In “The Nordic-Baltic Region as a Global Partner of the United States,” Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson and Scowcroft Center Deputy Director Magnus Nordenman analyze the significance of the growing trend of Nordic and Baltic cooperation. First written in September 2011, the authors called then for President Obama to agree to meet his Nordic counterparts as a group. This chapter, which is available below, from the Atlantic Council report Nordic-Baltic Security in the 21st Century: The Regional Agenda and the Global Roleexplains why President Obama is meeting with the five leaders of the Nordic nations during his stop in Stockholm on September 4, 2013, following his August 30 meeting with the three Baltic presidents in Washington, DC.


In recent years, quiet but steady efforts to increase cooperation among Nordic and subsequently Nordic and Baltic nations have created an opportunity for the countries in the region, when acting together, to have an outsized impact on global affairs. This trend is accelerating as the region is emerging from the current financial and economic crisis stronger than the rest of Europe. The increased frequency of Nordic and now Nordic-Baltic coordination meetings among regional officials—along with the landmark 2009 report by Norwegian former foreign and defense minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg, followed in 2010 by a comparable wise men’s report, linking the Baltic states to this regional effort—have placed the idea of greater regional cooperation and even regional integration on the agenda.

Relatively few on the American side of the Atlantic, however, have noticed this growing trend, appreciate its implications, or recognize the region as an emerging global partner for the United States. US support for Nordic-Baltic cooperation and systematic US engagement with the region offers an opportunity to repurpose this particular transatlantic partnership to more effectively advance common interests and values, both in Europe and globally.

Synchronizing the capabilities and policies of this region will allow it to play a much larger role than any one country from the Nordic-Baltic region could do on its own. Since the Cold War, the region has undergone a transition, from a potentially contested space in the 1990s to a region almost fully integrated into the range of Euro-Atlantic institutions and structures, which has transformed the Nordic-Baltic region from a security consumer into a security exporter. The countries of the region are already making important contributions to European and transatlantic efforts in diplomacy, development, and security, but more could be done if the resources of the region were thoughtfully combined and coordinated, and if the United States worked with these governments in a more coherent manner.

Global impact

In 2003 the United States initiated the enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (e-PINE), which is a mechanism for US officials to meet their Nordic and Baltic colleagues together in “8+1” formats on a range of policy issues. E-PINE reflects a US effort to engage more effectively the countries of the region, but also reflects Washington’s recognition of their combined ability to shape outcomes within Europe’s larger institutions. Today, the Nordic-Baltic region merits greater recognition from US and European policymakers for its contribution to the transatlantic community’s global agenda, and, accordingly, e-PINE is ready to assume a greater policy coordination role.

The region has some 32 million inhabitants, and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of close to $1.5 trillion, which makes it the tenth-largest population and fifth-largest economy in Europe. Furthermore, the region features relatively low levels of corruption, with the Nordic countries some of the least corrupt countries in the world. Also, the countries of the region place well in various international freedom rankings, with several of the states at the absolute top. The Nordic-Baltic countries also do well in surveys that measure the ease of doing business and creating new companies. The Human Development Index places many of the countries in the region among the most developed in the world.

While these indicators of major socioeconomic accomplishments do not directly translate into capabilities that can be used for advancing the agenda of, for example, expanding Euro-Atlantic integration beyond its current borders, they do, as a whole, constitute a significant pool of soft power. This serves as a valuable example for other nations seeking to integrate into the transatlantic community. This is of significant value at a time when the Western model of development is increasingly in doubt around the world. The Nordic-Baltic approach can also serve as an effective road map for nations further away from the region, such as Georgia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Moldova, who are undertaking the reforms needed to be invited to join Euro-Atlantic institutions and structures.

The Nordic-Baltic region also has an impressive record in development, postconflict reconstruction, and peacekeeping. Taken together, the region is the second-largest contributor of foreign aid and assistance in the world. In combination the region already plays a major role as a donor to countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Georgia. Nordic and Baltic countries have a particularly effective voice on development issues given that none carry the same colonial baggage attached to the other major European donors.

This global activism is also found in key military operations around the world. The region collectively is the eighth-largest contributor to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. At the height of the operations, the region was the fifth- and sixth-largest troop contributor to the NATO operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, respectively. The Nordic countries also have a long legacy of being major contributors to United Nations (UN) operations around the world. While their contributions to these operations have declined in recent years as they shifted resources to those led by the European Union (EU) or NATO, the Nordic’s consistent participation in UN operations has earned them goodwill and respect across the globe.

