The Nordic Region Strengthens Double-Edged Defense Cooperation With the US

New bilateral defense agreements between the USA and the Nordic countries will make it easier for American forces to operate in the High North. In November, the American forces participated in the Finnish army exercise Hammer 22 in Niinisalo, Western Finland. Here is an American tank of the Abrams type in action during the exercise. (Photo: Charles Leitner/US Army)

While Norway's new defense agreement with the US is implemented, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are negotiating similar agreements with Washington D.C. The agreements are meant to provide quicker and more efficient American support if needed but can also facilitate unpredictable presence.

In January, Sweden announced that it has started negotiations with the US on a bilateral agreement on defense cooperation – which Finland and Denmark did last year, respectively in September and February.

Up for negotiation are the terms of American military activity on the countries' territory.

In the Nordic context, the three are following in Norway's footsteps, whose agreement with Washington D.C. was signed in the spring of 2021 and approved by the Norwegian Parliament in the summer of 2022. Through this, four military bases in Norway, whereas two are located in the High North, have become "agreed" areas – which the US has the right to unimpeded access and use. 

In the big picture, this type of agreement facilitates desired American presence, but this presence can also present challenges. Some of them are linked to the US' turn towards Asia and the associated emphasis on operational flexibility, as well as the polarization of American politics.

Jakob Gustafsson, analytiker ved Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut. (Foto: FOI)
Jakob Gustafsson, Analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency. (Photo: FOI)

The latter is problematized in an analysis presented by the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) in the fall – as the basis for Sweden's defense policy shift and thereby the work of Försvarsberedningen.

"I believe that the overarching dilemma is the same for all of the countries: One desires American presence, but on own terms as far as it is possible – and that is becoming harder as the US increases its focus on China," writes Jakob Gustafsson, FOI Analyst, in an e-mail to High North News.


Topical issue

The US has an increased focus on China as a threat to its own global position of power and a growing engagement in Asia. In the face of the concurrency problem – to be present in Europe, Asia, and other places – the country has adopted a more unpredictable military operational pattern in order to deter its adversaries.

This type of concept entails that American presence in Europe can become (increasingly) more sporadic and unpredictable, not only to Russia but also to allies – and this may not be in the interest of small states, as they often emphasize stability and predictability, the FOI analysis points out.

The issue is not new but may be reinforced by Nordic bilateral defense agreements with the USA, as well as increased tension towards both China and Russia.

"Since the USA increasingly prioritizes China and simultaneously wants to deter Russia, greater emphasis has been put on mobility, i.a., in order to utilize possibly fewer units more effectively. This is made possible further through the deepened defense agreements and is welcomed by most countries," Gustafsson points out.

Before the Norwegian-American agreement came to be, the US had entered into similar agreements with the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.

Possible increased great power rivalry in the immediate area and less national control are probably given less emphasis.
FOI Analyst Jakob Gustafsson.

Both standardization and commitment

From the American side, these defense agreements are both about the standardization of legal frameworks that give the country increased military freedom of action and about the continued commitment to European and Nordic security, according to Gustafsson. 

This signals that the US will support Nordic countries – with agreements that facilitate quicker and more efficient support in the event of crisis or war – presumably weighs heavy in the Nordic countries' considerations in the present situation, he points out. 

"The possible disadvantages – like increased great power rivalry in the immediate area and less national control over the development of events – are probably given less importance since the security situation has worsened. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Nordic countries are less inclined to believe that Russia is interested in dètente and therefore prefer strong deterrence – albeit possibly with certain differences between them, something that will be interesting to follow in the time coming."

It will also be interesting to see how it will be to relate to the USA in the time to come. In light of the strong American party polarization, Sweden should "prepare for a volatile and unpredictable American foreign and security policy, where unilateralism, short-termism, and transaction orientation may become prominent features", the FOI analysis points out.

Might include several northern bases

Based on the similarities between the Nordic countries, it is conceivable that the Norwegian-American defense agreement forms the basis for the initiated negotiations between Stockholm, Helsinki, and Copenhagen respectively on one hand and Washington D.C. on the other.

Charly Salonius-Pasternak, forsker ved Finsk utenrikspolitisk forskningsinstitutt (FIIA). (Foto: FIIA)
Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA). (Photo: FIIA)

Furthermore, these negotiations may lead to several High North military bases becoming "agreed areas" with the Americans. When it comes to Denmark, the Americans have had the Thule Air Base on Greenland for decades.

At the Norwegian bases classified as "agreed", the US can conduct training and exercises, deploy forces, and store equipment, supplies, and materiel. By special agreement, US forces may also have exclusive access and right of use to parts of these areas.

In Finland, the US might be interested in access to and use of the Rovaniemi Airport, as well as a naval base or a base near a port, believes Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Leading Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA).

