The NATO Accession Sweden Never Saw Coming

Finland has taken the lead, but its famously skeptical neighbor is following.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Finnish Prime Minister of Sanna Marin (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson
Finnish Prime Minister of Sanna Marin (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson
Finnish Prime Minister of Sanna Marin (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson walk after their meeting in Helsinki on Dec. 8, 2021. HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images

On May 17, President Sauli Niinisto of Finland is scheduled to arrive in Sweden. He’ll meet with King Carl XVI Gustaf and the Swedish government before leaving the next day. And sometime during his visit, Sweden and Finland are expected to announce they’re both applying for membership of NATO. Finland has—remarkably—taken the lead, and Sweden is likely to follow, simply because if Finland joins there’s really no reason to not to do the same. Sweden is, in fact, NATO’s luckiest-ever joiner, a country swept into the alliance without having to lobby for membership and without its government even expressing a desire to join.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Finns took note. By April 11, support for NATO membership had skyrocketed from its usual domains in the neighborhood of 20-28 percent to 68 percent. Many seem to have taken their cue from Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who in their clearly coordinated New Year’s addresses highlighted Finland’s right to decide its fate for itself. In mid-April, the Finnish government presented to parliament a report on the pros and cons of NATO membership (it was mostly pros), and Marin traveled to Stockholm for a meeting and press conference with Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson. Finland’s decision whether to apply for membership will be “a matter of weeks,” she declared.

The Social Democrats have long argued that Sweden can’t join NATO without Finland, in the knowledge that Finland was extremely unlikely to join.

On May 17, President Sauli Niinisto of Finland is scheduled to arrive in Sweden. He’ll meet with King Carl XVI Gustaf and the Swedish government before leaving the next day. And sometime during his visit, Sweden and Finland are expected to announce they’re both applying for membership of NATO. Finland has—remarkably—taken the lead, and Sweden is likely to follow, simply because if Finland joins there’s really no reason to not to do the same. Sweden is, in fact, NATO’s luckiest-ever joiner, a country swept into the alliance without having to lobby for membership and without its government even expressing a desire to join.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Finns took note. By April 11, support for NATO membership had skyrocketed from its usual domains in the neighborhood of 20-28 percent to 68 percent. Many seem to have taken their cue from Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who in their clearly coordinated New Year’s addresses highlighted Finland’s right to decide its fate for itself. In mid-April, the Finnish government presented to parliament a report on the pros and cons of NATO membership (it was mostly pros), and Marin traveled to Stockholm for a meeting and press conference with Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson. Finland’s decision whether to apply for membership will be “a matter of weeks,” she declared.

The Social Democrats have long argued that Sweden can’t join NATO without Finland, in the knowledge that Finland was extremely unlikely to join.

Sweden’s government—a minority government comprising only the long-governing Social Democrats—was more circumspect. The Social Democrats have a long history of opposing NATO. Indeed, their most illustrious representative, Prime Minister Olof Palme, walked in Cold War marches against the U.S. military before he was assassinated in February 1986, even as Sweden secretly cooperated with NATO militaries, including that of the United States. The Social Democrats have, in fact, long made Swedish exceptionalism a cornerstone of their foreign and security policy, presenting Sweden as a moral superpower.

Internally, they’ve riven between a left-leaning camp, which sticks to a long-standing belief in peace and Sweden’s role as a moral superpower, and a centrist wing, which has largely had no fundamental objections to NATO membership. To bridge this unbridgeable gap, the Social Democrats have instead argued that Sweden can’t join NATO without Finland, in the knowledge that Finland was extremely unlikely to join.

As recently as mid-February, the current Swedish government asserted to parliament that Sweden would not apply for NATO membership. And when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February and Helsinki set sail for NATO headquarters, Andersson vaguely announced that NATO membership would be investigated. (Sweden has already had two such investigations in recent years.)

