Why the Nordic states maintain differentiated foreign policies

Future of Europe blog, Kristin Haugevik, Ole Jacob Sending |

Nordic governments frequently broadcast their ambition to do more together on the international stage.

Kristin Haugevik and Ole Jacob Sending explain why we still shouldn’t expect to see any profound increase in joint Nordic foreign policy positions and actions – and especially not when it comes to relations with greater powers.

While Nordic officials often speak warmly about more integration and greater unity, they usually prefer individualised – and differentiated – foreign policies in their relations with major powers, most notably the United States. Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times/NTB

In their Vision 2030, the five Nordic states – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland – aspire to make ‘Norden’ the most integrated region in the world. The vision invokes the longstanding narrative about successful intra-Nordic collaboration, ‘the Nordic peace’ and the Nordic region as a lodestar and role model for other sub-regional groupings.

In recent years, the Nordics have also raised the bar with respect to foreign policy collaboration. ‘The Nordics are a superpower’, claimed Finland’s president in 2016, following a Nordic joint summit with US President Barack Obama. The ensuing year, the Nordic Council published its first international strategy, urging the five governments ‘to exploit the opportunities inherent in Nordic co-operation to a far greater extent’.

The Nordic populations are also supportive: In a 2017 poll, more than 90 percent deemed Nordic cooperation ‘important’ or ‘very important,’ and around two-thirds would like to see increased cooperation.

The recurring message from Nordic officials has been that the five states are stronger when they work together in the international arena. Yet, and as the Nordic states’ largely nationalised management of the Covid-19 pandemic exemplifies, joint visions and ambitions do not necessarily translate into corresponding policies and action.

Nordic repertoire

Why does the ‘Nordic dimension’ not feature more prominently in the everyday foreign policies of the individual Nordic states? Why do we observe that even on seemingly shared objectives – such as on human rights and peace and reconciliation – the Nordics typically pursue distinct foreign policies?

In a recent research article, we address these questions by zooming in on the continued “pull” of the distinctive foreign policy repertoires of each of the five states, and how these repertoires are mobilized as the states seek recognition and support from more powerful states.

Why states go solo when they advocate integration

Following sociologist Charles Tilly’s definition, repertoires can be understood as ‘a limited set of routines that are learned, shared, and acted out through a relatively deliberate process of choice’.

In the context of foreign policy, repertoires thus summarise the structural constraints, along with self-perceptions, resources, and established routines, which shape what a given state can do, what it knows how to do, and what others expects it to do. Think of it as a foreign policy “culture” or how foreign policy is practiced in a given context.

The explanation is relatively straightforward: In the early Cold War years, the Nordic states’ geopolitical location, war experiences, geographical proximity to and relationship with dominant powers led them to pursue different paths in the formulation of foreign and security policies.

As Arne Olav Brundtland noted in an influential article published more than half a decade ago, the different alliance choices of the five states came to constitute a ‘Nordic balance’, which helped diminish great power tensions in the region as a whole.

In other words: Sweden’s neutrality, Denmark and Norway’s NATO membership and Finland’s Friendship, Cooperation and Assistance Treaty with the Soviet Union served to situate each Nordic state in an institutional setting that balanced between competing concerns.

While the idea of the Nordic balance appeared less relevant as a conceptual lens in the post-Cold War era, we find that it remains important for understanding how, over time, distinct repertoires for how to assess and respond to broader international dynamics emerged in each Nordic state.

Third-order priority

The oft-stated rationale for increased Nordic foreign policy collaboration is that the five states in question share many basic traits and foreign policy objectives. This includes an explicit and steadfast commitment to upholding the ‘rules-based international order’ and its accompanying institutions and belief-systems.

Old barriers to cooperation have also been (partly) removed: Different formal associations with NATO and the EU seem less relevant than before, with Norway and Iceland closely aligned with the EU, and Finland and Sweden entering into formal partnership agreements with NATO.

On the other hand, the individual power repertoires of Nordic states involve not only expertise built up over decades within each foreign service, but also its international networks and reputation in the eyes of other states. This can help to explain why the “Nordic” dimension often remains “a third-order priority” when the individual states manoeuvre their relations with major powers such as the United States, Russia and China.

Standing out from the crowd

But there is also something else going on here: all states – and small states in particular – seek recognition from significant others.

This search for recognition is rational; to be heard and have the ability to influence important decisions, you need to be invited, listened to, and bring something to the table. To succeed in this recognition game and secure access to more powerful states, there is often a premium on differentiating yourself from your neighbour, even when you share the same foreign policy objectives.

While often advocating the Nordic brand, the Nordic states are at the same time competing for attention, visibility, and influence.

In the quest for recognition from significant others, therefore, there is a not insignificant element of the ‘narcissism of small differences’ involved: While often advocating the Nordic brand when they meet on the international scene, the Nordic states are at the same time competing for attention, visibility, and influence.

The best example would perhaps be the Nordic states’ relations with significant other states – and most notably the United States. Seeking access to policymakers in Washington, Denmark has for example foregrounded its ‘super-Atlanticism,’ while Norway has built a brand around its proficiency in peace and reconciliation.

Going informal

Because of these niche strategies of each Nordic state, there are few indications that a discernible or overarching ‘Nordic’ foreign policy is in the making.

While Nordic officials often speak warmly about the potential for more integration and greater unity, the five states usually prefer individualised – and differentiated – foreign policies in their relations with major powers.

To the extent that a ‘common Nordic order’ exists, it is characterised by low-key practices for coordination and information exchange, practical and technical collaboration, rather than by bold foreign policy statements, shared positions and policies.

Faced with a rising China, an assertive Russia or a rapidly evolving global pandemic, the Nordic states will willingly exchange views and information. However, when carving out responses, they will in most cases prefer to draw on their national foreign policy repertoire rather than a joint Nordic one.