The Nordic Countries in the World

By | October 20, 2021

Individually, the Nordic countries are relatively small, but together they are the size of a great power. And with a changing world policy, cooperation between these states is even more important than in a long time.

  • What common challenges do the countries in the Nordic countries face?
  • What foreign policy issues are the Nordic countries concerned with?
  • What is the international brand of the various Nordic countries?
  • Why have the Nordic countries been concerned with strengthening foreign policy co-operation among themselves?

Although Norway and our Nordic neighbors – Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden – are located in what has long been a peaceful part of the world, the major changes in world politics are also affecting us in the Nordic region.

For two years, the United States has had a president who actively challenges the established rules of the game for international cooperation. Confidence between Russia and the West is at a bottom level, and rivalry between the United States and China is growing in strength. At the same time, EU co-operation , perhaps the most important institutional contribution of the post-war period to a peaceful Europe, is squeaking. Although the EU countries have been surprisingly united through the negotiations on Britain’s EU withdrawal, so-called “Brexit” , it is likely that other challenges in the future will seem more divisive:

  • Economic problems in some Member States (such as Italy and Greece)
  • Disagreement over how to handle large refugee flows from troubled areas in the south .
  • Right-wing populist parties,many of them critical of immigration and further European integration , have done well in national elections across Europe in recent years. Several of these parties challenge the idea of ​​”a liberal order” and “a Western community of values” from within.

These issues also shape the Nordic countries’ foreign policy. In a research project that we at NUPI have led in recent years, we, together with colleagues from Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, have investigated how the Nordic countries adapt their foreign policy to an international landscape in rapid change. What is similar and what is different? What opportunities and limitations are there for more collaboration?

2: Nordic foreign policy

If we compare how the governments in the Nordic countries talk about foreign policy, there are obviously many similarities. The geographical location on the northern outskirts of Europe, with Russia as a neighbor to the east and surrounded by large sea areas, means that all countries are particularly aware of developments “in the neighborhood” that can create increased uncertainty.

For the past 70 years, relations between states have largely been governed by common rules, not least in international and regional organizations such as the UN , NATO and the EU . Most of these organizations grew up after World War II out of a desire to avoid war. The goal was joint financial gain and improved security. The co-operation has benefited small countries such as the Nordic countries because it has provided stability and predictability.

All the Nordic countries are therefore concerned with preserving international rules and strengthening international co-operation. For all countries, it has also been important to support democracy and good governance in countries around the world. The fact that they are so concerned about this is also one of the reasons why the Nordic countries, seen from China, the USA and Russia, probably look very similar. The Nordic countries are generally perceived by other countries as good citizens of the world: They follow the rules for co-operation and are concerned that others should do the same.

3: Slightly different starting point

At the same time, according to Countryaah, there are also some important differences between the Nordic countries, which can be reflected in foreign policy. One difference that is often highlighted is that they have different ties to NATO and the EU. According to , Denmark, Iceland and Norway are members of NATO, where member countries undertake to help each other if one of them is attacked in war. Finland and Sweden have so far chosen to stay out of NATO, mostly due to their proximity to Russia. In recent years, however, Finland and Sweden have also wanted to cooperate more with NATO, even though they are still not members. Similarly, Denmark has been an EU member since 1973, and Sweden and Finland since 1995. Norway has been left out after two referendums (in 1972 and 1994) in which the majority voted no. Iceland applied for membership for the first time in 2009, but the application has since been put on hold and the icelandic government is now considering whether to withdraw it altogether. Both Norway and Iceland nevertheless work closely with the EU, above all through The EEA Agreement of 1994, which incorporates them into the EU’s internal market .

In the international arena, the Nordic countries have partly developed their distinctive “brands”. Denmark is known as the “super-Atlanticist” and is the only Nordic country that is a member of both the EU and NATO. Denmark is willing to contribute to NATO’s military operations in the world, but has been more skeptical of the more supranational parts of EU co-operation. Denmark therefore has its own reservations from the co-operation on justice, security and defense policy in the EU, nor does it have the euro as its currency, the so-called euro co-operation.

Sweden’s trademark has long been “the moral superpower” with a feminist foreign policy that is about all parts of foreign policy working to strengthen women’s and girls’ rights and opportunities in the world. The EU is today the most important platform for Swedish foreign policy, but like Denmark, the Swedes do not have the euro as their currency. Sweden’s previous policy of neutrality has been replaced by a policy of solidarity: Sweden will not be passive if a catastrophe or attack should hit another EU country or a Nordic country. Partnerships with NATO and strong defense policy ties with the United States are an important part of this change of course in Swedish defense policy.

Norway’s niche has long been the role of “international peace broker” . Norway combines a strong connection to NATO with “active exclusion” in the EU. The United States is the most important single ally, and relations with Russia have mainly gone along two tracks: In northern Norway, the key words have been dialogue and good neighborliness, but through NATO, Norway has supported a tough line, including through sanctions.

