NATO, including whether or not to issue an invitation to any country is done by consensus. Consensus means that no one objects, doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody agrees, but that no one objects. So, the first step is an invitation being issued by NATO, which at this point requires 30 countries to agree or not to oppose an invitation. I think that’s likely to happen, and I think we may see actually such an invitation being sent at the NATO summit, which is scheduled for Madrid in late June of this year.

When might Finland and Sweden be able to join NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:03] So you expect that sort of key first step, the invitation by consensus of the 30 member states be conveyed at or by the NATO summit?

Ivo Daalder [00:11:13] Yeah, I think so. I mean, of course, both Finland and Sweden need to indicate that they would welcome such an invitation. That’s the first step. And Finland is getting pretty close—it looks like just a timetable, complicated internal politics, and everything else that’s happening in Sweden. But the timetable for the Swedes is sometime in late May early June. So, by late May, early June, the political consensus within these two countries will indicate that they would welcome an invitation and then an invitation is forthcoming. And I think that’s going to happen no later than the NATO summit, and that’s 30 countries. Assuming the invitation is issued the countries that are being invited would then accept and having so accepted, you would then have to amend the treaty, the 1949 treaty, because the treaty lists the members. And if you have two new members, it needs to be listed there.

Why is it difficult for new countries to join NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:10] And this presumably is the hard part, the ratification process?

Ivo Daalder [00:12:14] So, therefore, you need ratification, and all 30 countries need to ratify in whatever constitutional procedures the Swedes have would have to be agreed as well. In the EU, where there’s been a lot of treaty and ratification, some countries require referendum. In the case of NATO, I don’t think that a single country requires a referendum to amend an existing treaty, but you still need ratification. In the United States you need 67 percent of votes in the Senate.

Would the United States Senate approve Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:53] Just surveying U.S. politics, to me, it seems that there is that requisite two thirds majority there in the Senate. You’ll probably have a couple of holdouts like Rand Paul and maybe a couple of others but looking at the U.S. Senate right now, it seems likely, if put to a vote, that Sweden and Finland would be ratified as members of NATO in the US Senate.

Ivo Daalder [00:13:12] Yeah, I think that’s likely. I think the real question is getting time on the Senate calendar, you know, you’ll need hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a report and all that sort of stuff, the parliamentary procedures. And the question is, how quickly can you do that? You know, in theory it can be done quickly. In practice, we know that the Senate doesn’t work quickly enough, but I don’t see a problem in the U.S., nor do I see a problem, frankly, in any other country. I just don’t see this issue being problematic, in part because having Finland and Sweden as part of NATO is a net gain for the alliance. That’s one of the reasons they will be invited.

Could Russia attempt to stop Finland and Sweden from joining NATO? If so, how would Russia prevent Finland and Sweden from joining NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:57] Well, to what extent during that time period, after the invitation has been issued, but before all 30 countries have ratified? Do you suspect that Russia might do what it can to upend ratification processes in other countries or otherwise use its influence to impede that process? I mean, there are some countries like Viktor Orban’s Hungary, a member of NATO and perhaps one vulnerable weak point in the NATO’s unity, in deciding whether or not to accept Sweden and Finland.

Ivo Daalder [00:14:35] Yeah. You know, I’m sure that Russia will try. I think its credibility in Europe, has been slightly damaged in recent months given the behavior it has engaged in, and therefore it is difficult, if not impossible for any country really to point to Russia’s displeasure as a reasonable argument for not proceeding, which clearly was the case beforehand. One of the reasons Ukraine is not a member of NATO is because some countries in NATO were worried about how the Russians would react. I think there’s less concern about the Russian reaction because I think there’s an understanding that Russia won’t like it but there’s also less concern that we should care about what Russia thinks. So, I think that’s one part of why I don’t think it is going to be a particularly problematical issue. It certainly hasn’t dissuaded the Finns and the Swedes so far from seeking a road to NATO membership and no matter what, the kind of threats that have come out from Russia. They just don’t seem to work anymore, in part because Russia’s military capacity doesn’t appear to be as threatening as it appeared prior to the war given how badly it has fared against the Ukrainians and in part because most of the military capabilities Russians have right now, is locked down in Ukraine so that becomes a little less likely that it will be used anywhere else. And for the same reason, countries like even those more sympathetic in the past to Russia are unlikely to stand in the way of Finland and Sweden joining just as they didn’t stand in the way of North Macedonia, joining a few years ago or Montenegro back in the beginning of the Trump administration. I just don’t see it.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:36] Can I ask you about the perhaps unique role of Turkey, which has seen itself something as like a mediator, if haltingly, between Ukraine and Russia? You don’t see Turkey putting up any sort of objection, considering it’s somewhat of a mediator role that it’s playing right now?

