The Future of Nordic Cooperation

By Tuomas Iso-Markku, Eeva Innola, and Teija Tiilikainen

In a new report produced under the aegis of NORDEFCO, the Nordic cooperation effort is assessed and analyzed.

The authors of the report, Tuomas Iso-Markku, Eeva Innola, and Teija Tiilikainen, focused on the history and the way ahead with regard to Nordic cooperation.

Eeva Innola is a research fellow in the European Union Research Program.  Thomas Iso-Markku is a research fellow with the European Union Research Program. And Teija Tiilikainen is editor in Chief of the Finnish Journal of Foreign Affairs.


The purpose of the report was identified as follows:

It is against the backdrop of the recent changes in the Nordic-Baltic region, the EU, NATO, the transatlantic relationship, international institutions and the global power political set-up that this report sets out to assess both the current state and future potential of Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation.

Where does Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation stand in an international environment marked by the above-mentioned developments?

Do these developments imply new challenges, opportunities and/or constraints for Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation?

The aim of the report is two-fold.

Firstly, it seeks to provide an overview of the current state of Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation. This entails taking a look at its formats and structures as well as recent trends in this cooperation.

Secondly, the report seeks to analyse in more detail possible gaps, constraints and problems as well as untapped potential in Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation.

The report is comprehensive and provides an very helpful overview on the dynamics of change with regard to Nordic cooperation.

The report concludes as follows:

There are many reasons to expect a coherent and coordinated Nordic approach to a multitude of issues in the international arena. Nordic countries are united both through their societal values and geopolitical position.

As Northern small or middle-size powers, their international position and  influence benefit essentially from joint  positions  and action. 

Due to their significant economic output, successful societal model and respected tradition of international mediation and peacekeeping there is a joint power potential within the Nordic countries that should not be underestimated.

Furthermore, Nordic cooperation is decidedly uncontroversial and enjoys a solid legitimacy among the Nordic populations.

This report studied how this power potential is used and the kind of hurdles that obstruct a more concerted Nordic action in foreign and security policy. 

The hurdles are political, institutional and cultural.

When the Nordic brand in international relations is quite clear and coherent externally, the different historical traditions and identities come to the fore internally.

The statement according to which the further away from the Nordic region one is, the better the Nordic foreign policy cooperation functions, is highly descriptive of the situation.

The study in hand confirms the key conditions for further enhancement of Nordic cooperation in foreign and security policy. 

Due to historical experiences and identities, the Nordic community is important but still does not form the primary political community for any of the Nordic countries.

It is rather seen to complement the main “alliances”, which in the case of Denmark, Norway and Iceland is NATO, and in the case of Finland and Sweden the EU.

Irrespective of the commonality of values and geopolitical interests among the Nordic states, Nordic cooperation has to adjust to the political and institutional requirements of NATO and the EU.

Adherence to different alliances does not mean that common Nordic interests could not be taken into account and promoted by the Nordic members of the respective two alliances, NATO and the EU.

This is what happens, but there are limits to it as it is by no means supposed to challenge the broader consensus-building in the EU or NATO. It is obvious that the possibilities for influencing the EU and NATO as common arenas for European and transatlantic policy-making remain underused from the point of view of common Nordic interests.

Major decisions in the EU and NATO concerning their policy priorities or strategic approaches, for instance, do affect the whole Nordic community irrespective of the Nordic states’ affiliation with the organisations.

The preparation of such decisions should therefore be prioritized on the Nordic agenda and be linked with more thorough information-sharing and policy coordination. Broader Nordic-Baltic cooperation could duly strengthen these efforts to influence the EU and NATO. Could more efficient Nordic (and Nordic-Baltic) coordination lead to a more proactive policy by the respective Nordic members of the EU and NATO with regard to questions of shared Nordic interests?

Another key condition of Nordic cooperation in foreign and security policy – linked to its character in complementing primary alliances – is its informal nature. The only exception to this can be found within Nordic defence cooperation, where the set-up is more formal.

Informality means that there is no single institutionalized framework for foreign policy cooperation, nor is there any systematic planning or a coherent set of policy instruments.

What is equally missing is overall strategic leadership, which would define the key Nordic priorities and interests for this cooperation in the longer perspective.

