Both countries have a long tradition of military non-alignment, and although they have been working closely with the alliance for years, the question of joining NATO was not a political priority. The Russian attack on Ukraine, like so many other things, changed that too.
In response to the Russian aggression, both states have revised their security policies: They no longer want to rely solely on their own military capabilities, but are now seeking protection through a system of collective defense: The forthcoming application for NATO membership marks this paradigm shift.
The latest surveys also show that in both countries there are clear and growing majorities in favor of joining the alliance. If Finland and Sweden joined, they would bring significant military capabilities to the alliance, including modern air and submarine capabilities that will transform northern Europe’s security architecture and help deter further Russian aggression.
By invading Ukraine, President Putin not only aimed to regain control of the country, but also to permanently change the Euro-Atlantic security order. As is becoming increasingly clear, he succeeded – just not in the sense that he probably intended. Russia’s attack has unified and revitalized NATO and made another round of enlargement much more likely.
With the prospect of Finland (and Sweden) joining, the security architecture in Northern Europe will also change. Integrated control of the whole area will facilitate the defense of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as Swedish territory in particular is important for this effort. This will increase deterrence and make military conflict less likely
Perhaps the most important consequence of Finland’s and Sweden’s accession, however, is the strengthening of NATO’s political dimension as a pillar of the defense of Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area.
Both countries will help deepen coordination between the EU and NATO, thereby contributing to better burden-sharing across the Atlantic – a goal that comes with the greater demands that the security situation in the Indo-Pacific places on the United States is becoming more and more important.
This political revival of NATO, which the French President described as “brain dead” in autumn 2019, is not only reflected in the new security policy course of the two Nordic countries, but extends far beyond that. Despite the differing interests of its members, the alliance has reacted in a unified and resolute manner to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: The former critic Macron, for example, is taking part in NATO’s reinsurance policy for its eastern allies by relocating 1,000 French soldiers to Romania.
Many other alliance partners also provide comparable support. With coordinated arms deliveries, NATO members have effectively supported Ukraine while avoiding the alliance becoming involved in the conflict.
The United States under President Biden has played its role as NATO’s leading political and military power and since February has deployed 11,000 more soldiers to Europe and initiated the adjustment of the alliance to the changed security policy situation.
This is all the more remarkable given that President Biden’s foreign policy priorities are actually in the Indo-Pacific region and at the same time she is under domestic pressure to limit the US’ global regulatory role.
After all, the German government has not only rhetorically underlined the importance of NATO for Euro-Atlantic security, but has also clearly underlined it with a series of measures: Germany has not only committed itself to a permanent increase in the defense budget, but also to the continuation of nuclear sharing and in support of the Eastern European NATO members.
In June, the NATO summit in Madrid will reflect the changed security policy environment and carry out the necessary adjustment steps in a new strategic concept. The alliance members have to answer three questions in particular in this context.
First, it should be clarified how a strengthening of NATO’s European pillar can be structured politically and militarily in such a way that Europe can bear more responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security in the long term.
How can a more autonomous role be developed in close consultation, not in contrast to the USA? For as gratifying as America’s involvement in Europe is, it is also clear that the security policy priorities of the USA will lie elsewhere in the long run. In addition, a possible re-election of Donald Trump in November 2024 would again raise doubts as to whether the USA would even fulfill its obligation to provide assistance in NATO.
Second, NATO’s priorities and its military stance need to be determined: will the military containment of Russia be NATO’s primary purpose over the next ten years? Or is it the confrontation with China? Or maybe fighting Islamist terrorism in the southern periphery? And are crisis management missions to Afghanistan still desired or conceivable?
Third, NATO should continue to develop its partnerships. The political, financial and military resources of an alliance that may soon have 32 members also remain limited. Depending on the security policy context, countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia or Jordan will be of great importance for the Alliance’s activities. They should be tied more closely to NATO than before.