NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in Harpsund, Sweden, June 2022
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in Harpsund, Sweden, June 2022
Henrik Montgomery / TT News Agency

Turkish obstinance notwithstanding, it seems ever more likely that Finland and Sweden will soon join NATO. That is all to the good. The two Nordic countries are staunch democratic Western powers, and they have invested more in their defenses than most NATO members. Their inclusion will strengthen the alliance militarily, diplomatically, and geographically in Europe. Moreover, inducting them will make it undeniable that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a grave mistake. Whatever Putin may accomplish on the ground in the Donbas—and even that seems increasingly up in the air—driving Finland and Sweden into NATO’s arms is a heavy price to pay. He may insist that the war was worthwhile regardless, but most Russians are likely to conclude that it left them in a weaker geostrategic position overall.

Yet there is an important, overlooked caveat. Bringing Finland and, especially, Sweden into NATO is likely to be the final nail in the coffin for the alliance’s missions outside Europe. The idea for fighting “out of area” came about at the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the original raison d’être of the alliance. But NATO’s members were in no hurry to disband, recognizing that the alliance had served them well. Instead, many on both sides of the Atlantic began to consider what other purposes it might be put to. “NATO out of area” thus became the battle cry for those who believed that a coalition that had served so brilliantly in mastering Western security concerns in Europe could be repurposed to address threats beyond it.

But what seemed so obvious in theory did not work in practice. NATO members sometimes could not agree on what constituted a vital interest outside Europe. They found it even harder to reach a consensus on how to address the threats they did agree on, with few of the European NATO members willing or able to contribute military forces to missions beyond the continent. And NATO’s awkward command-and-control arrangements, particularly the need for consensus on every major political decision, made it nearly impossible for NATO to actually operate outside Europe, no matter how great the threat.

Ending NATO’s out-of-area concept may turn out not to be a bad thing, at least in the minds of those who, after Afghanistan and Libya, concluded that the costs of these endeavors far outweighed the benefits. But by shifting NATO’s geographic center of gravity decisively to the north and east, the risk is that the alliance may lose track of the threats gathering to the south.

NORDIC RESTRAINT

Adding Finland and Sweden to NATO is likely to extinguish the last glimmers of hope that NATO will go out of area again. It is hard to imagine many significant military operations beyond Europe that the Finns or the Swedes would sign up for. True, both Finland and Sweden have military personnel deployed outside their own borders. They contribute troops to UN peacekeeping missions around the world and were present alongside NATO in Afghanistan, although mostly in a training and support capacity. More recently, both countries sent troops to Mali and the Sahel, with Sweden committing special forces to the French-led Operation Barkhane, while Finland participated in the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali)But in both Afghanistan and Mali, Finland and Sweden found their experiences frustrating, to the extent that Sweden pulled out of Mali earlier this year.

Furthermore, with Russia directly threatening Finnish and Swedish sovereignty in the Baltics and the northeastern corner of the Scandinavian Peninsula, it is unlikely that either the Swedish or the Finnish government will agree to commit significant numbers of troops to a mission that is not directly related to containing the Russian threat. Operations beyond Europe would prove to be a very hard sell for the public in both countries. The Finns and the Swedes came around to joining the alliance only after Russia invaded Ukraine, a move that conjured a direct threat to their homelands. In their minds, signing up for NATO is a purely defensive move, made to protect their countries’ eastern flanks and to keep Russia away from the Baltic states and eastern Europe. Convincing them to take on far-flung operations having no direct impact on their own security is, for the foreseeable future, out of the question. 

There is more to it than just that with the Swedes. Public opinion data indicate that the Swedish public is not particularly enamored of foreign deployments, and when it does approve them—for instance, its battalion-strong commitment in Afghanistan for a dozen years—it strongly prefers humanitarian and peacekeeping missions to warfighting. The Swedish public is also highly averse to casualties, even more so than is the norm among Western democracies. In a 2011 poll, Swedes were asked if military operations abroad of any kind were worth the risk of Swedish soldiers being killed or injured; by a margin of more than two to one, they responded that they weren’t. The same data show that the Swedes have little interest in using their military for missions such as overturning repressive dictatorships or rolling back aggression against countries outside Europe. And the Swedish public ultimately soured on the mission in Afghanistan, even when the government did not, leading the latter to progressively disengage from the war.

