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Finland, Sweden, and NATO’s new world

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is reshaping the geopolitical order


Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (left) and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin Getty Images/Photo by Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP

Finland, Sweden, and NATO’s new world
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in doing what none of his Soviet predecessors ever did: He has forced Finland and Sweden into the arms of NATO.

Putin did not intend to do this. The enlargement of NATO since the end of the Cold War is one of the grievances he regularly bemoans. Indeed, he claimed preventing Ukraine from joining NATO as one of the justifications for his invasion—never mind there were no prospects of Ukraine doing so. Now Finland and Sweden have declared their desire to join the alliance. These Nordic bids for NATO membership are just the latest blowback to Putin’s bloodthirsty overreach and vainglorious folly.

Finnish and Swedish appeals to join NATO would have been inconceivable even five months ago. But a glance at history shows just how much the world has changed since January.

Founded in 1949 with a membership of the United States, Canada, and 10 Western European nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization originally had three purposes. The first is well-known. As a defensive alliance, NATO sought to deter further expansion of the Soviet Union in the emerging Cold War, especially after the Kremlin imposed Communist puppet regimes across Eastern Europe and threatened to extend the Iron Curtain farther west.

Less remembered now are the other two purposes. In the aftermath of two world wars, both caused by German aggression, many Europeans feared that soon enough a resurgent Germany would once again menace the peace of the Continent. To prevent any further German adventurism, NATO employed the novel measure of welcoming West Germany into the alliance in 1955. With its security guaranteed by its fellow NATO members, so it was hoped, the German habit of invading its neighbors would be cured at last.

The third purpose of NATO was equally novel. Following the Allied victory in World War II, many Europeans and Americans feared the United States would once again retreat across the ocean to its hemispheric repose and refuse any global leadership role. With the collapse of the British Empire and the growing threat of Soviet communism, if the United States returned to isolationism, the world would be at the mercy of tyranny. As the first permanent alliance the United States ever joined, NATO enshrined the role of the United States as the leader of the free world.

NATO’s first secretary-general, Lord Hastings Ismay, gave a pithier summary: The alliance was formed “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Finland and Sweden now know that their security depends on strong allies able to deter an attack.

While NATO has never required democracy for membership, from its birth, the alliance embraced a set of values rooted in Judeo-Christian thought. In a 1954 address on “The Moral and Spiritual Content of the Atlantic Community,” American social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr argued that NATO stood for “two prerequisites of a free society: the insistence that the individual has a dignity which makes it impossible for any community to use him as a mere instrument of its common purposes, and that he has a higher authority to inform his conscience than the necessities of the community.” Some disquieting trends among NATO members today, such as militant secularism and Turkish Islamism, have eroded these tenets of a Christian worldview, but their legacies still sharpen the contrast between the West and the tyrannies that threaten it.

At NATO’s founding, two nations did not join despite sitting under the menace of the Soviet shadow: Finland and Sweden. Finland, whose border with Russia runs more than 800 miles, had been invaded by the Soviets during World War II. With fierce resistance, Finland by the end of the war had secured an uneasy autonomy yet remained so deferential to Moscow that “Finlandization” became a term describing a non-aligned country subservient to an unfriendly neighbor. For its part, Sweden has a 200-year tradition of neutrality and did not even take sides during World War II.

For more than 70 years, Finland and Sweden continued to eschew NATO. These included the four decades of Soviet aggression during the Cold War, the first rounds of NATO enlargement in the 1990s, the 9/11 era of terrorism, and Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

If none of those eras or events could change minds in Helsinki and Stockholm, why now? Because Vladimir Putin is the most reckless and aggressive Russian leader since Joseph Stalin. Finland and Sweden now know that their security depends on strong allies able to deter an attack.

A skeptic might ask what Finland and Sweden can contribute to NATO—besides a lot of reindeer. The answer is quite a bit. Finland has a first-rate military, excellent cyber capabilities, and one of Europe’s highest rates of defense spending. Sweden has a history of quiet but potent intelligence cooperation with the United States and an advanced military. Both nations possess geographic assets that will further benefit the United States, including intelligence collection, forward-basing options, and even Arctic access that can also be of strategic value in our global competition with China.

While Ukraine remains steadfast on the battlefield against Russia, the outcome of the war remains uncertain. But the war’s consequences are already reshaping the geopolitical order in Helsinki and Stockholm and beyond.


William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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