The dream of the Scandinavian Defence Union

Written by me

On 9 April 2022, Finland’s former Social Democratic Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja went on record with a proposal for a Swedish-Finnish defence union. He presented this idea as a possible alternative to joining NATO, the prospect of which had become exceedingly likely for Finland, and to a lesser degree also for Sweden. Thanks to the changed security situation that had been created by Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February, Finnish public opinion behind NATO membership was solidifying, and the idea had already garnered a very comfortable majority in the Finnish parliament. Tuomioja’s intervention was widely dismissed as a desperate attempt to derail this conversation. The following day, the incumbent foreign ministers of both Finland and Sweden refused to recognise the substantive contents of his proposal. Nevertheless, doubts remain whether Tuomioja was acting entirely on his own initiative.

In the meantime, it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not the first time that a Nordic defence union has been proposed, and neither is it the first time this idea has failed. Below is a short reflection on the topic.

After the end of World War II, the mainland Nordic states, which were all culturally western and ideologically democratic found themselves in the strategic and ideological frontier between the superpowers and their respective blocs of allies. Norway and especially Finland were also frontier states in the physical sense, sharing a border with the USSR. All of them saw the USSR as that their primary security threat.

In this situation, the Nordics had essentially three security options available: firstly, to continue with their isolationist neutrality policy of the interwar period; secondly, to try to create a Nordic defence union amongst themselves; or thirdly, to conclude alliance with one of the superpowers – meaning, realistically, the US and its allies.

A return to the neutrality of the interwar period was not very likely, or at least not for all of them. Already in the 1930s, it had become obvious that neutrality and ‘non-provocation’ in the framework of the League of Nations were not tenable policies since the organisation itself failed to fulfil its purpose as a provider of collective security. In 1940, both Denmark and Norway fell under Nazi German occupation, which lasted for the duration of the war. By the end of it, their experiences had firmly driven home the need for credible security guarantees to ensure that nothing similar would ever happen again.

Finland, which had fought against the Soviet Union, entered after the war its period of so-called Finlandisation: one-sided dependence on Soviet foreign policy. This meant that Finland was unable to participate in further security discussions and had to adopt ‘neutrality’ as its official security policy stance.

In the couple of years immediately after the Second World War, when the bipolar world of the Cold War had not yet fully hardened, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden also continued to follow a policy of what has sometimes been called ‘neutralism within the United Nations.’ This was essentially a continuation of their 1930s neutrality policy in the successor organisation of the League of Nations. Soon enough, however, the second option, a Scandinavian Defence Union, also made its appearance.

In the immediate background of the rise of this idea were the heightened East-West tensions over the Berlin blockade of June 1948 to May 1949. In this tense situation, the Swedish Social Democratic Foreign Minister Östen Undén was tipped by his Norwegian counterpart that Norway would soon revise its previous foreign policy and ‘open up to the West’. As a response, Sweden scrambled to preserve Nordic security policy unity by trying to offer an alternative and initiated talks with Denmark and Norway over the establishment of a Scandinavian Defence Union with the explicit aim of protecting ‘Nordic neutrality’.

Essentially, the Swedes believed it would be possible for the Scandinavian states to isolate themselves from superpower competition by issuing a common declaration of neutrality and non-involvement in the Cold War, which would also be reinforced with military resources to make any possible military intrusion in the area too costly to carry out (armed neutrality). In this way, the Scandinavian Defence Union project was intended as a Nordic extension of the Swedish traditional neutrality policy. It had the support of the Swedish prime minister and all Swedish political parties on condition that the proposed alliance would remain independent of either of the two superpower blocs.

However, the main opposition to the idea came from Norway. Norway, unlike Sweden had experienced German occupation first-hand and was well-aware of the dangers of isolation. Norway had also received substantial help from the Allies during the war, especially Britain, and was happy to continue this cooperation with Britain and the US. There were also fears in Norway that if the American response to the Scandinavian Defence Alliance would be unfavourable, leading to alienation between Norway and the Western allies, which would have been very dangerous in case there was a war against the USSR. Finally, there were signs of increasing Soviet aggression, which included the communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the Finno-Soviet Friendship and Mutual Assistance Treaty, which had been forced on Finland and concluded two months later, and the start of the Berlin blockade in June 1948.

For all those reasons, the Norwegians demanded that the proposed alliance establish official military collaboration with the Western powers. But this was, of course, unacceptable for Sweden, since official military cooperation with Western powers was exactly what the idea of the Scandinavian Defence Union had been meant to prevent.

Denmark had experienced a much milder form of German occupation than Norway, and Danish opinion was more open to the Defence Union proposal. When Norway rejected it, the Danish Social Democratic Prime Minister proposed a joint Swedish-Danish alliance instead. Now, however, Sweden became concerned that this reduced alliance would be too weak and would still come under the influence of NATO. So, in the end, even the Swedish-Danish defence union failed to happen.

The third option available for the Scandinavian states in the initial stages of the Cold War was to conclude an alliance with one of the superpowers. This is what Denmark, Norway and Iceland effectively did by subsequently becoming founding members of NATO. The collapse of the Scandinavian Defence Union initiative left Sweden alone in the region to pursue a traditional neutrality course as it had done already from the 19th century onwards.

While Swedish and Finnish neutrality were officially abandoned in the 1990s, as they joined the European Union, they have retained their policy of non-alignment, i.e., non-membership in NATO. Now, however, Russia’s criminal escalation its war against Ukraine has fundamentally changed the regional security environment, and the fundamental questions of Nordic security policy are once again on the table. It is fair to say that compared to the winter of 1948-1949, the idea of the Scandinavian Defence Union – by necessity excluding those Nordic countries that are already in NATO – presents an even less credible alternative in 2022. We are therefore more likely than not to see two more Nordic NATO accessions very soon, and an end to the security fragmentation that has characterised the Nordic region ever since the early years of the Cold War.