Guest article by Per Bjorklund
In early 2009 proposals for a broader security and industrial compact emerged among Europe’s northern nations, in part as a response to a growing void at NATO’s center. It has been over a year since this landmark report on closer Nordic cooperation was released. The 13-point proposal was always very ambitious, complete with calls for a complete overhaul of the Nordic security structure, and the creation of an integrated Nordic military. As such one must be careful not to expect too much over so short a period of time, nor to underestimate the many obstacles still ahead.
While very specific, the Stoltenberg Rapport is all about the long term, as the external pressures it envisions come to impact the nations involved. Having said that, it is important to be aware of the substantial divergences in the views on security among the Nordic countries, something that continues to be a cause for difficulties. The pace of integration was never going to be solely dictated by its proponents’ high idealism, nor by the basically positive sentiment towards Nordic integration that exist even in supposedly neutral nations such as Finland and Sweden…
Follow the Money
During a recent open seminar at the Finland Institute in Stockholm, an impressive assembly of mainly Swedish and Finnish security and foreign policy representatives gathered to discuss the road ahead for the Stoltenberg Rapport. In contrast to the more upbeat tone of the foreign ministers’ meeting 2 months earlier, the mood at this event were decidedly more cautious, bordering on skeptical.
According to Jan Erik Enestam, former Finnish minister of defense and current chairman of the Nordic council, the main driver for integration at the moment is the combination of shrinking budgets and rising equipment needs.
At present, there is little to no enthusiasm for the quite far-reaching specialization and country specific allocation of tasks like those proposed in the report. In the words of Finnish representative Teija Tiilikainen, any such “deep” plans are tentative at best, and would take place in very long term at the earliest.
Despite such sentiments, the picture that appeared was one of pragmatic and incremental progress that is perhaps typical for our part of the world.
In a short presentation given by Swedish NORDEFCO representative Ronny Modigs, the current objectives for cooperation only extends to the point where complete interdependence can be avoided. Common projects do not aim to restrict operational sovereignty in any way, and any and all participation is to be fully voluntary. A very good example of the progress made is NORDEFCO’s arrangement the specialized education aimed at international operations, with each country taking a small responsibility for the whole.
So what did this seminar reveal about the prospects for integration? It’s clear that the main engine remains the bilateral relationship and needs of Sweden and Norway, enabled by the structural and cultural similarities between the two defense forces, severe economic pressure on the Swedish side, and the novelty of Sweden’s full embrace of NATO standards and procedures. Both countries are also on the lookout for partners, albeit for very different reasons.
The Norwegians, facing an imminent windfall of recoverable resources in the Arctic Sea, cannot be blamed for being nervous about any potential difficulties that may arise with their Russian neighbors. As such, the need for allies is very much on their minds, and the Stoltenberg Rapport could be seen as a symptom of these concerns.
Sweden, for its part, is anxious to secure the quite sizable defense industry it still possesses. A joint buy of the Archer 155mm mobile artillery system was a step forward, even if any hopes of a true partnership in this regard were tempered by the controversy that surrounded the Norwegian choice in favor of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II over SAAB’s JAS-39 Gripen NG. The subsequent debate around this decision in Norwegian and Swedish press made it plain that close military ties to the USA remain of utmost importance for the Norwegians, superseding local alliance opportunities. Despite this set-back, there is still a wide scope for integration on a large array of issues, e.g. doctrine, submarines, and arrangements for international missions.
Sweden remains ambivalent on the prospect of formal security guarantees, a fairly basic plank of any alliance. The reluctance to formally join NATO, and recent confusion around the both unilateral and non-binding declaration of “Nordic Solidarity,” are revealing in this regard. At present, Sweden is not interested in shouldering any security responsibility in the arctic area, while the same can be said of Norway and the Baltic Sea. Were Sweden to overcome its reluctance to join alliances this may still change. Yet neutrality remains popular, and full membership in any alliance has yet to gain any sustained support from either part of the Swedish political spectrum.
The present government is cautiously positive, but a real political disagreement may be brewing over funding. While no major electoral issue at this point, if the center-right prevails in this years election the post-cold war era of shrinking military budgets may be over. Their pledge for an above inflation increase along with a raised defense posture is a real about-face, and is partly in recognition of the greater costs that will come from the abolishment of conscription. Another contributing factor is the continuing concern over the predictability of Russian intentions in the Baltic region, with the sudden 2008 Georgian war being viewed as a watershed event.
Alliance a la Carte?
As for the other 3 countries, the picture is mixed. Iceland’s role is marginal at best, since it has no military of its own. Its economic collapse has pushed it even further to the periphery. Denmark faces challenges in the Arctic Sea similar to those of Norway, but it has so far shown little interest in any deeper involvement. According to Prof. Marlene Wind, the Danish representative at the Finland Institute Seminar, the Danish security policy remains firmly atlanticist, an anchor which even the ups and downs of the involvement in Iraq has done little to disturb.
This firm Danish commitment is a sharp contrast to the other Nordic countries, all of which reacted to the Iraq war with hostility. The difference in approach on such a fundamental issue, as well as the singularly westward orientation of all aspects of Danish security policy, puts limits on the possible scope for integration with its neighbors.
Last but not least, Finland is famous for retaining its cold war doctrine, and continues to base its armed forces on a total defense doctrine backed by the draft. Finland had a particularly bumpy ride throughout the length of the 20th century, thanks to its Russian neighbor, so it’s no great surprise that the country keeps a wary lookout over its eastern border. With the era of Soviet-imposed “Finlandization” over, alliances are a subject of cautious interest, but one consequence of their homeland defense focus is that any international engagements will always remain a distant second to the primary mission.
That focus, and its associated doctrines, make the prospect of deeper Finnish involvement in a Nordic alliance an uncertain prospect, something the skeptical comments of Finnish representatives very much confirmed. Over the long term however, Finnish ambassador Markus Lyra told us that Finland is embarked on a path of security modernization. The current inventory puts a premium on quantity, and the Finnish armed forces’ eclectic mix of western, Russian and indigenous equipment creates inefficiencies – as well as an unwelcome reliance on the main country of concern. Steps have already been taken, including a contract with Kongsberg of Norway to supply the core of their future air defense system.
Were a project to rectify this to gain in scope and pace, it could serve as a basis for a re-assessment of the Finnish role in the Nordic security project.
The Nordic region contain 5 spacious yet sparsely populated countries, bound together by a complex web of history, culture and language. Their relative smallness means that they do not shape their fate alone, something which has implications for this analysis. In limiting the scope one achieves focus, but one must also inevitably ignores a number of outside actors and processes.
Defense policy is often event-driven, as illustrated by the role played by Russia’s Georgian War in kick-starting the present Nordic conversation. Future events are likely to play an equally significant role in advancing that conversation, possibly beginning with Russia’s proposed purchase of French Mistral Class amphibious assault ships.
These kinds of “known unknowns” promise to have at least as much influence on the actions of the Nordic countries as any intentions of their own. It’s also worth noting that, partly as a consequence of peculiarities in geography, developments in the outside world tends to impact the Nordic nations unequally, a fact which helps explain several previous failed attempts at Nordic integration and co-ordination.
It remains to be seen whether this latest effort will be one of them.
Per Bjorklund is currently a civilian student at the Swedish National Defense College, with a special interest in the politics of defense technology and Nordic security matters. Has also done translation work between Swedish and English for DID, and is a DII member. He can be reached via Per, at Bjoerklund dot EU.
* Finnish Insitute for International Affairs (June 2013) – Swedish defence illusions are crumbling.
* DID (March 11/10) – A Nordic Alliance?.