During the Cold War, the Nordic countries were widely seen as the model of an enlightened, anti-militaristic society guided by social justice and morally superior to those opposing poles of modernity, the United States and Soviet Union. And the two countries that best represented this model were Sweden and Finland.

The countries share a long history: For centuries Finland was part of the kingdom of Sweden, which lost it to Russia during the Napoleonic wars. Since 1814, Sweden has managed to avoid wars or declare itself neutral, as in the second Schleswig (Dano-Prussian) war of 1864.

Finland’s history has not been quite so peaceful, though as an autonomous part of the Russian empire, it was the first European country to adopt universal suffrage, in 1906. The Russian Revolution led to Finnish independence—and also to a civil war in 1918 between the Reds (social democrats) and Whites (conservatives), who won with military help from Germany. Newly independent Finland then intervened in the Russian civil war until 1920, when the Treaty of Tartu was signed. Against all odds, Finland stayed democratic and the social democrats were allowed to take part in elections and join coalition governments from the 1920s.

While social democracy gathered strength in Sweden throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Finland went through a turbulent period, including a failed fascist uprising in 1930. In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party came to power in 1932 and remained in government, alone or in coalition, until 1976. With its social reforms and ethical leadership, reflected in an actively internationalist foreign policy, social-democratic Sweden became the leading representative of the Nordic model.

Agreement with the Soviet Union

Meanwhile, after two wars against the Soviet Union (1939–44), the second as an ally of Nazi Germany, Finland saw major change with the electoral gains of the Social Democratic Party of Finland and the new, further left Finnish People’s Democratic League. To extricate itself from the war in 1944, it had to turn on the Germans and make territorial concessions to the Russians. In 1948, it became the only non-communist country to sign an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union. It refused US aid under the Marshall Plan and became de facto neutral.

In 1952 Finland’s prime minister, Urho Kekkonen, gave a powerful speech in favor of peace that linked its neutrality and its Nordic identity. At a time when the social-democratic movement had already achieved dominance in Nordic countries, Kekkonen’s Nordic policy of non-alignment, combined with the achievements of the labor movement, enabled Finland to replicate the Swedish model, with some modifications, and build a democratic and universalist welfare state. This was also a period of rapid economic growth, technological dynamism, urbanization, and decreasing inequality.

Sweden’s active internationalism stemmed from shared societal values that influenced its foreign policy. The presumed superiority of the Nordic social model—seen as rational, enlightened, and peace-loving—persisted in part because military tensions were much lower than in central Europe. This despite Norway and Denmark being members of NATO, and Finland’s agreement with the Soviet Union. In 1955 Finland joined the Nordic Council, founded by Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark three years earlier. From the 1950s, this inter-parliamentary forum allowed the establishment of passport-free movement of citizens between member states, a common labor market, and shared social security systems.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of whether there was a future for the Nordic model reemerged, but was now more a matter of whether there was any socially oriented, democratic alternative to US-led, neoliberal globalization. Changes that began in the 1970s had made this a pressing question. In Sweden, the rise of multinationals, the struggle over wage-earner funds, and the first oil crisis led to the Social Democrats’ first electoral defeat in 44 years, in 1976.

When they returned to power in 1982, “the third way” was redefined as a compromise between social democracy and neoliberalism, rather than between capitalism and communism. The new government also tried to use financial liberalization as a tool of macroeconomic policy, increasing the influence of global capital markets on Sweden’s balance of payments and interest rates, and eventually decided to deregulate the financial markets. Finland and Norway followed suit in the mid-1980s. Financial deregulation led to a boom-and-bust cycle and a major banking and currency crisis in the early 1990s. The crisis was especially severe in Finland, as it coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and of trade with it.

“Finlandization” under attack

After the Cold War, advocates of neoliberalism attacked “Finlandization.” In every Nordic country, there was talk of the need to move with the times. For every social problem, there was a neoliberal prescription based on austerity, tax cuts, privatization, outsourcing, and application of management theory.

