NATO Membership May Spell the End of Finland and Sweden as Social Democracies

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a godsend for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which had been declared “brain dead” by French President Emmanuel Macron as recently as 2019. NATO has not only been given a new lease of existence, but it is also expected to grow with Sweden, Finland, and Estonia moving closer to NATO membership. In fact, Putin’s criminal attack on Ukraine has managed to keep Europe within the sphere of U.S. hegemony and thus to halt any aspirations that Europeans may have had of seeing the continent shift toward greater autonomy.

In the interview that follows, Finnish political scientist Heikki Patomäki provides a critical look into the reasons why Finland and Sweden have opted to join NATO and the potential consequences for Nordic social democracy. Patomäki’s views have been demonized for simply going against the frenzied dictates enforced by Western governments and the corporate media regarding proper responses to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Patomäki is professor of global politics and research director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is a member of Finnish Academy of Sciences and Letters and the author of many books and academic articles.

C.J. Polychroniou: Heikki, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO. As Finland and Sweden decide to end decades in neutrality and join transatlantic alliance, it seems that a new era is underway. Let’s talk about Finland, which has a long and unique relationship with Russia on account of its history. Why does Finland want NATO membership? Is there really a security risk? What are the domestic arguments surrounding NATO membership?

Heikki Patomäki: A simple but very incomplete answer is that the actions of Putin’s regime have caused Finland to join NATO. The 2014-2015 period saw the highest level of support for NATO membership. However, the dramatic impact of the invasion of 2022 has had a significant impact on the popularity of NATO membership. Although a large portion of the political elite have supported Finnish NATO membership for many years, they are not the only ones who do so publicly or privately. The main motivation for most people is fear. Most NATO supporters are sceptical of Russia attacking Finland. This is despite the fact that NATO membership would deter Russia. According to them, the North Atlantic alliance acts as a big dad with big guns who protects us when necessary. This argument is primitive, even though it is understandable given the circumstances.

Finns — like many Europeans — seem to be relating themselves to this war in a very different way than to say the war in Syria or Yemen, or the wars in Iraq (2003-2011, 2013-2017). This is clearly linked to Eurocentrism. Ukraine lies in Europe, and the war is within our reach. The distance from Helsinki and Kyiv are roughly the same distance as those to the northernmost parts of Finland. The invasion of Ukraine brings back memories of the Winter War (1939-40), as well as Russia as the eternal enemy. This evocation constitutes a regressive historical moment involving turning to stories that were prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s when the right was defining Finland as the outermost post of Western civilization against the “barbarism” of Russian Bolshevism. The current understanding is in sharp contrast to the developments after the Second World War when a new cooperative understanding of Finland’s eastern neighbor evolved, despite very different social systems. I hear now that the West has a Cold War mentality. The Russians may not only be inherently bad, but it may not be possible to ever work together again.

The Russian invasion had a profound impact on Ukraine’s political system. This cannot be separated from the longer-term political changes. The response to the invasion in Ukraine is largely due to changes in the social understandings, media representations, and political rhetoric that have been taken for granted. This has prepared the ground to what can be considered a further shift towards the right across all political parties. The 1990s saw Finland’s identity recast as a Western country and as a member in good standing of the EU. This replaced the earlier idea that Finland was a neutral, social-democratic Nordic country. However, they coexisted for a while. Neoliberalization in turn has gradually changed meanings, mentalities, practices and institutions in Finland, paving the way to the rise of nationalist-authoritarian populism in the 2010s that followed the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and its aftermath, including the Euro crisis. These processes are not only common in Finland, but they are also common throughout the interconnected world.

Since 1994, Finland and Sweden have participated in NATO’s Partnership for Peace plan. Particularly, the Finnish armed forces have been matched up with NATO systems. This culminated in the recent purchase of 64 nuclear-weapons-compatible F-35 fighters from America. In the 2000s and 2010s, both countries participated in NATO’s “peace-support” operations and concluded NATO host nation support agreements. Invasion and the subsequent turn in public opinion have only enabled and triggered the final step in the long process to integrate with NATO, namely formal membership.

What would the Finnish and Swedish accessions to NATO do for European security?

The formalization of NATO membership is an important step in the long process. It could have far-reaching implications on international relations in Europe as well as globally. It is likely to end Nordic progressive internationalism.

While the Nordic countries created a pluralist and nonmilitary security community during the Cold War, and encouraged solidarity and the common good in their external relations, NATO membership is accompanied with the militarization society and belief that the military might be able to prevent war through superior diplomatic deterrence. Ultimately, this step 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 is in line with a larger ideational shift towards the logic of rational choice, optimization under constraints, which forms the basis of mainstream Neoliberal Economics. These discussions have been devoid of the concept of common or public benefit, except for the notion of stability that can be achieved through deterrence. Deterrence can be defined as the act of frightening or filling another person, who is being feared, with fear. MAD, Mutually Assured Dectruction, is the ultimate form this type of deterrence. While the Cold War-era neutrality was sometimes understood as an attempt to end the global conflict that was threatening humanity, the current response is based on a narrow self-regarding perspective that is committed towards the theory of deterrence. The fear of Russia also includes a Manichean story about a hero fighting to liberty and democracy against an evil empire.

