The end of the Nordic ideal: Finland and Sweden joining NATO

June 2, 2022

During the Cold War, the Norden was widely seen as the model of an enlightened and antimilitaristic society that follows the principles of distributive justice and is morally superior to two alternative models of modernization: the United States and the Soviet Union. The two countries that best exemplified the Nordic model and neutrality were Sweden and Finland. (This is a somewhat longer draft version of a text published on 1.6.2022 in Le Monde Diplomatique in French as “Finlande et Suède brisent l’idéal nordique” [here]; in English as “The end of the Nordic ideal” [here], republished in The Nation [here]; also in German [here], Spanish [here], Portuguese [here], and Norwegian [here]).

A long history ties the two countries together. Finland was a part of the Swedish Kingdom and Empire for centuries. During the Napoleonic wars, however, Sweden lost Finland to Russia. Since 1814, Sweden has succeeded in staying clear of wars, and during the Second Schleswig War in 1864, it adopted a policy of neutrality. The separation of Finland from Sweden triggered and enabled major constitutional and regime changes in Sweden paving the way for the later rise of social democracy, although Sweden remained a conservative and unequal society well into the 1910s.[1]

Finnish history has not been quite so peaceful, despite Finland being the first European country – then an autonomous part of the Russian Empire – to adopt universal franchise in 1906. The Russian Revolution did not only lead to Finnish independence but also to a civil war in 1918 between the reds and whites. The whites won with the help of a major intervention by Germany. The newly independent Finland in turn launched interventions in the Russian civil war until 1920 when the Treaty of Tartu was concluded. Against all odds, Finland stayed democratic and the social democrats were allowed to take part in elections and governments already in the 1920s.

While social democracy gathered strength in Sweden in the 1920s and 1930s, Finland was going through a turbulent period, including a failed fascist uprising in 1930. In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party rose to power in 1932 by winning parliamentary elections and then remained in office either alone or by forming coalition governments uninterruptedly for 44 years, until 1976. By showing an example of social reforms and by exercising ethico-political leadership in building the idea of actively internationalist foreign policy, social democratic Sweden led Norden.

Meanwhile, after two wars against the Soviet Union during 1939-44 – the second as an ally of Nazi Germany – Finland went through major internal and external transformations, with the social democratic party and newly founded Finnish People’s Democratic League gaining significant electoral success. As the only non-communist country in Europe, Finland concluded an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union in 1948.

A key moment for Finland was the 1952 “pyjama-pocket speech” by the Finnish Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen, who was soon to become President for 25 years.[2] In the speech, Kekkonen linked Finnish neutrality and its Nordic identity. While the speech was about military alliances and the possibility of peace – it was a desperate cry for peace – the idea of “an alliance of neutrality” had manifold political consequences in a situation where the social-democratic movement had already achieved hegemonic status, especially in Sweden. In the following decades, Kekkonen’s Nordic policy of neutrality, combined with the successful struggles of the labour movement and centre and left parties, enabled Finland to replicate, with some modifications, the Swedish model and build a universalist democratic welfare state. This was also a period of rapid economic growth, technological dynamism, urbanisation, and decreasing inequalities.

The active internationalism of Sweden stemmed from the shared societal values that were translated into foreign policy. During the Cold War, the socially flavoured Wilsonian idealism provided the basis for progressive internationalism. The presumed superiority of the rational, enlightened, and, to a large degree, anti-militaristic Nordic society was in part based on the fact that here the military tensions were much lower than in Central Europe. This was despite Norway and Denmark being members of NATO and Finland having a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union. Further, since the 1950s, the Norden has been a highly integrated passport-free zone of common labour markets and shared social security systems.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of whether there is a future for the Nordic model re-emerged, now meaning “Is there any socially oriented, democratic alternative to the Washington consensus-led neo-liberal globalization?”.[3] Significant changes had started years earlier. The globalisation of Swedish corporations, struggle over wage-earner funds, and the oil crisis led to the first defeat of social democrats in 1976. When they returned to power in 1982, the Third Way came to be redefined, increasingly, as a compromise between pure social democracy and neoliberalism, rather than the Third Way between capitalism and communism. The new social democratic government also tried to use financial liberalisation as a means to establish a new discipline to macroeconomic policy. It increased the constraint of global capital markets on Sweden’s balance of payments and interest rate and eventually decided to deregulate financial markets.[4] Finland and Norway followed suit in the mid-1980s. Financial deregulation resulted in a boom-and-bust cycle and major banking and currency crisis in the early 1990s. In Finland, the depression was especially severe, as the currency and banking crisis coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus Soviet trade.

In Finland, after the end of the Cold War, the advocates of neoliberal changes typically argued retrospectively against “Finlandisation” and, with hindsight, that Finland should have been more on the Western and winning side of the Cold War. Across the Norden, economistic discourses about the requirements of “new times” rose, involving neoliberal framing of new social problems and consequent transformations in terms of austerity, tax-reforms favouring the well off, privatisation, outsourcing, and applications of new public management. In the 1990s, the intimate Cold War ties between Sweden and NATO were revealed to the public. By this point, to the extent that Sweden was still leading the Norden in some sense, it was leading it away from the Nordic model. Finland followed Sweden by applying for EU membership in 1992, with its application approved in a referendum in 1994. The Norwegian government attempted to do the same but was defeated in the 1994 referendum by a close majority. Finland and Sweden became EU members in 1995.

The identities of Finland and Sweden were redefined as European and Western, to replace the earlier idea of a neutral social-democratic Nordic country, though the two coexisted for some time and perhaps still do. This was also the time when public discussions and debates about the possibility of NATO membership kicked off. Since 1994, Finland and Sweden have participated in NATO’s Partnership for Peace plan. Particularly the Finnish armed forces have been matched with the NATO systems, culminating in a recent decision to buy 64 nuclear-weapons compatible F-35 fighters from the US. In the 2000s and 2010s, both countries have participated in NATO’s “peace-support” operations and concluded NATO host nation support agreements.

Responses to Russia’s 2022 invasion in Ukraine stem in important part from gradual changes in the taken-for-granted background of social understandings, media representations, and political rhetoric, preparing the ground for what can be seen as a further shift to the right cutting across all political parties. Thereby, the invasion and the consequent drastic turn in public opinion has enabled and triggered the ultimate step in the long process of integration with NATO, namely formal membership. This step is not insignificant. It has potentially far-reaching implications for Finland and Sweden themselves and for international relations in Europe and globally. It is prone to spell the end to Nordic progressive internationalism, at least for now.

It is often said that neutrality has been an unbreakable part of Sweden’s national identity, whereas in the case of Finland, neutrality – and later military non-alignment – has been more pragmatic and based on political realism. It would be more accurate to argue that Finnish politics involved transnational struggles about the extent to which “realist” practices should be accepted in their own right and the extent to which Finland should rather take part in the Manichean fight either on the side of the East (communists) or West (right-wing liberalists and some nationalists). From these antagonisms arose a hope that the Cold War conflict could be overcome. As a result, Finland’s foreign policy became somewhat more active and innovative, as exemplified by the process that culminated in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in Helsinki in 1975. In addition to everything else, President Kekkonen turned Finland into a “bridge-builder” between East and West. The idea was to overcome the security dilemma through confidence-building and disarmament, and to create a normative basis for the future convergence of the blocs.

Whereas during the Cold War the Nordic countries achieved a pluralist security community amongst themselves and promoted solidarity and common good in their external relations, the step of joining NATO is accompanied by the militarisation of society and belief in the capacity of the military might to prevent war through superior deterrence. The 2022 decision to join NATO is based on the theory of deterrence – including nuclear deterrence – that relies on the abstract calculative logic of self-interested and strategic rational actors. This shift resonates with a wider ideational shift towards the logic of rational choice and optimisation under constraints, which is the very basis of mainstream neoliberal economics.[5] The concept of common or public good has disappeared from these discussions, except in the form of stability to be achieved by employing deterrence. The term deterrence means to frighten and to fill the other, who is feared, with fear. The ultimate form of this kind of deterrence is MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. Whereas the Cold War-era neutrality was understood, at least at times, as an attempt to transform the worldwide conflict threatening humanity, the current response stems from a narrow self-regarding perspective that is committed to the theory of deterrence. Moreover, the fear of Russia includes a simplistic Manichean story about a hero fighting for freedom and democracy and against an evil empire.

It is evident that Russia has started a counterproductive war, the effects of which now include Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO. A problem is that this membership is in turn a step in the process of escalation of the conflict between Russia and NATO and, so far to a lesser extent, between Russia and the EU. The NATO expansion eastwards has been a key issue in the conflict that has escalated step by step since the 1990s. The world has not been this close to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and any further step in that direction is dangerous. What is striking in this context is that NATO membership entails a commitment to nuclear deterrence. We are unlikely to see any attempts at confidence-building or disarmament by Finland and Sweden in the foreseeable future.[6] The Nordic idea has all but vanished.

The decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO is of world-historical significance. The problem is not only that their NATO membership threatens to further escalate the NATO–Russia conflict. This decision will also reinforce the EU’s reliance on Washington. A more serious global problem is that this step is part of a process in which the world is increasingly divided into two camps in the world economy characterised by trade wars and weaponisation of interdependence. Concerns about the effects of the expansion of Western military alliances are widely shared not only in Russia but also in the global East and South. Moreover, this is no different from Australians and Americans being concerned about the alliance of the Solomon Islands with China.

These developments are reminiscent of processes that led to the First World War. At the end looms the possibility of a global military catastrophe.[7] Even if this does not happen immediately, such events are part of the development towards a catastrophe in the next 10-20 years – unless the course of world history is altered, for example by a new non-aligned movement. After their decisions to join NATO, Finland and Sweden are on the wrong side of history.


[1] Teorell, Jan & Rothstein, Bo (2015) “Getting to Sweden, Part I: War and Malfeasance, 1720–1850”, Scandinavian Political Studies 38 (3), pp. 217-37, doi: 10.1111/1467-9477.12047.

[2] Kekkonen, Urho (1970) “The Common Neutrality of the Nordic Countries. ‘The Pyjama-pocket Speech published in Helsinki on January 23rd 1952”. In U.Kekkonen: Neutrality. The Finnish Position, Heinemann: London, pp. 53-6.

[3] Patomäki, Heikki (2000) “Beyond Nordic Nostalgia: Envisaging a Social/Democratic System of Global Governance”, Cooperation and Conflict 35 (2), pp. 115-154.

[4] Ryner, Magnus (2002) Capitalist Restructuring, Globalisation and the Third Way. Lessons from the Swedish Model. Routledge: London and New York, especially pp. 148-87.

[5] Cf. Amadae, Sonja (2016) Prisoners of Reason. Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

[6] For the need to change the existing nuclear order, see Cronberg, Tarja (2021) Renegotiating the Nuclear Order: A Sociological Approach. Routledge: London and New York.

[7] I have been developing this scenario in Patomäki, Heikki (2008) The Political Economy of Global Security. War, Future Crises and Changes in Global Governance. Routledge: London and New York, and subsequent works.