In hard-power terms, the combined capabilities of the region measure up quite well in comparison to its European partners. In Europe, only Germany has more fighter aircraft than the Nordic-Baltic region (which has 297 fighter aircraft). The region has 110,000 active-duty military personnel and some 600,000 in the reserves, which rivals the force levels of major European powers. Taken together, the active military components of the Nordic-Baltic region make it Europe’s sixth-largest armed force. All of the Nordic-Baltic countries contribute forces to the ISAF mission, and two countries from the region (Denmark and Estonia) have sustained some of the highest casualty rates per capita of any contributing nation. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden have also contributed fighter aircraft to the NATO mission over Libya, conducting up to 25 percent of combat sorties during parts of the campaign. Additionally, several of the Nordic-Baltic nations contribute to the Nordic Battlegroup, one of the operational pillars of the EU’s crisis-response capability. Finally, the majority of the Nordic-Baltic countries are also active members of NATO’s strategic airlift initiative, an important pillar in NATO’s transformation toward a more expeditionary alliance.

Numbers aside, the quality of Nordic-Baltic military forces is generally superb. The region has submarines, antisubmarine warfare capabilities, and mountain and arctic units that are recognized by the transatlantic military community as at or near the top of the class. Nordic-Baltic airpower is also likely to remain robust far into the future, with upgraded JAS-39-Gripens being introduced in Sweden, and the procurement of F-35s in Norway and Denmark.

In addition to these quantitative factors, the region also has a number of other qualities that positions it to have a larger impact in the transatlantic and global context. For example, several of the countries of the Nordic-Baltic region enjoy a global reputation as honest brokers, and they have made invaluable contributions to peace negotiations and confidence-building efforts around the world over the years. With the region working in concert, this role could be further magnified. Furthermore, given that the countries of the region do not have much of a colonial legacy, they could serve as effective actors and mediators in places that may still be concerned about European or Western intentions due to a history of colonization.

Drivers of Nordic-Baltic cooperation

The Nordic-Baltic region has basic characteristics that underpin a relatively high level of regional cohesion and provide a platform for expanded regional collaboration. Nordic-Baltic countries share geographic proximity, which has helped to foster a high level of social, economic, political, and cultural interaction. All of the countries in the region share comparable political values of democracy, free markets, human rights, and equality. They are also active in advancing these values beyond their current conventions. Furthermore, the region has a long common history. Warfare among them is a distant memory, and while national identities are distinct, regional rivalries do not serve to agitate negative populist feelings against other nations in the region. Strong, preexisting historical, political, and economic ties provide a solid foundation for further regional integration aimed at advancing the region’s profile as an international player.

Considering the character of the region, and the already-significant contributions to international peace and security by nations in the Nordic-Baltic area, there are three primary and three secondary factors that motivate the Nordic-Baltic region to continue its drive toward enhanced collaboration and regional approaches to security and foreign policy challenges.

First, greater regional cooperation is a practical response to solving problems. Regional approaches can pay dividends by offering increased capabilities and effectiveness. Regional cooperation has already dramatically improved maritime domain awareness in the Baltic Sea. Search-and-rescue collaboration is a compelling area in which regional cooperation can more effectively save lives and conserve resources. Joint diplomatic representation—or at least sharing embassy facilities—and coordinated, shared diplomatic reporting (as is the case with Sweden and Finland) can expand diplomatic bandwidth while saving resources. While some governments in the region believe the proposals for Nordic-Baltic cooperation in the Stoltenberg and Gade-Birkavs reports are too ambitious, many of the specific ideas are practical, achievable, and merit follow-up. Consistent with the prudent culture of the region, the point is to pursue practical cooperation when regional efforts would produce more effective and less costly solutions to immediate challenges than national solutions.

Second, the coming age of defense austerity, despite the relatively robust growth numbers of the region, should also compel Nordic and Baltic countries to cooperate in order to maximize scarce defense funding and minimize costly duplication. This cooperation begins with training and education on the low end and extends to joint operations on the high end. The region has a solid track record to build on dating from effective regional cooperation in NATO’s Balkan deployments and formation of the Nordic Battlegroup, within the EU. The Baltic states’ Baltic Defence College (BALTDEFCOL) is a practical approach to educating the officer corps of the three small countries in a cost-effective manner. BALTDEFCOL and other regional training and education efforts foster a stronger habit of cooperation within the armed forces, while providing military commanders with the building blocks they need to coordinate their actions across national lines. Greater regional military cooperation should not be seen as coming at the expense of NATO. In fact, the Alliance’s smart defense strategy relies increasingly on multinational cooperation and pooling of assets to ensure that small- and medium-sized allies can more effectively contribute to Alliance operations. Nordic-Baltic cooperation already offers lessons for other regional groupings coping with austerity, such as the Visegrad Four nations of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

The third compelling driver of greater regional cooperation is the fact that when the states of the Nordic-Baltic region speak and act together, they play a larger and more decisive role in European, transatlantic, and global security affairs. On certain issues, specific Nordic or Baltic countries can have a decisive, distinct role to play, such as Norway on Arctic matters, Sweden on Eastern Partnership, or Estonia on cybersecurity. Although few global policy decision-makers instinctively think of a Nordic-Baltic nation as a key actor when grappling with issues at the top of the global agenda, taken together, the Nordic-Baltic nations can have a global impact, as illustrated in the previous section. By joining forces, the United States and other key actors will increasingly be a factor in the importance of the region when developing policies on a broader range of global challenges. In short, the more coherent the region is as an actor, the more often the region will have a seat at the decision-making table.

