Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

| May 18, 2022

European leaders have reassessed Russia's intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo.

One of the virtues of a good theory is that it makes sense of events that might otherwise seem surprising or at least somewhat puzzling. A case in point is the Swedish and Finnish decision to abandon long traditions of neutrality and apply for membership in NATO.

At first glance, the explanation for this decision seems blindingly obvious. Russia started the most destructive war in Europe since World War II and has waged that war with considerable brutality. As the war in Ukraine drags on and threatens to become a destructive stalemate, Sweden and Finland have concluded that their security environment is deteriorating and have opted for the greater protection that they believe NATO membership will provide. If you studied international relations in college, you might see this as a classic example of balance-of-power theory at work.

Still, that explanation leaves a couple of questions unanswered. Abandoning a long and successful policy of neutrality is a big step, and it could involve significant costs and risks down the road. This point is especially pertinent in the case of Sweden, which has cooperated closely with NATO for years and was already getting many of the benefits of membership with few of the burdens. So why change course now?

More importantly, one might have thought that Russia's abysmal military performance in Ukraine would have left Sweden and Finland feeling more rather than less secure. The war has shown that Russia's armed forces are simply not very good at conquering other nations, and the combination of Western sanctions, the costs of the war itself, and the continuing brain drain of talented young Russians even as the overall population declines and ages is going to reduce the country's power potential for years to come. When one remembers that Sweden remained neutral throughout the Cold War, when Soviet power was at its height, it is at least somewhat puzzling that Sweden (and Finland) picked this moment to decide they needed NATO's embrace.

As I've argued for a long time now, puzzles such as these disappear if we recognize that traditional balance-of-power theory is incomplete. States do pay close attention to the balance of power, but what they really care about are threats. The level of threat a state poses to others is partly a function of its overall power, but also its specific military capabilities (especially its ability to conquer or harm others), its geographic proximity, and its perceived intentions....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?.” Foreign Policy, May 18, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt