The theory and practice of the “Nordic balance” during the 1950s and 60s, with special emphasis on Swedish-Norwegian relations

Magnus Peterson 

1. Introduction

It is often said, that after the collapse of the negotiations of the Scandinavian Defence Union and the completed formation of blocs following the signing of the Atlantic Pact on April 4th 1949, a ”Nordic balance” was established. Both the Great Powers and the Nordic countries had an interest in maintaining this balance, as it meant that the Nordic countries would constitute a security-policy low-tension zone or buffer between the great power blocs. It was felt that the Nordic countries could become a ”new Central Europe” with high tensions between the Great Powers and subsequent increased risks of crises and war, if the balance was in any way

Whether there was any realism behind the ideas of a Nordic balance, i.e.
regarding the notion that essential security policy changes in one of the Nordic countries would lead to “adjustments” in the others, is left open here. In this context, it is more important that those responsible for the shaping and implementation of security policies in Norway and Sweden, to a large extent acted in accordance with these ideas, which in essential questions gave rise to Swedish-Norwegian common interests as well as conflicts of interest. I will go in to this a bit more in the following.

2. The “Nordic Balance” as an idea and as a theory 

The theory of the Nordic Balance was developed in the mid-60s, particularly by Arne Olav Brundtland at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).[i] In practice however, the assumptions on which the theory was based had been important in the shaping of security policies since the end of the 1940s, something which Brundtland also acknowledged. Brundtland’s starting point was the security policy pattern which had then been established: Norwegian and Danish NATO membership with essential restrictions, Swedish armed neutrality policy and Finnish connections with the Soviet Union through the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance (FCMA). This pattern represented a security policy balance with relatively low Great Power presence and tension level in the region. If one of the Great Powers were to further advance their positions in any of the countries, or if any other fundamental security policy change occurred in one of the countries, this would lead to one of two things: either to a generally higher conflict level in the area because of counter-measures from the other side, or to the immediate restoration of the lower level as a result of successful deterrence of the initiator by the threat of implementing counter-measures in the other countries.

An example of such a development could be if the Soviet Union increased its pressure on Finland, e.g. by demanding negotiations on military matters in accordance with the FCMA Treaty. In such a situation, Norway and Denmark could threaten to adopt a “loosening” of their restrictive alliance policy or actually do this, which would either make the Soviet Union drop its demands for FCMA negotiations (something which would restore the low tension level in the area) or trigger a series of counter-measures, which would create a higher overall conflict level throughout the Nordic region. An example of the reverse could be that during the spell of the Cold War Norway and Denmark chose not to take security policy measures that could seem provocative to the Soviet Union, e.g. establishing a strong offensive military capacity, because such measures could lead to Soviet “position advancement“ in Finland.

When Brundtland presented ”the Nordic Balance” more thoroughly and
systematically in the essay ”Nordisk balanse før og nå” [“The Nordic Balance: Past and Present”] (1966), he naturally had scholary ambitions, though the “balance” was still not described as a theory but first and foremost as an “idea” and as a “doctrine”. Brundtland argued that the Finnish – Soviet crisis in 1961 (the Note Crisis) had made the notion of balance generally used amongst politicians in Northern Europe, and he also inferred that the doctrine of balance was applied in connection with this crisis more evidently than had been the case earlier on. On 30 October 1961, the Soviet Union demanded military consultations with Finland. This action was taken in accordance with the FCMA Treaty, which decreed that if necessary, both countries would make a joint effort to safeguard Finland’s territory against the threat of attack from West Germany and its allies. In this context the Norwegian and Danish governments were pointed out by the Soviet Union as being part of this threat because, amongst other things, they were participating in the buildup of NATO’s Baltic Sea Command. The Norwegian government did not want to interfere in this Finnish-Soviet issue, but since Norway was also mentioned, a number of statements were made by Norwegian government members a few days later. The Minister of Foreign affairs, Halvard Lange, and the Minister of Defence, Gudmund Harlem, cautiously implied that the Norwegian restrictive alliance policy could change if pressure on Norway continued. Subsequently, this was to supply the Finnish president Urho Kekkonen with solid arguments in relation to his Soviet contracting parties, the final outcome being that the Russian leader Nikita Krustjov “withdrew” the demand for consultations with Finland in accordance with the FCMA Treaty.[ii] 