Operations beyond Europe would prove to be a very hard sell for Swedes and Finns.

The Finnish public feels similarly, yet Finland’s geography and military tradition offer additional brakes. True, unlike Sweden, Finland’s tradition of neutrality is much more recent and was imposed by the Soviet Union after World War II. The Finns therefore have fewer moral qualms over out-of-area operations. But also unlike Sweden, Finland shares a border with Russia—830 miles long. And the absence of natural obstacles along it, other than forests, makes the country especially vulnerable to the Russian threat. Recognizing this reality, the Finns have relied on a large army of reservists to defend the country, not the kind of small, all-volunteer force better suited to distant expeditionary operations. For these reservists, as well as for Finnish public opinion, out-of-area operations that might take much-needed Finnish units off the Russian border will be a particularly hard sell as long as Putin and his ilk are in power.

Yet it is Sweden’s approach to international law that is likely to prove to be the biggest obstacle to out-of-area operations. Sweden staunchly opposed the United States’ war in Vietnam and its 2003 invasion of Iraq on principle, even before the disastrous turns in both. In the case of Vietnam, the Swedes branded it an unjust, imperialist war meant to suppress the will of the Vietnamese people. In the case of Iraq, the Swedish government stated that the lack of a clear mandate from the UN Security Council rendered the war illegal. Given the growing animosity that Russia and China harbor for the West, the prospect that either power might wield its Security Council veto means that NATO is unlikely to seek that body’s blessing for future operations. But without the UN imprimatur, it is highly unlikely Stockholm would condone any future NATO military operation, unless it were an unequivocal case of self-defense by a member of the alliance, thereby meeting Swedish definitions of a legal use of force. 

For cultural and historical reasons linked to their neutral past, the Swedes also place tremendous emphasis on avoiding collateral damage, which the United States is frequently accused of needlessly causing. Unlike the United States, Sweden is a major supporter of the International Criminal Court. Swedish courts have exercised the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which they invoke in Sweden to try people accused of committing war crimes elsewhere.

All these preferences are deeply critical to Sweden’s image of itself. Consequently, in an organization in which unanimity is the norm, it is hard to imagine that Stockholm would allow a NATO military mission it regards as illegal, even if Swedish forces are not expected to participate. Other NATO members might hold their noses and back a foreign military mission unpopular with their publics, knowing that they won’t have to contribute forces, but Sweden’s strict, legalistic approach makes that much less likely. Moreover, conducting a NATO military operation in such a way that it won’t run afoul of Swedish laws and values would probably cause so many headaches that the countries willing to act would undoubtedly prefer to do so outside NATO.

MISSING THE MEDITERRANEAN

Although the inclusion of Finland and Sweden is likely to end NATO’s flirtation with out-of-area operations, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In practice, such operations never really worked. In Afghanistan, for example, the U.S.-led coalition of NATO members initially defeated the Taliban and liberated Kabul, but not long after, the alliance’s participation revealed its limits and ended in fiasco. Too few forces were provided at far too great a cost, especially by burdening operations with varying strictures over which troops could do what, for how long, and in what circumstances. The Americans, the British, the Canadians, and a few others did most of the real fighting, and they came to wish that they were there without their other alliance partners and the cumbersome regulations, opt-outs, and requirements they brought along.

Above all, the addition of Finland and Sweden will strengthen NATO’s ability to defend Europe. It will allow the alliance to draw more resources from Europe rather than the United States. It will, by demonstrating common interests and a common purpose to defend them, reinvigorate NATO’s bonds, making it easier for the United States to put together future “coalitions of the willing” that include NATO members. And it will tarnish any victory that Russia manages to achieve in Ukraine. Even if including these two new members means ending the fantasy of NATO’s out-of-area operations, on balance, it is a pretty good deal for the West.

But there is one kicker: the Mediterranean. For all the good that the inclusion of Finland and Sweden will do for the alliance, it also risks tipping NATO’s focus almost exclusively toward Europe’s eastern and northern flanks, leaving the continent’s soft underbelly dangerously exposed.

Adding Finland and Sweden to NATO will tarnish any victory that Russia manages to achieve in Ukraine.