With general elections approaching in September, she was perhaps hoping the thorny matter would subside until October. “The difference between Sweden and Finland is that Finland has long had what the Finns call their NATO option, which their governments have consistently communicated to the public, to Russia, to NATO,” said Pal Jonson, the chairman of the Swedish parliament’s defense committee and a member of the center-right Moderate Party.

“The Swedish Social Democrats, by contrast, has kept the door closed and believed we could pursue other paths,” he said. “For Sweden, not joining NATO has been a question of identity, while for Finland it was a matter of geopolitics.” Jonson wrote his Ph.D. thesis in war studies on the European Union’s common security and defense policy. Perhaps as a result of his findings—he concluded that the European efforts are undermined by the disparity between the member states’ objectives—he’s a firm supporter of NATO membership.

As recently as mid-February, the current Swedish government asserted to parliament that Sweden would not apply for NATO membership.

A former Swedish ambassador, who asked to remain anonymous, provided a similar assessment: “Sweden’s approach to the NATO issue has been dominated by its self-image, both Sweden’s self-image generally and that of the Social Democrats. NATO membership has been a threat to the Social Democrats’ cohesion. And in peacetime it was always easy to say, ‘There’s no threat, what’s the point of joining?’ while in crisis you could argue that joining would be escalatory.” (It’s indicative of the Social Democrats’ pained attitude toward NATO that a leading representative I contacted felt unable to comment publicly.)

Changing one’s identity is clearly harder than changing a geopolitical stance. It wasn’t just the Finns’ rapid change of heart and their government’s willingness to act accordingly that thwarted Andersson’s caution. Swedes, too, were warming to the prospect of joining NATO. Several polls since Russia’s invasion began have shown support around 50 percent. The most recent one, from April 25, showed 47 percent of Swedes supporting a NATO membership bid, with 21 percent opposed—and a remarkable 59 percent now support joining if Finland joins too. Among Social Democrats, a record 36 percent support Sweden joining NATO.

There has, in fact, never been a more opportune moment to join the alliance. Russia is demonstrating the importance of the alliance, Finland is taking the lead on membership and thus most of the flak that’s certain to come from Moscow, and NATO just happens to have a summit in June at which invitations to two new prospective members could conveniently be announced.

“Finland seems to be close to activating its NATO option,” Jonson said. “Being the only Nordic country outside NATO would make us politically marginalized and more vulnerable.” If Stockholm announces on May 17 or 18 that it will apply for membership together with Finland, it may qualify as the most half-hearted membership bid in the alliance’s history. Andersson’s approach won’t impress the likes of Estonia and Poland, which spent years lobbying and cajoling to get an invitation.

But like Finland, Sweden would be a useful member of NATO, which makes it virtually guaranteed that the countries will receive their official invitation in time for the alliance’s Madrid summit at the end of June. “It has long been clear that Finland and Sweden will be shoo-ins,” said Lauri Lepik, a former ambassador of Estonia to NATO. But becoming a member, he noted, is not as easy as “apply on a Wednesday, join that Friday,” as one U.S. general has promised the two countries. “There’s a bureaucratic process ahead, which could see Finland and Sweden join the alliance after the war that has prompted their apparent reversal on NATO membership ends,” Lepik said.

Unfortunately, at this point the Ukraine war seems likely to last longer than Sweden and Finland’s presumptive NATO joining process. And when they join, both countries will be considerable assets: Finland with its large armed forces, enormous reserves, history of defending a land border with Russia, and first-rate military intelligence; Sweden with, among other things, its skilled navy, one of the Baltic Sea’s largest. Both countries are, of course, already heavily integrated with NATO; last month they participated in the alliance’s Cold Response 2022 exercise. And both belong to the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force, made up of Northern European countries.

But should Sweden join, Andersson’s government would do well to shed its “suppose we had to” attitude. “We should use this unique opportunity and, for example, deepen our military cooperation with our Nordic and Baltic neighbors and strengthen the trans-Atlantic link,” Jonson said. He may well get the opportunity to implement his suggestions. If the opposition wins the parliamentary elections this September, Jonson is a strong contender to become defense minister.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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