In the 1990s, Sweden’s intimate Cold War ties with NATO were revealed. Sweden was still leading the Nordic countries, but irrevocably taking them away from the Nordic model. Finland followed Sweden in applying for EU membership in 1992 (approved in a 1994 referendum). The Norwegian government also applied, but narrowly lost the 1994 accession referendum. Finland and Sweden joined in 1995.

Finland and Sweden were redefined as European and Western, as opposed to neutral Nordic countries, though the two identities coexisted for some time and perhaps still do. This was also the time when public debates on joining NATO began. Since 1994 Finland and Sweden have participated in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program; in particular, the Finnish armed forces have aligned with NATO systems and recently decided to buy 64 nuclear-capable F-35 fighters from the US. In the 2000s and 2010s, both countries participated in NATO’s “peace support” operations and signed NATO Host Nation Support agreements.

A further shift to the right?

Responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stem largely from these gradual changes in social understanding, media representations, and political rhetoric, preparing the ground for a further shift to the right of the entire political spectrum.

In this sense, the invasion and its impact on public opinion have only triggered the last step in the process of joining NATO, which began many years ago. Joining will have far-reaching implications for Finland and Sweden themselves and for international relations in Europe and globally. It signals the end of Nordic progressive internationalism—at least for now.

It is often said that neutrality is a pillar of Sweden’s national identity, whereas for Finland it has been based more on pragmatism and political realism. In the hope that the Cold War could be transformed, Finland’s foreign policy became somewhat more active and innovative, as exemplified by the process that culminated in the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki. Kekkonen hoped to make Finland a bridge-builder between East and West. The idea was to overcome the security dilemma through confidence-building and disarmament and to create a normative basis for future convergence of the blocs.

Banking on better deterrence

Whereas during the Cold War the Nordic countries achieved a pluralist security community among themselves and promoted solidarity and common good in their external relations, the decision to join NATO comes amid a militarization of society and a new belief in the capacity of military might to prevent war through superior deterrence. The expansion of NATO is based on the theory of deterrence—including nuclear deterrence—which itself relies on the assumption that the actors are operating on the basis of rational logic.

The concept of common good has vanished from these discussions, except in the form of hope that stability can be achieved through the principle of deterrence—inspiring fear in one who is feared. Its ultimate expression is mutually assured destruction.

During the Cold War, neutrality was seen—at least sometimes—as an attempt to transform the worldwide conflict threatening humanity, but today it is part of the narrow strategy of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the fear of Russia feeds the simplistic narrative of a standoff between heroic defenders of freedom and an evil empire.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven Finland and Sweden into the arms of NATO. Their applications to join are, however, another step in the escalation of tensions between Russia and NATO and—to a lesser extent—between Russia and the EU. NATO’s eastward expansion since the 1990s is a key factor in the current conflict. The world has not been this close to nuclear war since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and any further step in that direction is dangerous. NATO membership entails a commitment to nuclear deterrence, which means we are unlikely to see any attempts at confidence-building or disarmament by Finland and Sweden in the foreseeable future. The Nordic idea has all but vanished.

Finland and Sweden’s decision to join NATO not only threatens to further escalate the NATO–Russia conflict, it increases the EU’s reliance on the US. Even more seriously, it reinforces the division of the world into two camps, and the weaponization of interdependence. The expansion of NATO is a concern not only in Russia, but also in the global South and Asia; this is no different from Australians and Americans being concerned about the Solomon Islands’ recent security agreement with China.

These developments are reminiscent of processes that led to World War I: At this point the possibility of a global military catastrophe can no longer be averted. Even if it does not happen in the near future, they are part of a background trend whose results may become apparent in the next 10 to 20 years—unless the course of world history is altered, for example by a new non-aligned movement. Finland and Sweden, with their decisions to join NATO, are now on the wrong side of history.