It is a reasonable risk in the short term, because the Mediterranean is not the most pressing issue for NATO right now. The war in Ukraine has made blindingly clear that the alliance’s greatest antagonist is still Russia, which threatens Europe’s east. Furthermore, during the past few years, Moscow has disrupted the status quo in the Baltic Sea—where it has encroached on the airspace and exclusive territorial waters not only of the Baltic States but also Finland, Sweden and Denmark. The Arctic, too, is likely to become a major arena of competition as climate change thaws its vast resources and frozen passages, opening express routes for shipping.

Focusing on the Russian threat to these areas therefore makes sense, but it cannot come at the expense of giving much-needed long-term attention to the Mediterranean. It, too, is an area where Western interests will be contested in the months and years to come. A witches’ brew of bad demography, climate change, corruption, and rancid politics is boiling on the other side of the Middle Sea in North Africa, the Sahel, and the Middle East.  

As just one example of the challenges that lie there, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these regions all faced critical food shortages caused by war and repeated droughts. Feeding the greater Mediterranean region will be a challenge, but it is absolutely vital. Failure would risk the kind of widening famine or spiraling inflation that has triggered great waves of refugees and migrants across the narrow sea in the past, creating conflict both within European societies and among them and their neighbors across the Mediterranean.

A WARM FRONT

Europe also faces a Russian challenge on its southern flank, one that comes in two forms. First, the Mediterranean is the key to Europe making good on its pledge to end its dependence on Russian gas. Europe will have to instead rely on new gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean; import more gas from established North African producers, such as Algeria and Libya; and get more liquified natural gas from Qatar, using routes that pass through the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.

The Mediterranean has also proved to be an arena where Putin has been bolstering Russian influence and using it to make mischief. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has allowed it to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, its more limited participation in the Libyan conflict, mostly through its Wagner Group mercenaries, allows Moscow to link its growing presence in the Mediterranean with its efforts to eject the West, particularly France, from the Sahel. Likewise, Putin’s proffered arms sales to the Algerian regime should be seen as a bid to lure Algiers away from its profitable energy markets in Europe and ratchet up the pressure on Italy, France, and Spain ahead of the winter. Russia is now using the “sea between the lands” to obtain influence beyond, in Africa and the Middle East.

And Moscow is not alone. Iran has used its participation in the Syrian civil war to establish a network of military bases across Syria, physically linking Iran with its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, forming what King Abdullah of Jordan once called a “Shiite crescent.” Beijing has also stepped up its game. It has bought stakes in ports and other infrastructure projects across the Mediterranean, and it has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, at the entrance to the Red Sea, which links the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. 

Moreover, NATO members may focus on the north rather than the south because the former not only seems more pressing but more straightforward. Putin’s blatant aggression has reunified Europe and North America in their determination to resist further Russian assault. But the issues in the Mediterranean are messier. They tend to require more political and economic solutions, not merely military ones. And the alliance members are often more divided over Mediterranean issues.

Thus, despite its likely northward tilt toward Russia, Scandinavia, and the Arctic, NATO cannot ignore the challenges in the Mediterranean. Because the shock of the Russian attack on Ukraine remains so fresh, it will be a challenge to convince Finland and Sweden to focus on the region, perhaps even more so than for other northern European NATO members. As always, then, it will fall to Washington as the alliance’s geostrategic leader to convince its northern and eastern European allies that checking Moscow in the Mediterranean can weaken the Russian threat to Europe by limiting its economic and political options whenever it resumes its expansive claims to the heart of Europe.

Indeed, because Russia’s ambitions are not confined to the Mediterranean but go beyond it to both Africa and the Middle East, a new NATO Mediterranean strategy may require a revised out-of-area approach, one that can succeed when past efforts have failed. This could translate into new forms of partnerships with non-NATO actors on the other side of the Mediterranean, making full use of the powerful links stemming from the Abraham Accords, agreements that normalize relationships between Arab Gulf countries and Israel. This would not require once again tying either the United States or NATO to intractable conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, it should focus more on diplomacy and collective security to secure the sea itself and bolster allies on both sides with training, equipment, intelligence, and logistical support to enable them to secure their hinterlands. This, however, requires clear-eyed policy, well-defined political parameters, and constant attention, as the United States’ allies in the Mediterranean do not always share the same interests in any given territory, either with one another or with the NATO states.

Thus, despite its likely northward tilt toward Russia, Scandinavia, and the Arctic, NATO cannot ignore or forget the challenges in the Mediterranean. At the very least, NATO must ensure that even if the Mediterranean is never a Western lake, it cannot become hostile waters.

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