The Ethics of Sweden and Finland Joining NATO

| May 19, 2022
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Bilateral meeting between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Pekka Haavisto (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Finland) and Ann Linde (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sweden). Photo credit: NATO via Flickr.

If, as expected, Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO this week, their membership will rattle Russia and exacerbate the geopolitical insecurities of a heavily armed nuclear power. Actions that increase the risk of any kind of war are always open to ethical questioning. How, then, do we address the ethics of their joining NATO?

Sweden and Finland were politically neutral until 1995, when they joined the European Union. Since then, they have been properly termed “militarily non-aligned”: they belong to no military alliance. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, these two states announced their intention to apply for NATO membership. As of this writing, their formal applications to join are imminent.1 One concern is that their accession to NATO, particularly that of Finland (which would double the length of the border that Russia shares with NATO countries) would alarm, threaten, or otherwise provoke Russia to military action either against them or against NATO as a whole. An attack on a NATO country could rapidly lead to uncontrollable nuclear war.

Whether their joining now, in the context of the war in Ukraine, would be more provocative than at some less critical time is hard to know. It might exacerbate Russia’s feeling of being under threat, but at the same time Russia’s government must certainly understand that Sweden and Finland have themselves been provoked to join by its “special military operation” in Ukraine. While it is hard to know what President Putin and his inner circle think, with their army struggling in Ukraine they likely cannot open a second front. Instead, Russia may place nuclear weapons close to the Finnish border or engage in cyberwarfare with the two Nordic countries.

The foregoing concerns outcomes and related probabilities. But it is actions (in this instance, public policy decisions) that are ethics’ most important concern.  Should Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO? Should NATO admit them?

 

A Moral Mandate

 

In late 2021, Russia mobilized substantial forces near the Ukrainian border. In December 2021, it then demanded that NATO’s eastern European limits be returned to where they had been in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, that no non-national troops be stationed in post-1991 accession countries, and that no more European states be admitted to NATO. Russia’s troop positioning seemed to indicate a determination to back up its demands with military action. That alarmed the Swedish and Finnish governments, both led by Social Democrats who have been strong supporters of military non-alignment. They regarded Russia’s position as an ultimatum, seeking to limit their national sovereignty and subordinate their national interests to Russia’s.2 They believed that they could not morally or politically accede to such demands.

Do Finland and Sweden have a moral right to apply to join NATO? Since at least early modern times, the notion of the sovereign state has been central to western and later other political thought. Sovereignty can be defined as “supreme authority within a territory.”3 It is not just internal, however, concerning what happens within that territory, but since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) it has been understood as excluding any external interference in the internal affairs of a state, or limitation of a state’s ability to enter into external relations with other states. It is obvious that the external aspect of sovereignty includes the right to develop an appropriate defense and security policy.

Thus, if part of being a sovereign state is the right to determine one’s foreign policy and allies, this answers the aforementioned question: Yes, Sweden and Finland have a right to join NATO.

But what about Russia’s right to pursue its security needs? If Russia has such a right, Sweden and Finland have the same right.

Not until Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022 did Swedish and Finnish public opinion shift—dramatically in Finland’s case—in favor of joining NATO.4 As democratically accountable, their governments have not merely the political support to apply to NATO but a virtual mandate to do so from their electorates. They have a prima facie ethical obligation to apply.

That answers the question: Should Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO? If that is what their electorate and their military leaders want, they probably should. Based on their right to self-determination and legal sovereignty, it seems unreasonable to object to their application.

Should NATO admit them? Put another way, is there a reason why NATO should not admit them? Sweden and Finland qualify in every way: as (1) stable democracies (2) with strong military establishments, (3) not currently in armed conflict with any other state, and (4) applying for defensive, not aggressive, purposes.

These qualifications are both political and moral. NATO is an alliance designed to protect democracies under the rule of law; it does not see autocratic or totalitarian regimes as worthy of protection or solidarity. A state that wants to join NATO but is not prepared to contribute to collective security in proportion to its resources is, in general, unacceptable: it wants to benefit but not to give, so it is lacking in the virtue of solidarity. A state’s borders and its internal rule must be fairly stable, since NATO refuses to take on the role of state-building and, as a defensive alliance, refuses in general to be drawn into other people’s wars. NATO is essentially a defensive alliance between democracies. To go beyond those boundaries risks military action that is either imprudent or immoral or both.

