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Sweden wins the NATO lottery

Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

For years — decades in fact — Sweden and Finland have been united in their loyalty to each other, as well as to their cherished military nonalignment. 

In recent months, though, polls have shown both countries to be increasingly keen on joining NATO, with Swedes consistently more eager to do so than their Finnish neighbors. Yet for Sweden, the question remained as to how to join the military alliance without aggravating the part of the population that was reluctant, let alone Moscow. And now, it looks like Sweden’s stars may finally be aligning — through almost no effort of its own. 

When it comes to the prospect of joining NATO, Finland and Sweden’s fates have long been intertwined, with an understanding that the two countries would always join together, should they choose to do so. And though, for decades, Swedes have viewed NATO membership more favorably — with polls in recent years consistently showing support of 30 percent or higher, despite comparatively high opposition — none of this really mattered as long as Helsinki remained uninterested. And in Finland, NATO support remained firmly below 30 percent.

Indeed, Sweden’s long-governing Social Democrats have historically used Finland as a convenient shield on NATO matters. They could pledge that if Finland decided to join the alliance, Sweden would, of course, give the matter the utmost consideration, safe in knowing that such a change across the border was unlikely to take place. By referring to the Finns, they could avoid an issue that would cause internal division in the party and aggravate Russia.  

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has altered this dependable balance. Last December, Finland’s ministry of defense released its annual survey on national security, with support for NATO membership coming in at 24 percent — a small increase from the previous report. Just four months later, support has now soared to a mind-boggling 68 percent, and Finland’s parliament is expected to be briefed on prospective NATO membership by intelligence officials this week, with only a few members expressing any opposition. 

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said this month that her government “will end the discussion before midsummer,” which, this year, also happens to take place just days before NATO’s Madrid Summit. Marin and her center-left government don’t seem deterred by the fact that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova have announced “consequences” should Finland (and Sweden) join NATO either. Nor does the Finnish public.  

Finland’s reversal on NATO membership is nothing short of extraordinary. So extraordinary, in fact, that Sweden’s government is struggling to comprehend it. But it has also presented Sweden with the most incredible opportunity in terms of its potential accession to NATO. 

Taking the lead on the matter, Finland is now energetically stepping forward, sparing Sweden the trouble of having to break the ice on NATO matters. It’s even absorbing the much-feared Russian blow that has so far included not just threats but cyberattacks against its foreign and defense ministries. Russia is, of course, doing its part by demonstrating to all and sundry that it’s not a country with which one can expect good-faith relations. As Marin observed this month, Russia is not the neighbor “we thought it was.” 

To top off Sweden’s luck, NATO’s Madrid Summit just happens to be around the corner. At the June summit, the alliance will present its new strategic concept — its de facto defense strategy updated once in a decade or so. Presenting two new members-in-process, and supremely palatable ones at that, would serve NATO well.  

Finland, for its part, would look like a country that has made a wise decision for the benefit of its security, a decision based on an acutely changing set of circumstances. Sweden would be able to join the alliance almost surreptitiously, having had to do virtually none of the hard political work. To date, all that Sweden has done is state that it’s open to considering NATO membership, while the governing Social Democrats have decided to conduct a “security review.” 

Compare this to the dogged pushing, lobbying, begging, reforming, investing and training the Baltic states and every other post-Cold War NATO joiner had to undertake to be admitted. Simply receiving the invitation, which triggers applicants’ integration into the alliance, took them years. For Sweden and Finland, the period between submitting their letters of application and receiving the much-vaunted invitation is unlikely to span more than a few weeks. 

An unequivocal welcome of Sweden and Finland by NATO’s member states, should the duo decide to seek membership, has never been in doubt. Both have rock-solid rule-of-law credentials and would add military heft to the alliance — Sweden’s anemic defense spending of recent years notwithstanding. The geopolitical siblings were thus always better positioned than, say, the Baltic states, which had to overcome serious doubts and challenges in terms of military readiness before being admitted to the alliance 18 years ago. 

To be sure, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her government could still decide they’re not keen on NATO. But that would be an unsurpassed blunder. Sweden, which was for decades on the fence regarding NATO membership, is being presented with an application process so attractive it’s virtually impossible to turn down. 

Joining NATO will never be this easy again. 

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