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Opinion: Stuck in neutral?

Some Europeans who steered clear of the Cold War may be wavering 20 years later.

A German Air Force Tornado combat aircraft is rearmed during the NATO exercise Loyal Arrow near Lulea in northern Sweden, June 10, 2009. (Patrick Tragardh/Reuters)

NEW YORK — In world politics, neutrality is in the eye of the beholder. For Utopians and pacifists, neutrality floats in the clouds like the final step in the stairway to some kind of geopolitical nirvana – John Lennon’s world that lives as one. Political “realists,” on the other hand, see neutrality the way they do everything else: a decision taken after a cold calculation of national interest.

When the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, many analysts thought outliers like Sweden, Finland, Austria, Ireland and Switzerland would join the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe in the line to join NATO. So far, these predictions have turned out wrong.

Still, neutrality, circa 2009, is hardly as standoffish as it was during the Cold War. All of the above but Switzerland now belong to the European Union, and even the Swiss, neutrality’s pioneers, joined the United Nations in 2002. Sweden reinforced its contingent in Afghanistan this year (to 500), Finland doubled its small contingent (to 36) and both participate in a NATO-commanded “Nordic Battalion” in Bosnia. Irish and Swiss troops have also been in Afghanistan, and Ireland and Austria each have just over 150 troops on the Darfur-Chad border.

Nordic NATO expansion?

In fact, the Finns have been dropping hint after hint that full NATO membership may be in the Nordic wind. On Nov. 9, Jyri Hakamies, Finland’s defense minister, said the country’s current “cooperation agreements” with NATO won’t cut it in a crisis.

"We must bear in mind that not one of these cooperation arrangements guarantees us direct support in a military crisis and yet we are dependent on said support," he remarked in an address Monday to a Finnish defense institute.

In both Finland and Sweden minority parties,, usually citing the threat of an increasingly anti-Western Russia, have advocated membership for years. This summer, however, in a first, both Finnish and Swedish warships took part in a large NATO naval exercise, “Arctic Sea,” which Russian newspapers widely denounced as a recruiting junket by the alliance.

Russia feels no need to be subtle. Finland stayed neutral during the Cold War because the country had fought two bloody “winter wars” of independence from the USSR ending in 1944 — so it was in no mood to gamble on a third. Thus was born the term “Finlandization,” a fancy, somewhat unfair way of denigrating Finland’s decision not to commit national suicide.

The wounds are still fresh, even if the so-called “winter war” seems like ancient history. As Finland’s defense minister put it: “To look for these new solutions when a crisis is already at the gate does not work. This was a key lesson from the time leading to the winter war and from the war itself.”

These days, Finns talk of buying “fire insurance” in the form of NATO membership as a way of avoiding Moscow’s bullying, and the Finns and Swedes have promised if they take the NATO plunge, they’ll take it together.

History plus ideology

The reasons for neutrality in various European states vary widely.

Like Finland, Ireland’s neutrality grew out of its fight for independence. Bitterness over its long struggle to overthrow British rule led to a post-independence Dublin government that forswore international alliances. The last thing most Irish wanted in 1922 was to join a post-war effort to prop up the British Empire. In spite of occasional lobbying from the U.S., including personally during a visit by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, Ireland stayed out of the Cold War.