Finland has taken a pragmatic line in foreign policy. The EU is the most important arena, while Finnish governments have tried to balance the goal of good neighborliness with Russia with strong ties to the United States and close cooperation with NATO.

Iceland has risen after being hit by a significant economic crisis ten years ago, and is now in the process of building a new niche as an “Arctic small state”. Relations with the United States, NATO and the EU, through the EEA, remain the most important in Icelandic foreign policy.

4: What can the Nordic countries co-operate on?

Because the Nordic countries are basically fairly similar and share many of the same views in foreign policy, there is often talk of Nordic co-operation.

An example is about the Nordic model of society as a separate, common brand. The Nordic countries are often to be found at the top of awards that measure living standards, conditions for freedom of expression and the press and gender equality, participation in elections and trust in the authorities. The Nordic region is «the next supermodel», stated the magazine The Economist in 2013, and believed that the Nordic social model is an ideal for many countries. The fact that others perceive the Nordic region as a stable and successful region with well-functioning political systems can contribute to giving the Nordic region and the individual countries international goodwill, and make them attractive as destinations and partners.

Another example is about how the Nordic countries co-operate with each other, within the Nordic region. The Nordic countries have long – many would say unique – experience of living peacefully side by side, both with each other and – for Finland and Norway – with neighboring Russia. Many believe that Nordic experiences can be an inspiration for other regions in Europe, for example in the Balkans.

A third example is about practical, diplomatic cooperation. In recent years, Nordic co-operation in diplomacy has also become popular, such as the co-ordination and location of Nordic embassies. Cooperation within international institutions, and especially the UN and the World Bank, is also something that is talked about a lot. In the UN system, the Nordic countries have often exchanged views and tried to coordinate positions. In the World Bank, the Nordic countries, together with the Baltics, have a common local representative. Despite different ties to the EU and NATO, the countries also have an ongoing dialogue about the work of these two organizations.

Also in relations with individual countries – where the Nordic countries have common interests and views, or where the competition for attention is great – there can be advantages in cooperating. Individually, the Nordic countries are relatively small, but together they are the size of a great power – whether measured by population, extent or resources. In 2016, for example, the Nordic heads of government were guests of US President Barack Obama in the White House. Obama spoke warmly about the Nordic countries as a group, and emphasized that they contribute beyond what one might expect, considering that they are relatively small. “They box over their weight class,” Obama stated.

5: What are the challenges for collaboration?

The analyzes in the research project NUPI has led show that most politicians in the Nordic region are positive and want more Nordic co-operation in the international arena. The population in all the Nordic countries also has a high degree of trust in their own authorities, and there is also a high degree of trust between the countries’ governments.

But if we move a little below the harmonious surface, we find nuances – sometimes even disagreements – between the countries. The Nordic countries often use each other as inspiration and examples to follow, but in heated domestic debates they can also be used as examples of circumstances one does not want. Norway’s former Minister of Justice Sylvi Listhaug’s use of the term «Swedish conditions», as a synonym for failed integration of immigrants, is a recent example.

Furthermore, visions of enhanced collaboration may encounter practical challenges when they are to be concretized. For example, different national legislation could complicate ambitions for highly integrated joint embassies.

The Nordic countries may also in some cases and contexts be interested in building their own brands in the international arena, in addition to or instead of the common Nordic one. The Nordic countries sometimes talk about each other as “brother people”, but siblings can also compete and disagree. The fact that, for example, Danish and Swedish foreign policy have obvious different external profiles can make cooperation difficult.

In addition, it is not obvious that it is useful in all contexts to appear with a common Nordic front. Although the Obama visit from 2016 has been described as a joint Nordic success, it is currently the only example of its magnitude. The Nordic heads of government have so far chosen to visit Donald Trump separately.

Many diplomats also explain that too much coordination of Nordic positions, for example in the UN, is not always positive. Firstly, the Nordic countries when they stand together may risk appearing “a little complacent”, as Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström pointed out when she attended the Nordic Council meeting in Oslo in the autumn of 2018. Secondly, the Nordic countries themselves have been concerned about to prevent the creation of permanent “blocks” in the UN system, which are firmly in line. Then it can be unfortunate if the Nordic countries themselves appear very strategic and coordinated in their voting.

6: Continues as before

All the Nordic countries are now expressing concern about rapid changes in world politics – changes that could potentially challenge the international world order on which the Nordic countries themselves depend. But even though governments are talking a lot about change – for example, related to Russian policy under Putin and US policy under Trump – there are currently not very big changes either in how they use their resources or in what they do in the international arena .

We can make a similar observation regarding co-operation between the Nordic countries: Although the Nordic governments say that they want to co-operate more in foreign policy, and are happy to talk about how much they have in common, it still remains to put these wishes into action. . It is important to talk warmly about Nordic co-operation, but it has proved more difficult to find specific issues where one is actually willing to establish a common policy. This means that Nordic co-operation in the international arena continues to approximately the same extent as before, despite the fact that the uncertainty in world politics has increased the importance of such co-operation.

The Nordic flags side by side