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Finland, Sweden and a new transatlantic relationship

Greg Nash
President Biden shakes hands with Swedish Ambassador to the U.S. Karin Olofsdotter and Finnish Ambassador to the U.S. Mikko Hautala during a ceremony to sign NATO ratification documents for Finland and Sweden in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, August 9, 2022.

Brussels residents joke that NATO and the European Union are headquartered in the same city but exist on different planets. That was perhaps amusing in the past, but the security issues confronting Europe and the U.S. are now too real to dismiss EU-NATO relations with clever phrases.

When Finland and Sweden join NATO, the overlap between EU and NATO members among European states will be nearly complete, and it is an opportune time to forge a new security relationship and modernize the transatlantic alliance. This could give the EU greater weight in security affairs and reduce the overall burden on the U.S. as the main security provider in Europe. 

Finland and Sweden are joining NATO because they believe that membership in an alliance backed by American military power is necessary. But doing so is an inherent acknowledgement of the weaknesses of the EU as a security actor. Both countries are EU members, and the EU has a mutual defense clause in its treaty. If Finland and Sweden believed this was sufficient, they would not have taken the historic turn away from their non-aligned status. It is an explicit endorsement of a transatlantic security model based on American military power. 

Although this is potentially a blow to the idea of greater strategic autonomy for the EU, it can be turned to building a more constructive EU-NATO relationship. The key is to focus the transatlantic relationship on the emerging authoritarian threat that challenges the liberal principles upon which both the U.S. and the EU are based. Europe leaders often state that they do not want to be forced to choose sides in a U.S.-China rivalry, but events are increasingly pushing the EU to do precisely that.

European leaders are moving away from treating a relationship with China as purely commercial, given China’s constant espionage activities and its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Russia and China forge a closer strategic partnership, it becomes apparent that much of what will drive geopolitics in the near future is a contest between a China-Russia authoritarian block and a liberal-democratic block anchored in the transatlantic relationship. This is not a choice between a rules-based international order and anarchy, but rather a question of who crafts the rules based on what values. Here the narcissism of small differences between the EU and the U.S. should not stop closer strategic cooperation when the contrasts with the authoritarian vision are so stark. 

Both the EU and NATO recognize this: The specific challenge posed by China is mentioned for the first time in the new NATO Strategic Concept unveiled in Madrid this summer. The EU is all too aware of the pressure China is exerting on some members, and more EU leaders are fully appreciating the potential costs of closer partnership with China. When combined with the more immediate challenges Russia poses to European security, this is an opportune time for the NATO and the EU to draft common statements that would provide a road map for future joint actions on investment, sanctions and other tools of statecraft. 

Those broad statements could be backed up immediately with joint initiatives focused on the two new NATO members. Russia may seek to challenge the viability of the NATO security guarantee because the addition of Finland vastly increases the territory of NATO members that border directly on Russia. Deterring that will require a consistent demonstration of the capability and the will to defend the region.

But doing so does not have to fall exclusively on NATO, and there is a context of the EU and NATO working collaboratively in the region: The EU and NATO operate a joint center of excellence for hybrid threats in Finland that is aimed at countering the information and cyber warfare techniques employed by Russia. Assuming Sweden approves, the EU and NATO could base a new joint command center there for Baltic and Arctic security. This could become a nexus for planning, exercises and logistics in the region leveraging the resources of both NATO and EU.

Once again, the existing overlap between NATO and EU members in Europe is nearly complete with the addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO. Given the common memberships and common challenges emerging from the Russia-China relationship, this is an opportunity to build a more modern and productive transatlantic security relationship. 

Zachary Selden was the deputy secretary general for policy at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly from 2008-2011 and is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. He is the author of Alignment, Alliance, and American Grand Strategy (University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Tags American military authoritarian governments authoritarian regimes Authoritarianism China China-Russia partnership China–European Union relations Enlargement of NATO European defense European Union Finland Russia in the European energy sector Russian invasion of Ukraine Russia–NATO relations Sweden Transatlantic relations

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