It is obvious that Russia has launched a highly destructive war. The byproducts of this war include NATO membership for Finland and Sweden. This membership is a step in the escalation process between Russia, NATO, and, to a lesser degree, Russia and the EU. The key issue in the conflict has been the NATO expansion eastward. This has been a key issue since the 1990s. The problem isn’t just that NATO membership to Sweden and Finland threatens to escalate the NATO-Russia war. This decision will also reinforce the EU’s reliance on Washington. Globally, this decision is part of a trend in which the world is becoming more divided. This process is characterized by trade wars as well as the weaponization of interdependence. Not only are Russians concerned about the consequences of Western military alliances, but so is the Global East and South. This is similar to the concerns expressed by Americans, Australians, and Chinese about the alliance of Solomon Islands with China. The First World War was triggered by similar reforms and alliance formations. The possibility of a global war crimes catastrophe is possible. 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.

Russia threatened to retaliate against the Sweden and Finland’s membership moves. Why is Russia so afraid of Finland joining NATO and how can it respond?

The Russian perspective is quite clear. Russia has opposed NATO expansion throughout. Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, was often seen as Western-minded in the 1990s. Yet, at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference in Budapest in 1992, he faced a public outcry regarding plans to expand NATO. In various contexts, Yeltsin used consistently words such as “humiliation” and “fraud” to describe plans to extend NATO to the countries of Eastern (Central) Europe. Putin was open to Russia joining NATO in 2000-2001, but he seems to have been thinking about the transformation of NATO into something closer to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

In Russia NATO has been increasingly viewed as a security threat due to the growing alienation between Russia, the neoliberal West and Russia in the 2000s. Finland has more than 1300 kilometers (km) of border with Russia and is located close to its main centers, in particular St. Petersburg (only 300 km from Helsinki), Russia’s Northern Fleet’s headquarters and main base in the Kola peninsula (similarly close to the Finnish border), and Moscow (1.5 hours flight from Helsinki). Depending on the terms of Finnish membership, it could mean NATO military installations directly to the west of Russia or an expansion of territory that would effectively be under U.S. Military Command in the event there was a war. Russian military planners must respond by reorganizing their capacities in some way.

Nonetheless, the word “retaliation” in your question seems a bit too strong. This is even though for example Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has talked about “surprising military countermeasures and actions.” Mostly the Putin regime appears to have adopted a line according to which Finnish NATO membership does not matter that much, not least because Finland was already so close to NATO. This downplaying of formal membership is in contrast to the mutual understandings that existed up to late 2021. It may indicate that Russian decision-makers failed to anticipate this outcome of their invasion.

Moreover, any forceful interference — whether taking the form of manufactured migration flows, cyberattacks, or missile strikes — would be very counterproductive. This interference would only strengthen the already strong Russophobia, Russia-hatred and support for NATO membership. The mood now is fairly belligerent and many Finns back the idea of “defeating” Russia in Ukraine by military means, whatever that may take or imply.

Finland and Sweden are often described by being welfare capitalist societies. However, both countries still practice a reduced version of the Nordic model. This demonstrates that economic prosperity can go hand-in-hand with the social welfare system. For several years, Finland has been ranked the most happy country in the world by World Happiness Report. Do you think that Finland’s decision to join NATO would undermine what is left of the social democratic model?

Although Finland is still relatively egalitarian in terms income distribution, it is less so in terms wealth distribution. However, the continuity to the era social democracy is limited to certain functions, particularly education and health, of the democratic welfare state model. Both have been transformed by the neoliberal age, but all citizens have access to affordable public health care and free education.

However, the health system is becoming increasingly dual-track, with a large amount of private and semi-public outsourcing. The educational system has been more responsive and selective to students and their social backgrounds. It has also been reorganized in accordance with New Public Management and the pedagogical concepts that are based on the inherent capabilities of young people. Education is still free for all EU citizens and Finns, even at the university level. (Students studying abroad have been subject to fees.

The fact that Finland has not experienced real economic growth since 2007/2008 is something that is remarkable, but not widely discussed. Yes, Finland is still prosperous. In that sense, economic prosperity can be paired with the remaining social welfare state. The overall picture is complicated. It is also true, as Finland has been ranked the happiest country worldwide by the World Happiness Report for several consecutive years. Happiness in these reports is a composite index, it does not refer to “happiness” as a feeling. This has been a continuing source of amusement among Finns, most of whom do not feel particularly “happy.” For example, suicide in Finland takes place at a higher rate than the European Union average.

It’s obvious that social democracy is under threat in these circumstances. Take the Left Alliance as an example. The Left Alliance is a culturally liberal and moderate social democratic party. It has primarily focused on domestic affairs including social security, education, identity politics (for instance LGBTQ issues) and national economic policy. The party is strongly supportive of active climate policies, but any possible measures and political differences will be viewed primarily in national terms. All this is fine, but not enough. Foreign and security policies have been largely left to the other parties. The EU is largely invisible and its future is unknown. For example, the Left Alliance has tacitly approved the idea that Finland is part of the “frugal four” in the EU. This is why the party seems so weak on the NATO membership issue.

Although the Left Alliance was traditionally opposed to NATO membership in the past, it was split in the parliamentary election. Yet only a few Left Alliance MPs voted against the proposal of Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s government. (The Left Alliance is part the government coalition. I have to add that the government has already decided in December 2021 to purchase 64 F-35 combat planes from the U.S. for a minimum of 10 billion euros. While the government is trying to get a few extra millions of euros to support a specific social purpose, the Left Alliance is struggling to obtain a few more tens of million of euros. Ten million is 1/1000th the 10 billion. The GDP share of military spending was as low as 1.1 % in the 1990s. However, it is now close to 2 % (the NATO norm). The director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs proposes that the GDP share be between 3 and 4 percent.

It seems to me, that Finland and Sweden have chosen the wrong side in history after joining NATO. These decisions, for all I know are the end of the Nordic social democracy ideal.