Ivo Daalder [00:16:55] No, I don’t, I think the Turks are going to understand the value of having these two countries as part of NATO. They have played a mediating role on the one hand, on the other hand, very significantly supported the Ukrainians in the kind of capabilities that they have been providing them. And so, I think they want to keep their door open to Russia. Certainly, Erdogan wants it but that’s true, frankly, for other countries too. Remember, Macron has been on the phone to Putin quite a bit, a little less in recent weeks because of the campaign. So, the fact that the Turks want a mediating role doesn’t mean they’re going to do Russia’s bidding, and they haven’t done Russia’s bidding on this issue. So again, I don’t see them as a as a main obstacle.

How does the French election affect Finland and Sweden’s hopes of becoming NATO members?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:42] And lastly, on this question of European political and diplomatic dynamics, I mean, we’re speaking four days ahead of the second and final round of the French election. Polls right now have Macron up ahead but, Le Pen, his challenger is avowedly not pro-NATO, if not stridently anti-NATO. Would a Le Pen victory upend Sweden and Finland’s plans for joining NATO potentially?

Ivo Daalder [00:18:09] I think a Le Pen victory will upend a lot of things including that that particular issue, so I basically have decided I will comment on what happens with Le Pen if it happens and if it doesn’t happen, I don’t have to talk about it.

What military capacity do Finland and Sweden bring to NATO if they are accepted?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:25] Fair enough. As good an answer as I could have expected. Assuming that Finland and Sweden do become members of NATO, what sort of military capacity do these countries bring to the alliance? Is it, like, meaningful in any way?

Ivo Daalder [00:18:44] Yeah, it’s very meaningful. It’s meaningful geographically, so you basically have the entire Nordic part of Europe as part of NATO with the sole exception of Ireland, that’s how far south you need to go—or Switzerland and Austria. But you have sort of a big gap in the NATO map, if you look at the NATO map was the absence of Sweden, Finland from an alliance that did have Iceland, Norway, and Denmark, in fact, originally founding members of the alliance. So, it closes that geographic gap, and the geographic gaps are important for airspace, land space and sea areas. For a common defense, it just makes it easier. Secondly, these are countries that have real military capabilities. They may have been neutral, but they were armed. They have a very significant military. That’s particularly true for Finns, whose Air Force is as good as any. They fly the most advanced F-18 aircraft and have already ordered F-35’s, which are the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. They have a large ground army 250,000. They still have conscription in Finland and the army of 250,000 that can very rapidly be mobilized to about 900,000 troops—that’s significant.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:17] That’s like a quarter of the population, isn’t it?

Ivo Daalder [00:20:19] Yeah, it is. It is just a remarkable number that they can put together because that’s they know of which they speak when it comes to their neighbor. They fought two wars in ’39 successfully and in ’44 less successfully but with tremendous costs on the part of the Soviet Union at the time. So, they maintain that capability and that capability now becomes available to NATO in case of need. The Swedes similarly have a domestic ground air force that is quite significant and a very good navy, including submarines and a variety of other really significant military capabilities. So, they are coming into the alliance with real capabilities that has long been compatible with the assets that NATO countries have because they have worked in NATO operations. They know the communications capabilities. It is about as seamless an integration as we’re going to see as anything. And then finally, and really critically, they are both Baltic Sea nations and very close to the Baltic countries, three small countries that were part of the Soviet Union although we never recognized it, that that had long felt very insecure being neighbors of Russia. And now Finland and Sweden are going to be part of the capacity of defending those countries, which clearly sends a message to Russia that NATO is even more serious about defending these countries than they were before.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:07] So, you know, NATO is obviously a military alliance. It’s governed by a political body, the North Atlantic Council. How would admitting Finland and Sweden change the diplomatic dynamics of the North Atlantic Council?

Ivo Daalder [00:22:23] It would have no impact whatsoever in the sense that there’s been long a complaint that the enlargement has made the decision making more difficult within the North Atlantic Council. That just isn’t the case, certainly wasn’t the case when I was there, and I haven’t seen it since. Just because you have more people doesn’t mean you necessarily have more disagreement. Many of the countries that have joined NATO since the Cold War did so because they believed in  the need to enjoy the security of NATO and enjoy the security of the United States, which meant that making sure that you went along even when the issue wasn’t necessarily high on your agenda was important because you wanted to be sure that if you needed NATO, NATO would be there for you. And my classic example is that the Baltic states, in Estonia in particular, but all three Baltic states made significant contributions to the NATO operation in Afghanistan. Estonia at one point had more casualties per capita than any other country, including the United States, not because they were in Afghanistan because they saw a threat from Afghanistan to Estonia, but they wanted to be good NATO members, good allies because if God forbid, anything happened to their security, they wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, we were there for you, it’s time for you to be there for us.’ So that’s how the dynamic works in particular in NATO. In terms of Sweden and Finland, it’s also important to point out they’ve been at the table not only for a long time when it came to operations that they were involved in, they’ve been at the table since the war. They’ve been part of the foreign ministers meeting; they’ve been part of the Defense Ministry meetings; they’ve been part of the two summits, one virtual one in person that has taken place and have had a non-voting seat there. So, they know how this place operates. And they will no doubt want to join consensus if that’s what is necessary to move things forward.

