In late August, 2017, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wrote a sharply worded letter to his Swedish colleague Peter Hultqvist, wherein Mattis warned of the consequences of signing the United Nations’ new Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. Unlike its allies, the Swedish government is considering signing the treaty, which was opened for signatures on September 20. No NATO country intends to sign the treaty and neither does the non-member Finland which, like Sweden, has a close relationship with NATO but is formally non-aligned. NATO officials have expressed skepticism about the treaty’s effectiveness, noting that it cannot create obligations for non-signatories, such as North Korea. According to NATO, the treaty challenges the existing non-proliferation framework, and does nothing to resolve the underlying security dilemmas that lead to nuclear possession and deterrence strategies.

According to Mattis, signing the treaty could threaten the Swedish partnership with NATO and close Sweden’s option to join NATO in the future. In response, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström stated that “We make independent decisions. No one should try to threaten or affect us.” From a non-Swedish perspective, such a statement can seem unusually rash. However, Sweden has a history of pursuing a freewheeling, idealist foreign policy. That is, rather than using strategic considerations as the basis for foreign policy decisions, the Swedish approach to international relations has been a value-based one. For example, in 1972, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme denounced US bombings of Vietnam in harsh terms – going so far as to draw comparisons between the American bombings and Nazi war crimes – which put a strain on Swedish-American relations at the time.

Many Swedes look back at those days with a sense of nostalgia, as a time when Sweden was a neutral, non-aligned “moral superpower” who stood up for what was right and just. In some sense, this way of thinking can be seen as the Swedish equivalent of the notion of American exceptionalism. Today, this mindset can be seen in the current Swedish administration’s feminist foreign policy, where women’s rights, conflict prevention, and disarmament are priorities.

Still, the Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist, the recipient of Mattis’s letter, has clearly expressed his sentiment that the fight against nuclear weapons cannot interfere with Swedish defense cooperations. This is understandable given that the ‘Hultqvist doctrine’ is predicated on close bilateral defense relationships, especially with the United States, in lieu of NATO membership. Consequently, Hultqvist’s and his Ministry for Defense’s position on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty reflects a more realist position, which puts strategic interests first. Thus, the debate over the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty is indicative of a broader split within the Swedish government and the Social Democratic Party. This split gives rise to a rather schizophrenic foreign policy, with two ministries representing two separate agendas. Which of the ministries will get its way depends on which group holds the balance of power in the Swedish administration: idealists or realists?

Unlike Sweden, Finland has decided to abstain from the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty negotiations, although Finland and Sweden have a shared position on many policies and both countries continue to strengthen their cooperation in the areas of defense and security. This is a departure from Finland’s position on past negotiations, given Finland’s history of strong support for multilateral non-proliferation and disarmament treaties. However, more recent years have brought a more agnostic Finnish stance on nuclear weapons, as a result of shifting security policy priorities.

As a guiding principle, non-proliferation has served Finland’s national interests through politically challenging times. In the 1960’s, Finland was the proponent of a Nordic Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NNWFZ), which was an important element of Finland’s policy of neutrality. Concerns about nuclear weapons were growing at the time in the Nordics because of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the proximity to two nuclear alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. There was a strategic need to emphasize that the Nordic region is nuclear free. At the time, Finland could not afford to support decisions that challenged the relationship with the Soviet Union. In this manner, the commitment to a NNWFZ worked as a reassurance to both the West and the Soviets. Yet, the plan to create a NNWFZ was never effectuated, mostly because of Denmark’s and Norway’s commitments to NATO.

Still, the work for nuclear non-proliferation was an important part of Finland’s international role for many years following. For instance, Finland’s active role in the negotiations on the Non-Proliferation Treaty was notable. Naturally, when Finland became a member of the European Union, it committed to work on the issue within the framework of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). After joining the EU, following the example of Sweden, Finland continued to issue normative statements in selected cases. But in general, the Finnish commitment to disarmament was exemplified by efforts to provide technical assistance and funding for programs that worked for non-proliferation. In contrast to Sweden, which continues to hold onto its tradition of being an anti-nuclear activist, Finland’s position on non-proliferation fell in line with the rest of the EU. Whereas Sweden channeled its idealism through characteristic recommendations concerning outright bans on nuclear weapons, Finland demonstrated a commitment to pragmatism through its gradual shift towards its contemporary policy.

Nevertheless, this shift does not suggest that Finland’s attention or interest in non-proliferation has waned. In comparison to Sweden’s stronger moralistic rhetoric, Finland has accentuated its position in both the EU and UN communities, through its adoption of an EU-conformist voting behavior in the UN General Assembly, and by adopting a more neutral rhetoric. Most European countries, including Finland, have supported the EU’s aim to present a joint position in the UN. According to some, Finland’s current pivot is causing it to lose its role as bridge builder and important actor on non-proliferation.

Although Finland’s priorities have leaned towards a more globalist agenda at times, Finland’s current disarmament policy suggests that it has not forgotten about traditional power politics and the national interest. The decision to abstain from signing the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty is highly consistent with Finland’s Europeanized policies. The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released two explanations to the decision that illustrate Finland’s more realist view on security. According to a representative of the Unit for Arms Control, the Treaty will most likely not reduce the amount of nuclear weapons due to all nuclear powers abstaining, and could harm current efforts of non-proliferation and disarmament. This reflects the thinking among NATO officials. Thus, Finland’s decision to abstain is the result of deeper commitment to strategic partners (NATO in particular) and the EU’s CFSP, as the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty contradicts those alliances’ shared belief in gradual disarmament and deterrence that established treaties embody.

Although the Swedish and Finnish disarmament debates may appear to be internal affairs at first, they could have considerable consequences beyond domestic policy. Most importantly, Sweden and Finland are linchpins in NATO’s planning to protect its Baltic member states. While both countries are formally non-aligned, they are key partners to NATO. This is evidenced by the ongoing Swedish-led Aurora military exercise, where troops from six NATO countries (including the United States) and Finland take part. Therefore, Sweden’s idealist stance on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty – in contrast to Finland’s more realist position – is worrisome, as it could alienate NATO countries and obstruct future collaboration. (The Swedish government seems to have taken this risk into account, as it is currently re-evaluating the consequences of signing the treaty.) Insisting on pursuing a self-reliant foreign policy for the sake of an ineffectual treaty could not only put Sweden’s partnerships at risk, but the security of the entire Baltic Sea region as well.


Senni Salmi and Emanuel Örtengren are Visiting Fellows at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

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