Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics
Stockholm obliged yesterday morning, carpeting the city with four inches of crisp white snow dotting the distinctly Eastern looking domes of Helgeandsholmen island. Both serve to remind us of the Nordics’ closeness and strategic importance to Russia.
It is Sweden through whose waters most electronic communication from Moscow passes. Finland, of course, has an 830 mile (1340 km) long land border with Russia, and even Norway a short frontier crossing over which last summer Syrians found their way from Russian territory by exploiting a loophole that forbade Norwegian border guards from stopping anybody crossing the frontier by bike.
Wealthy, liberal and individually small, these countries have relied on the liberal international order to secure their geopolitical interests. The UN, EU (though Norway is only affiliated) and NATO (though Sweden is not itself a member) create conditions and alliances through which the Nordic countries can defend their interests and expand their startlingly successful globalised economies.
Donald Trump’s election strikes at the foundation of their post cold-war security. A United States whose president wants to exploit American power to shake down allies can’t be relied upon for security guarantees. Nor, even, can it be expected to uphold the rules of the international economic system in ways that safeguard the interests of their firms. Take Scania, which like most truck makers, is working on driverless trucks. Essential though these are to address a severe shortage of American truck drivers that will be made worse by Trump’s hostility to immigration, they will administer another blow to another industry iconic to the working class American man. As a target for Trumpian bullying, a Scandinavian opponent of the Teamsters is hard to improve on.
Together, however, the Nordics should be able to wield considerable clout. With Denmark included, their Gross National Income is $1.64 billion a year, essentially as much as Russia’s $1.67 billion. Sweden, in particular, has an internationally successful defence industry, and world beating cyber warfare capabilities. Despite a small population (the Nordics’ 25 million people amount to less than half that of large European countries), their wealth allows them to wield influence far beyond their size.
Their manufacturing and service industries are of course highly advanced, and continue to receive investment. Sweden and Finland each spend 3.3 per cent of GDP on R&D, compared to the US’s 2.7 per cent and the UK’s unacceptably low 1.7 per cent. Their universities are world class, and well-placed to benefit from the likely extension of the Home Office’s attack on university employment, already affecting non-Europeans, to EEA nationals. People there speak English at least as well as the Dutch, and it disappoints this libertarian to have to accept that they have achieved high levels of economic progress at the same time as generous social provision. There’s more than one path to growth: costs may be high, but productivity more than keeps up.
In other words, the Nordic countries have got the economic fundamentals right. To be sure, they have difficulty integrating immigrants from the Islamic world, but so does everyone else (and they will continue to do so as long as Gulf oil money sustains intolerant forms of Muslim tradition). But they are nevertheless well-placed to take advantage of next level technological change. The question, however, is whether they can meet the security responsibilities of our new disordered age, where, to quote America’s most important foreign policy thinker, Robert Kagan, the greatest threat to the world order can be found “in Washington, D.C.”
Here they need to belie their pacifist reputation. In the Cold War, their neutrality was to a great extent a strategic necessity and imposed, in particular, upon Finland. In today’s hybrid cold war, Russia aims to destabilise and subvert the West rather than bludgeon it into submission. Moscow enjoys the most favourable strategic environment it’s had in years: Britain is distracted by Brexit, the United States led by at least an anti-Western if not an actively pro-Russian president, and France risks falling under the sway of a candidate to whose party the Kremlin has extended soft loans.
At last weekend’s Munich Security Conference the most memorable speech was John McCain’s attacking his own president. Neither Defence Secretary James Mattis’s attempt to reassure, nor Vice President Pence’s sober performance convinced. The Nordic countries have the capacity to make a larger contribution to Europe’s defence. They can’t leave it all up to this Norwegian lady, as formidable as she is.