 

Should Anyone Present Know of Any Reason

 

One ground on which objection might be raised to Sweden and Finland’s admission to NATO is that it may exacerbate Russia’s current—and traditional—sense of being under external threat. This general concern has been articulated many times over the years by NATO expansionist skeptics, including those such as John Mearsheimer, who have at least partially (and controversially) blamed NATO’s eastward expansion for provoking Russia into invading Ukraine. How much weight should be given to that objection? Should it count as outweighing the reasons supporting their application and admission to NATO? In the case of Sweden and Finland, a number of points can be raised in reply.

First, Russia does not feel threatened by Sweden and Finland, inside or outside NATO: it feels threatened (if it really feels threatened at all) by NATO, with or without Sweden and Finland. Unless the members of NATO are prepared to dissolve the alliance as therapeutic treatment for Russia, nothing can be done about Russia’s sense of being threatened.

Can Russia reasonably claim to be threatened by NATO? Maybe now, under sanctions and with NATO arming Ukraine; but if so, it has only itself to blame. From 1991 to 2021, over a thirty-year period, though NATO had doubled the number of members in the alliance, European NATO members significantly reduced their defense spending.5 In 2021, the Russian general staff could have told President Putin that, apart from the Polish army, there would have been little to stop a major Russian offensive across the center of Europe. The claim of being threatened by NATO does not stand up under scrutiny.

Second, while it sounds crude to say it, it is still true: dictatorial regimes pushing aggressive policies respect only strong, firm responses, backed up by the threat of war. The West failed in that regard in relation to Hitler over Czechoslovakia in 1938; it did better in the Cold War years.

Third, in the early 1950s, Lord Ismay, then-NATO secretary-general, famously remarked that NATO was set up for three purposes: to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.6 Vladimir Putin illustrates the ongoing relevance of the first, and Donald Trump illustrates that of the second.

The third goal is also of interest. At the time of NATO’s founding in 1949, it reflected the great nervousness of a future German rise to dominance, untethered to constraining alliances. As with the other two goals, that has been substantially achieved. It could be generalized today. Defensive military alliances, and particularly one with such tight operative integration, can exercise a restraining influence. Instead of a group of decent, isolated, non-aligned democracies detached from one another, leaving the goal of maintaining the peace of Europe to Providence, NATO is a powerful force to maintain that peace by binding an ever-larger number of countries together in ways that reduce the risk of conflict breaking out among them.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, states such as Poland, previously within its sphere of influence, rushed to join NATO. For them, the current conflict in Ukraine vindicates their fears of Russia and confirms the wisdom of joining NATO. For Sweden and Finland, the invasion of Ukraine, the country that gave up its nuclear weapons, is sufficient proof that they need the shelter of a deterrent nuclear umbrella.

It is good that NATO exists; and Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to it will further its goals.


James Murphy

James Murphy is associate professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of  War’s Ends (2014).

 

NOTES

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  1. Edward Wong and Anatoly Kurmanaev, “NATO Leaders Say They Will Speed Finland and Sweden Membership Bids,” The New York Times, May 15, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/15/world/europe/finland-sweden-nato-russia-ukraine.html.
  2. Heli Hautala, “Russia Is Driving Sweden and Finland Closer to NATO,” Foreign Policy (February 2, 2022),  https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/02/russia-sweden-finland-nato-ukraine/. Hautala is a Finnish diplomat.
  3. Daniel Philpott, “Sovereignty,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta,  https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/sovereignty/.
  4. PBS, “Finland, Sweden ambassadors discuss the push to join NATO and future of security in Europe” (May 16, 2022), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/finland-sweden-ambassadors-discuss-the-push-to-join-nato-and-future-of-security-in-europe.
  5. The Economist, “Western European armies have shrunk dramatically” (March 2, 2020), https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/03/02/western-european-armies-have-shrunk-dramatically.
  6. Joseph Nye, The Paradox of American Power (London: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 33.

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