Nordic cooperation takes place in a variety of different contexts, starting from dense contacts between individual civil servants and policymakers, and covering a whole range of multilateral fora, both with an entirely Nordic character (N5) and larger formats (NB8, e- PINE, N5+V4 and Northern Group). Informality is highly valued as it enables the formation of a fully needs-based agenda. The Nordic meetings can address issues of topical concern and interest.

Informality also means that there is no need to decide whether Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation should include the Nordic states with or without the Balts, as an enlarged Nordic community would be in the interests of many but not all.

Informality is clearly perceived to be an asset for Nordic foreign policy cooperation, but it is also a reason for the highly reactive nature of this cooperation. Without any joint policy- planning capability, the Nordic agenda can hardly contain more systematic and long-term efforts to influence the political environment in a more proactive manner.

In order to lead to more concrete outcomes, Nordic foreign policy cooperation should also have clear foci, which seems to be at odds with its needs-based agenda-setting.

To ensure full use of the Nordic potential, Nordic foreign policy cooperation should adopt a dual-track approach. Within the general framework of informality, it should still be possible to agree on a number of concrete policy priorities and adopt a joint implementation plan for advancing them.

In order to safeguard both the legitimacy and high political character of these joint  projects, their  planning and  implementation  should stay  within  the Nordic foreign ministries by taking the form of a joint Nordic task force.

These priority projects could contain a common Nordic initiative or effort within a multilateral institution or be more targeted towards the immediate  Nordic-Baltic environment. 

The projects should fully  respect  the Nordic commitments within EU and NATO contexts. These kinds of priority projects would enhance both the concrete content and continuity of the Nordic foreign policy agenda, but without challenging its informal character.

A third cornerstone of Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation can be found in its institutional complexity. The form of cooperation varies concerning its participatory structure and level and there is a lot of overlap between the various forms.

The informal foreign and security policy cooperation and the more institutionalized defence cooperation take place in separate realms with obviously little interaction existing between them.

In addition to the multilateral forms of cooperation, a range of systematic forms of bilateral relationships exist, with each of them having their own background and goal-setting.

Even if there is no possibility of significantly streamlining and simplifying the arenas for Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation, an effort should still be made to strengthen synergies between its different forms.

First, Nordic defence cooperation should be better anchored in a more systematically pursued Nordic consensus concerning the developments in its strategic environment and the emerging threats.

This is a section that is currently missing from the extensive cooperation agenda.  All of  the  Nordic countries  produce  such an  analysis separately, in the framework of their white books of security and defence, which also have linkages to the corresponding strategic documents produced by the EU and NATO.

A Nordic consensus on the strategic environment could be elaborated, for instance by reviewing the separate Nordic documents and identifying converging and differing elements in their analysis.

The review could bring together the ministries of foreign affairs and defence at different levels with the process and outcome of the debate, providing a more solid common political starting point for Nordic defence cooperation both in the NORDEFCO framework and in the bilateral format.

Other types of synergies between the different forms of Nordic foreign and security policy cooperation should also be enhanced. One question to be answered deals with the added value that existing bilateral relationships might provide for the broader Nordic framework if efficiently used.

Are the good practices emerging within a particular bilateral relationship efficiently presented in the multilateral Nordic context in order to possibly be used in another bilateral context?

Existing bilateral practices extend from the exchange of civil servants to joint political visits to third countries, and further to different forms of operational cooperation between various branches of the armed forces.

 Finally, one question that needs to be studied further is the discrepancy that exists between the external conception about Nordic unity in international relations, and the more divided and fragmented situation internally, where differences in policy content and the value of Nordic cooperation both come to the fore.

If the external view is much more coherent than the internal reality suggests, could it possibly be enhanced, and also be more efficiently utilized without major changes being made to the internal system of policy coordination?

The pragmatic Nordic political culture is free of political symbols and a political rhetoric typical of great powers. The forms or outcomes of Nordic foreign policy cooperation are rarely celebrated with attention-grabbing headlines or references to strong Nordic unity or loyalty. Among the very few recent exceptions to this modest outlook was the Nordic solidarity declaration, which was nonetheless cautious in tone.

This raises the question of whether the Nordic countries should change this low-key style and start marketing the Nordic achievements, including unity and numerous common goals in foreign and security policy,  much  more visibly  than  what is  currently  the case. 

The conceptions that exist about Nordic unity could also be utilized for the purposes of stronger communication about the common values underpinning this unity, and about the goals into which they translate at the international level.