In addition to these three strategic drivers of Nordic-Baltic cooperation for the purpose of transatlantic and global action, there are three additional rationales for deepening regional collaboration and synchronization. First, regional integration would further secure the Nordic-Baltic region against traditional security challenges that may emerge sometime in the future. That is, closer regional integration can serve as a hedge against the emergence of any future threat from a revanchist Russia. To be clear, Russia is not a threat to the region today. Indeed, several Nordic-Baltic nations are experiencing greatly improved relations with Moscow in the wake of the US-Russia “reset.” Nonetheless, given history, it is only prudent to anticipate defensive strategies in the event that democratic backsliding in Russia produces a more assertive Russian foreign policy. A more-integrated region is a stronger actor, mitigating the perceived or potential vulnerability of any one nation in the region. Again, Nordic-Baltic integration is not a substitute for NATO Article 5 security guarantees, or continued US security engagement in the region; rather, it is a beneficial complement.

Second, enhanced Nordic-Baltic collaboration would contribute to the deeper integration of the Baltic states into Nordic and transatlantic structures. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been incredible success stories in building free market democracies integrated into NATO and the EU, while demonstrating their ability to weather severe economic crises. In historical terms, however, they have enjoyed regained independence for only twenty years. Embedding their societies more firmly in the Nordic community is an effective way to further boost the Baltic states’ economic, political, and social resilience against undue influence from domestic and foreign corrupt or nefarious actors. The process of stronger regional integration will help mitigate the vulnerabilities of strategic sectors—such as banking, media, and energy—to manipulation.

Finally, Nordic-Baltic cooperation would serve to normalize security relations among European democracies with overlapping institutional affiliations (e.g., nations in NATO only, the EU only, or in both). Sweden’s unilateral “solidarity declaration” has underscored Stockholm’s effort to shed its Cold War neutrality as well as its expectation of cooperating with its neighbors to address any security threat to the region. Nonetheless, Sweden (as well as Finland) remains outside the Alliance structure, which is the ultimate guarantor of security for the other six Nordic-Baltic nations. In the near term, Nordic-Baltic integration can help to maximize the potential of NATO’s partnerships with Sweden and Finland. By building pragmatic ties between NATO and EU nations, Nordic-Baltic cooperation can begin to rationalize NATO-EU relations, including reconciling defense planning processes across NATO and the EU. In the medium term, Nordic-Baltic integration could serve as the test bed for a solution to the political riddle of the NATO-EU relationship at the strategic level. Ultimately, routinized security cooperation in the region helps to prepare the groundwork for future political debates in Sweden and Finland on membership in NATO, as well as a more-formal EU relationship with NATO (e.g., eventual EU membership in NATO).

The limits of cooperation

To be sure, there are limits to an integrated Nordic-Baltic approach to regional, transatlantic, and global challenges. Finland, for example, has a very different defense concept from Denmark; Finland still relies on a large conscripted force primarily focused on territorial defense, while Denmark has transformed its military toward an almost-exclusive focus on expeditionary operations. Furthermore, the status of Sweden and Finland as non-NATO nations sets an upper limit to regional defense arrangements that involve the entire region. Comparably, Norway is not a member of the EU, and Denmark maintains its opt-out of European Union security and defense policy.

Regional cooperation in defense procurement, which could serve as an important pillar of continued military integration, has been met with decidedly mixed results. In the 1990s, an early joint procurement—a cooperative submarine project comprising Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland as an observer nation—failed. The region also maintains a wide variety of fighter jets, including JAS-39 Gripens, F-16s, and F-18s, and Norway and Denmark have announced that they will procure F-35s in the coming years. While these platforms are very capable in their own right, they cannot, as a whole, serve as a basis for increased industrial and political-military cooperation within the region.

