Extending NATO Membership to Sweden and Finland Enhances the European Security Community

By Dr. Nathan E. Dial, Active-Duty Major in the US Air Force

In the early 1950s, Lord Hastings Ismay, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) first Secretary-General, described the Alliance’s founding as a method to “Keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” Lord Ismay’s three edicts remained NATO’s driving force and informed its identity through the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. During the 1990s, NATO transformed itself by adding areas of responsibility and expanding membership. NATO Allies decided to morph the institution from a defensive alliance designed to counter Soviet aggression into a security provider that encouraged members to coordinate efforts to address security concerns within and outside their borders.  

Throughout its 73-year history, NATO has operated as a collection of countries with shared values that manage a military alliance through consensus and allows each Ally to contribute to an action plan based on its domestic political constraints. The main limitations are the Allies’ limited political will to withstand military losses, reluctance to operate outside NATO’s borders, and the institution’s posture as a defensive alliance.  NATO’s hesitancy to intervene in Kosovo, lack of participation in the 2003 Iraq War, limited involvement in the 2011 Libyan intervention, and reluctance to provide Ukraine support beyond weapons and economic aid highlight the difficulties of coalescing NATO member preferences to execute out-of-area kinetic military operations.  

As NATO enters a new chapter in 2022, current geopolitical circumstances encourage Allies to accept Sweden’s and Finland’s bids to join NATO to fortify European security, communicate a clear red-line to Russia, and quell any potential internal conflicts should Russian aggression escalate beyond Ukraine.

Welcoming Finland and Sweden into NATO Enhances European Security 

The strategic goal of NATO is to create a European security community of liberal democracies. A security community is a group of nations integrated and guided by a sense of unity and a promise between members to resolve issues without violence. The commitment to collective security via NATO membership has allowed Europe to prosper under peaceful conditions since WWII in a way few could have imagined during NATO’s founding in 1949.

Russia’s escalating aggression in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and Ukraine in 2022 compels NATO to recognize that its economic and diplomatic efforts may not be enough to keep peace in Europe. Vladimir Putin’s pattern of kinetic hostility along Russia’s borders highlights the possibility that Russia could violate yet another border country’s sovereignty and, in fact, may already have plans to do so. To confront this course of action, NATO should increase European security by extending membership to Sweden and Finland. 

Sweden and Finland meet the criteria for NATO membership. They are both European countries with democratic principles that can contribute to the defense of the transatlantic region. Unlike Ukraine and Moldova, both countries are members of the European Union, rank at the top of Freedom House’s global freedom scores, and were two of the original five members of NATO’s 2014 enhanced opportunities program, which integrates nations into more exercises with the Alliance’s reaction force. Therefore, both countries are already integrated politically, economically, and militarily with NATO.  

For critics that view offering membership to Finland and Sweden as provoking Russian aggression, they discount how the lack of NATO membership emboldens Putin to invade neighboring countries. Like Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia are former Soviet countries that border Russia and have substantial Russian-speaking populations primed for Putin’s exploitation. However, they have been insulated because they have the NATO guaranteed kinetic response from the Alliance. Putin’s hostility towards Ukraine over the past decade has gone unchecked militarily because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. While NATO expansion certainly needles Putin’s autocratic and nationalistic designs, it also deters aggression.  

Lack of Political Will Limits NATO’s Military Scope to Member Territories Only    

The Dayton Peace Accords established a precedent where NATO could operate militarily outside its members’ borders, provided the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) appointed Allies to implement the Security Council’s policy objectives. The UNSC develops sufficient political will for European Allies when two features are present: an Article 39 Designation and a Chapter VII Directive according to the Charter of the UN. An Article 39 Designation is the UNSC’s determination that there is a threat to the peace, a breach of the peace, or an act of aggression in a specific UN member’s territory. A Chapter VII Directive is when the UNSCR articulates that a UN member can use all necessary means, including force, to administer the UNSC’s mandate.