In that case, it will follow the same pattern as in Northern Norway, where Evenes Air Station and Ramsund Naval Station are "agreed". As HNN recently reported, the development of cooperation with the US on airborne maritime surveillance and maritime logistics is now on the horizon at these bases.

Rovaniemi Airport in Northern Finland may be of interest to the US as an "agreed area", believes FIAA Leading Researcher Salonius-Pasternak. (Photo: Jesper Sundström/the Swedish Armed Forces)

Important advance storage

In addition to the opportunities of such cooperation – which could also involve American infrastructure investments – the advance storage is an important point, Salonius-Pasternak points out.

"The opportunity to store equipment and materiel in advance, which is included in the Norwegian-American agreement, clearly expresses American commitment. It would be beneficial if the US and Finland agrees that American forces can store, for example, 500 anti-tank missiles and 500 anti-aircraft missiles in Finland and that a mechanism is designed so that Finnish forces can use these in extreme cases before US support arrives, he says and continues:

"Advance storage of equipment and materiel for joint use is something Sweden and Finland have discussed a lot. With their NATO accession, it will probably become a central topic with Norway as well." 

Questions surrounding American storage of defense materiel are also linked to how future Finnish and Swedish NATO memberships will be designed. Last fall, the countries' prime ministers stated that they would not discuss the storage of nuclear weapons before membership in the alliance has been achieved. At the same time, Sweden's MFA recently stated that the country, similar to its Nordic neighbors, considers it unlikely that they will have nuclear weapons on their own territory in peacetime.

Possibilities in 'alignment'

Standardization of legal frameworks for American forces' presence will probably also be beneficial in the inter-Nordic context – since it would simplify the movement of personnel and materiel between the countries and allow for new opportunities for interaction with the US, the FIIA researcher states.

"When all the Nordic countries have become NATO members, it will be interesting to see how much cooperation will take place under the umbrella of NATO, the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), and a possible four-party format with Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the US. Finland usually follows a pragmatic line and will probably prefer the format that appears to be the most effective," says Salonius-Pasternak.

In the NATO context, it has also been pointed out in a policy brief from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs that bilateral defense agreements between the members that regulate the presence of visiting forces function as an important basis for the alliance – including as a means of facilitating collective defense in practice.

Closer interaction between Sweden, Finland, and the US in the field of defense has long been on the agenda. In 2016, the two countries entered into bilateral letters of intent with the US on deepened defense cooperation – and these were supplemented with a letter of intent to strengthen Sweden, Finland, and the US trilateral defense bonds in 2018. 

Believes in strong, national control

In regard to the US' turn towards Asia and emphasis on operational flexibility, Salonius-Pasternak does not believe that Finland or the other Nordic countries will allow unilateral and, to them, unpredictable American military activity on their territories – even though the defense agreements can provide, or in Norway's case provides, American forces unimpeded access to agreed areas.

"I have great difficulty imagining that the US will be able to use Finnish bases to dramatically increase its military presence or carry out activity at the border to Russia without being in full agreement with the Finnish government. So far, the US has listened carefully to Finland's view on designing military exercises and how these should be communicated, and I do not believe that this way of cooperating will change because of the upcoming agreement."

In regard to American involvement in the East, this type of agreement can at the same time come into play and facilitate increased American freedom of action if the Nordic countries agree, as he sees it.

"If there were to be a war in Asia and the Nordic countries choose to assist the USA, such defense agreements would certainly be able to contribute to that. For example, Germany has helped the US transport badly injured American soldiers from Iraq to Germany and then onward to the US. This type of agreement can facilitate contributions in many ways."

"Challenging questions may also arise where, for example, the US will want to fly to Asia via Norway, Finland, or Sweden, and they will be uncertain about that. But if so, there will also be a political evaluation of whether this will be allowed and why."

At the same time, one can speculate whether the new defense agreements will make it more difficult to say no to American requests.

So far, the US has listened carefully to Finland's view on designing military exercises.
FIAA Leading Researcher Charly Salonius-Pasternak.

Side problems

Overall, Salonius-Pasternak believes that it is difficult to see the disadvantages in Nordic countries entering into bilateral defense agreements with the US, but also points out that American military presence may be accompanied by side problems.

"In the Nordic region, we will not see grand American bases, such as those built in Japan and Germany during the Cold War, where there were some great economic advantages, but also problems connected to American forces alcohol consumption and relations to local women. Could something like that happen in the Nordic countries? Yes, and it would probably receive great attention in the media. But one of the advantages of having not only NATO's status of forces agreement [SOFA agreement, ed.note.], but also bilateral defense agreements is that it will be quite clear what happens in the event of such cases."

As HNN has previously reported, the US' expanded access to exert authority and prosecution jurisdiction have been subject to critical reviews from the Norwegian Judge Advocate General and the Director of Public Prosecution.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.