How might NATO change its goals if Sweden and Finland are added as members?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:41] So I’m glad you brought up Afghanistan. As long as I’ve been sort of aware of foreign policy issues, whether it’s Kosovo when I was in high school or Afghanistan in 2001, when I was in college or Libya when I was a full-time foreign policy reporter, the core of what NATO did, at least for me on the outside, was not sort of deterring Russian aggression in Europe, but it was sort of expeditionary. It was far from that core mission. Does the admission of these two members and current dynamics in the world today suggest to you that for the foreseeable future, at least, NATO will return to that core mission and forgo adventurism abroad?

Ivo Daalder [00:25:22] I don’t know if I want to call it adventurism abroad, but clearly the focus for the immediate future and I don’t know how long that is, but quite a while, will be on returning to collective defense as sort of the fundamental core mission of NATO. In 2010, when I was there as the ambassador, we adopted a new strategic concept, which the big political military document that sort of frames what NATO’s purpose is and we identified three core tasks—collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security. NATO is about to adopt a new strategic concept long in the works at the Madrid summit in June, and I would be surprised if NATO were to give equal weight to all three of those pillars, rather than overwhelming weight to collective defense as the primary mission for NATO going forward. And so, yes, I do think there is going to be a concentration on protecting NATO territory from the armed attack by Russia, whether Russia gets identified specifically or not. And less attention than probably one would have thought a year ago to issues like NATO’s role vis-a-vis China or NATO’s role vis-a-vis climate change or in a general way cyber vis-a-vis Russia, China, perhaps, but not in a general way. So, I think you’re going to see a concentration of focused effort on collective defense.

How did the threat, or lack thereof, of NATO membership influence Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:12] So lastly, I want to run an argument by you that I could foresee being aired in certain foreign policy circles, which is that admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO today is needlessly provocative when you’re seeking to find off ramps and ways to engage Vladimir Putin’s Russia out of this war in Ukraine. There are certain foreign policy critiques suggesting that Russia invaded Ukraine because of Ukraine’s insistence on being a NATO member sometime in the future. That was again needlessly provocative from Russia’s perspective. Like, how do you respond to that line of criticism?

Ivo Daalder [00:27:55] I find it harder and harder to respond to it because it becomes less and less serious a line of argument. Russia invaded Ukraine because it was not a member of NATO. In fact, the US, and NATO explicitly said that they would not come to the defense of Ukraine. They explicitly said that because they were not a member of NATO there was no Article five guarantee and that therefore the idea that NATO is what provoked Russia rather than the absence of NATO provoking Russia is the problem. And Finland and Sweden have now got that. They have decided that their security now depends on them being members of NATO, because the record showed that when you are a neighbor of Russia and you’re not a member of NATO they may well intervene militarily against you. And so, security now rests with being part of NATO rather than the other way around. What provokes and what has provoked Putin is not strength, but weakness. He did what he did because he thought he could get away with it. He thought the Ukrainians were weak. He thought that the West was divided and weak and would not respond and he thought that by doing so, he could force NATO to do what the critics of NATO argued to do, which is to move further away from Russian territory. And instead, what he got was a war he didn’t expect with losses he never had contemplated the possibility that he may actually lose this war in Ukraine and come out worse than he was on February 24th, a major increase of NATO forces on its borders and in the East forces that were not there prior to the 24th of February that are there now and are likely to be larger. He will also have gotten NATO and expanded to its border with Finland, Sweden and, by the way, he’s probably going to find that in the end of the day, Ukraine is going to be a member of NATO, too. That’s what his invasion did, and it just demonstrates that if we had continued the policy which we had embarked upon in 2008, which is to talk about NATO for Ukraine but never do anything we would be in a worse place than we’re likely to be now.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:34] Well, Ambassador Daalder, thank you so much for your time.

Ivo Daalder [00:30:38] My pleasure.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:41] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Ivo Daalder and thank you to the listener who is listening to me right now. The podcast has grown substantially in recent weeks. If you’re new to the podcast, welcome. Thanks for joining. I do recommend you go back and scroll through our robust archive of content. I’ve been publishing two episodes a week every week since 2014, so surely there are older episodes that are of interest to you. I will see you next time, bye!