Furthermore, the countries of the region have different foreign and security policy priorities that may be difficult to synchronize. Norway is focused on Arctic and High North issues, and is hesitant to bring in a Nordic-Baltic perspective in that process, preferring to work directly with allies who are also Arctic countries, such as Canada and the United States. Denmark, on the other hand, has so far exhibited less enthusiasm for Nordic-Baltic cooperation in favor of continuing to strengthen Copenhagen’s relationship with Washington. Meanwhile, the Baltic nations remain clear that their security—and, ultimately, their existence—rests with NATO, and are therefore wary of a Swedish or Finnish leadership role on regional security.

The way forward

There is no need—or political appetite—for revolutionary advancements in Nordic-Baltic cooperation and integration. No nation in the region has a grand strategy or great scheme for such integration. Rather, Nordic-Baltic cooperation and integration will continue as a product of pragmatic cooperation among close neighbors with shared interests on common challenges. At the same time, this evolutionary approach to regional cooperation does have strategic implications. Today, each proposal for NB8 collaboration reflects an approach of small steps. For all Nordic-Baltic nations, regional cooperation occurs in the spirit of complementarity with their other identities and institutional affiliations. Nonetheless, the accumulation of these small steps has a significant impact as the region becomes a more coherent actor within Europe, the transatlantic partnership, and on the global stage. This outcome is good for the region, but also for its key partners, including the United States.

The way forward must be guided by the eight participating nations themselves. A proliferation of proposals are on the agendas of NB8 foreign, defense, and prime ministers, which provide a solid basis for moving forward in regional cooperation. The Nordic-Baltic region should, for example, take additional steps to pool its scarce defense resources, initiate joint defense planning, and reduce the current level of duplication among the armed forces of the region. Considering the Nordic-Baltic region’s reliance on the maritime commons for, among other things, commerce and resource extraction, the Stoltenberg Report’s proposal for a Nordic maritime response force and a Nordic maritime monitoring system should be of particular interest.

In turn, a Nordic-Baltic region that collaborates—thereby strengthening security in its own neighborhood and also providing robust capabilities for external action—will lead to more interest from Washington to focus on Nordic-Baltic affairs and to work with the region to tackle transatlantic and global security issues.

At the same time, the nations of the region will only share a more uniform will to proceed if the United States is a key partner in this endeavor. Washington must signal its strong support for regional cooperation and commit to engage in certain regional efforts. If the United States were perceived as viewing regional cooperation as a justification for US disengagement from the region, the US position would undermine the motivation among the nations to pursue regional cooperation. Ironically, for the Nordic-Baltic region to become a more coherent, effective partner of the United States on the world stage, the United States needs to play an active (if supporting) role in promoting Nordic-Baltic integration.

  • The US administration has already demonstrated an interest in playing this supporting role. Washington can build on its efforts to date with the following steps:
  • Offer a clear senior-level policy statement confirming Washington’s support for the unfolding process of Nordic-Baltic cooperation and integration, and welcoming the prospect of the region as a key partner of the United States;
  • Accelerate US administration efforts to rejuvenate e-PINE using this structure to more closely and routinely coordinate action on a full range of policy issues;
  • Turn systematically to the Nordic-Baltic region as “go-to” partners with whom to strategize on how to support democratic and market reforms in Europe’s East, especially Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and to promote democratic change in Belarus;
  • Determine several specific Nordic-Baltic projects in which the United States would participate (much as the United Kingdom is doing), such as forging a new, permanent air-policing system for Iceland, drawing primarily on Nordic assets with US participation;
  • Engage regional leaders in an NB8 format, including:
    • US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participating in the Nordic-Baltic ministerial meeting in Vilnius in December 2011, on the margins of the annual foreign ministers meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE);
    • US President Barack Obama meeting with Nordic-Baltic leaders at one of their upcoming summits; and
  • Advance a new initiative in the run-up to the May 2012 Chicago NATO summit to break the NATO-EU logjam, using leader-level efforts to forge a genuine NATO-EU strategic partnership and bring the EU and non-NATO EU members further into Alliance defense planning and operations.


The Nordic-Baltic region has undergone an incredible transformation since the 1990s, from a region divided by the Cold War to a dynamic place where the Nordic-Baltic states help to export security far beyond their borders to places such as the Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa. However, if the region could operate as a cohesive whole, using coordinated and non-duplicated capabilities and policies, the efforts of the individual states could be further magnified, rivaling the efforts of much larger states in Europe and beyond.

A Nordic-Baltic region as a global actor would contribute much to NATO and EU efforts on multiple fronts, ranging from development and peacekeeping to collective defense and counterinsurgency operations. It would also make the region an attractive player for the United States, which is increasingly looking to share responsibilities with regional actors. For decades the Nordic-Baltic region was a major importer of security from the United States and NATO. Today, the region is able to boost its export of security. A regional approach promises to do just that, allowing the region to claim its role as a genuine global partner of the United States.

Related Experts: Magnus Nordenman and Damon Wilson