Finland's and Sweden’s recent decisions to apply for NATO membership is a major win for the military alliance, but a far more dubious one for these two countries. NATO badly needs a success at this moment, since neither the economic war on Russia nor the conflict in Ukraine seem to be going the West’s way. Whether officially adding two more Nordic countries would have a real military advantage for NATO remains to be seen, but at least it would be a clear Public Relations win.
The Benefits of Neutrality
The leaders of Finland and Sweden seem to have forgotten, or disregarded, the benefit of neutrality, particularly for small nations. In international relations, it is the logical position of a State that is weak relative neighboring States. Neutrality in itself confers protection. There are, of course, cases where neutrality does not protect, as History has shown. But History has also shown that neutrality has often had advantages for those who practiced it.
Sweden in past clearly benefited from its neutral status, allowing it to stay out of both world wars and keep cordial relationships across the Cold War blocs. For Finland, neutrality was even more important since it secured Finnish independence after WWII and enabled peaceful relations with the USSR afterwards. Additionally, as neutral countries, Finland and Sweden punched far above their weight in international affairs, e.g. as mediators or hosts. But now, as political analyst Anatoly Lieven , “by joining NATO, Finland is throwing away whatever remote possibility exists of playing a mediating role between Russia and the West, not just to help bring about an end to the war in Ukraine, but at some point in the future to promote wider reconciliation.”
From a libertarian perspective, neutrality would also be the natural position of a (mostly) free society, with a State that is small in size and reach. Such a State, allowing significant economic and political freedom, would not have the right, the resources or the interest to project power abroad and lead an aggressive foreign policy. Its main role would be the defense of private property within the territory it controls, including from foreign aggressors, while not taking sides in foreign conflicts.
It is relevant to revisit Murray Rothbard’s 1994 article, “Just War”, in which he noted that neutrality used to be a cornerstone of international law:
“In a theory which tried to limit war, neutrality was considered not only justifiable but a positive virtue… Neutral states had "rights" which were mainly upheld, since every warring country knew that someday it too would be neutral. A warring state could not interfere with neutral shipping to an enemy state; neutrals could ship to such an enemy with impunity all goods except "contraband," which was strictly defined as arms and ammunition, period. Wars were kept limited in those days, and neutrality was extolled.”
This implies, of course, that in this classic view of international law, a state that sends arms and ammunitions to a belligerent, as well as participates in an economic war against another state, cannot be considered neutral. Indeed, this is the case today of Finland and Sweden against Russia, which is not surprising since they had in fact been neutral in name only, long before their recent NATO applications.
Today, neutrality in foreign relations is no longer extolled; quite the opposite. As Rothbard continued: “In the modern corruption of international law that has prevailed since 1914, "neutrality" has been treated as somehow deeply immoral.” Nations have been increasingly pressured to take sides in conflicts, and even to contribute to the war effort of one of the belligerents. There is little political room left for neutrality, as governments feel tempted – or are forced – to band together in "collective security arrangements", for instance through NATO, and also now, the EU.
This pressure has now become crystal clear with the conflict in Ukraine, as the USA and the EU have openly been forcing and cajoling countries around the world to take sides against Russia in a conflict that generally does not concern them. Though Austria has somewhat resisted this political pressure by wanting to stay officially neutral, Finland and Sweden have caved.
The strongly pro-US political elites in both countries had been waiting a long time for the political moment to convert an already existing cooperation with NATO into full membership. In that sense, the abrupt shift in public opinion in favor of full membership, the result of slanted Western reporting on the conflict in Ukraine, was a godsend for this political class, which quickly took advantage of it. The lack of public debate and transparency around this decision, and the speed at which it is being rushed through, is astounding from nations calling themselves “democracies”.
Even worse, the actual reasons given by the Finnish and Swedish governments for applying for NATO membership at the present moment are not as clear and precise as could be expected, considering the importance of this decision for the future security of these nations. This may not be surprising since there is no indication of any Russian threat against the two Nordics countries.
Finland and Sweden seem to believe that they will gain security by joining NATO, but by officially giving up their neutrality they will not only jeopardize their security but also lose independence. Thus, if both nations finally do become full NATO members, they will likely come to regret their decision at a later date. These two countries would have been better off if they have followed the fundamental principal of libertarianism in international affairs, which is neutrality. This is the position that is most likely to bring peace in the world over the long term.