By authorizing the use of force, the UNSCR settles each country’s internal debate on military legitimacy. A UNSCR with an Article 39 Designation and Chapter VII Directive generates a compelling call to action for NATO citizens who can be war-weary. However, in a scenario where Moscow is the aggressor, a UNSCR is impossible because Russia is one of five permanent members of the UNSC with veto powers, presenting a crucial obstacle to conciliation or consensus. The European Allies’ reluctance to intervene without both conditions dates back to the Kosovo conflict. In March and September of 1998, respectively, UNSCRs 1160 and 1199 identified Kosovo as less than peaceful and outlined a process towards peace and potential reconciliation meeting the Article 39 parameter.  However, neither document legitimized the use of force due to Russian interference, lacking a Chapter VII Directive. Despite great suffering and a refugee crisis, European Allies were reluctant to take kinetic military action against Milosovic.

In October 1998, French President Jacques Chirac stated that the UNSC must request and authorize NATO to act militarily outside its members’ borders. The tide turned upon the passing of UNSCR 1203 in October 1998.  UNSCR 1203 set the groundwork for an Article VII Directive because it provided NATO the right to intervene in Kosovo to enforce UNSCRs 1160 and 1199. With the new UNSCR, President Chirac justified using force because UNSCR 1203 opened the door for military action, and the deteriorating humanitarian situation allowed for an exception to the rule. The nuanced view of UNSCR 1203 justified NATO launching a multi-phased air bombing campaign against the Serbian military on 24 March 1999. However, not until the UNSC passed resolution 1244 in June 1999, which had a clear Chapter VII Directive, did NATO garner broad support to develop the Kosovo Force, which at its height had 50,000 ground forces within Kosovo. 

The Iraq and Libya situations further illustrate that some NATO Allies are reluctant to respond with force when a conflict transpires outside the borders of NATO member states without a UNSCR. The disagreement between NATO members in 2003 around the Iraq War created a “near-death experience” for the Alliance. France and Germany refused to support NATO intervening in Iraq without a UNSCR with an Article 39 Designation and Chapter VII Directive.  

In 2011, Germany was a non-permanent member of the UNSC and explained that NATO needed a UNSCR to legitimize any military action outside its borders. NATO had difficulties achieving consensus on intervention in Libya because European policymakers agreed with Germany’s position.  The European Allies did not support military intervention in Libya until the UNSC passed resolution 1273, which called for nations to enforce the ceasefire in Libya. The call to action provided sufficient political cover for most NATO capitals to approve kinetic airstrikes but not enough to place troops on the ground. However, Berlin and Rome refused to support any military intervention directly because UNSCR 1273 did not have a clear Chapter VII Directive with the words “all necessary means, including force.” Germany abstained from the UNSCR 1273 vote to demonstrate its displeasure, and Italy refused to supply heavy machinery but allowed the Alliance to launch missions from its bases.  


NATO’s experiences with Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya illustrate that European Allies historically seek a UNSCR to achieve sufficient political will for military intervention outside its members’ borders.  The pattern has been consistent, over the past three decades making it improbable that NATO would intervene militarily in Sweden or Finland if Russia attacked.  Instead, the situation would look like Ukraine today where the Alliance would bolster troops and air patrol missions along its members’ borders, send military aid, and institute economic sanctions against Russia.

Swedish and Finnish non-membership presents a conundrum for the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (SACEUR), who serves concurrently as the United States European Command (EUCOM) commander. A Russian attack on Finland or Sweden could prompt the United States to create a coalition of the willing to intervene regardless of NATO’s position because of both countries’ ties with the democratic rules-based order. However, the United States taking military action in Europe without NATO consensus would undoubtedly sow divisions within the Alliance.

Bringing Sweden and Finland into the Alliance eliminates another what-if scenario in the case of expanded Russian aggression.  Additionally, bringing Stockholm and Helsinki completely into the NATO fold signals an increased resolve that NATO will not tolerate future territorial violations by Russia or any other aggressor that threatens a member nation’s sovereignty.

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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