After another 10 years of scholarly as well as political discussion about the
concept, Brundtland returned with the article ”Nordisk balanse på nytt” [“The Nordic Balance Once More] (1976). In the article the concept was further developed and abstracted. Brundtland distinguished between a “static” perspective and what he called “… a theory on dynamic connection between the security policy problematique of the Nordic countries”. In both cases, Brundtland argued that there were three main factors which were a basis for the discussion, i.e. the security policy pattern that had been established in the Nordic region 1948-1949, which comprised (1) Norwegian and Danish restrictive NATO membership, (2) Swedish neutrality policy supported by relatively powerful conventional armed forces and (3) Finnish neutrality policy within the framework of the FCMA Treaty. Based on these conditions, concerning the “dynamic” aspect, any attempts at position advancements either at the initiative of a “protector state” (the Soviet Union or the US) or a “client state” (Norway, Denmark or Finland) could be disarmed by the other side using equivalent measures or threats of such measures, which would cause the initiator not to undertake the position advancement.[iii]

Brundtland traced two sub-models from the balance model; the primary model (where Sweden did not act actively) and the secondary model (where Sweden did act actively). He claimed that threats of a re-assessment or an actual re-assessment of Swedish politics in the secondary model, could be presumed to come much later in a process of change and involve far greater effects of provocation. This assumption seems to be based on the idea that the Swedish security policy was more stable than the Danish, Norwegian and Finnish, thereby implying that a Swedish re-assessment of its security policy was less likely, in any case as a first step.[iv]

In a third article, ”Den klassiske, den omsnudde og den fremtidige nordiske
balans” [The Classic, the Inverted and the Future Nordic Balance] (1981)
Brundtland further refines the theory by breaking down the primary model into two variants; the classic model, where Denmark and Norway were able to keep the Soviet Union away from Finland by suggestions of a less restrictive alliance policy, and the inverted model, where Finnish insinuations of Russian reprisals against Finland could prevent Norway and Denmark from closer NATO collaboration. Brundtland regarded the previously mentioned Note Crisis of 1961 as a model for the classic variant, as the Norwegian government demonstrated willingness to re-assess its policies at that time, with direct reference to the Russian consultation demand, which according to Brundtland had effects on the outcome of the crisis. Brundtland saw the Finnish President Kekkonen’s warnings to Norway during 1976-77 as an example of the inverted variant. That event was connected to the question of the possible participation of West German infantry units in NATO exercises in Norway for the first time. In this context Kekkonen let it be known that it was not indifferent for Finland with whom Norway collaborated and that political reactions, unfavourable to both Norway and Finland, could follow. After this, the infantry units were not allowed to participate in the exercises, which Brundtland interpreted as not an insignificant Finnish diplomatic victory.[v]

Hence, it may be concluded that Brundtland considered Sweden’s role as relatively static and secondary the in theory of the Nordic balance. The “players” were, first and foremost, considered to be Norway, Denmark and the Soviet Union, secondly Finland and the USA and perhaps thirdly, Sweden (Iceland is not even included in the model). In the first article of 1966 Brundtland claims that it would probably be a bigger step for Sweden to abandon its neutrality policy than for Norway to reconsider its restrictive alliance policy. He also argues that Swedish NATO membership could only be envisaged as a counter-move in a situation where the Soviet Union had already made a move to bring about “imbalance”. The Swedish neutrality policy was thus regarded as a stabilising factor, but consequently also
played a role in the notion of balance.[vi]

3. The Nordic balance after the end of the Cold War 

Since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the
security policy conditions in the Nordic region have changed considerably. There is no longer a need for restrictions in the Norwegian and Danish alliance policy out of concern for Soviet reactions, the Finnish-Soviet FCMA Treaty is abolished and Sweden is a member of the European Union and is also participating in Partnership for Peace (PfP), which implies a formal connection to NATO (though no mutual security guarantees). This means that neither the ideas nor theories on Nordic balance are discussed in the debate on current security policy. However, research and knowledge about the security policy circumstances during the Cold War, particularly regarding the 50s and 60s, have expanded noticeably partly as a result of an increased interest in the period, and partly because previously confidential source material has become available for research. This means that now, by studying sources which Bruntland and others did not have access to, entirely different validity assessments of the idea of a Nordic balance can be made. Such a systematic endeavour has not been made so far. Nor is it the purpose here. Nevertheless one can tentatively claim – based on the research concerning the Nordic security policy relations carried out after the end of the Cold War – that the balance model gave, and continues to give, a largely accurate picture of the security policy driving forces and connections relating to peace and stability in the Nordic region during the Cold War.[vii] This will now be developed somewhat, with an emphasis on Swedish - Norwegian security policy relations.

3.1 The Norwegian government and the “Nordic balance”

The Norwegian government’s security policy during the Cold War has often been referred to as consisting of deterrence and reassurance towards the Eastern bloc on the one hand, and, integration and screening towards the Western bloc on the other. Johan Jørgen Holst is the “father” of the former concept – deterrence and reassurance – while Rolf Tamnes is the “father” of the latter – integration and screening.[viii] Among others, Sven G. Holtsmark has pointed out that the two concepts are interdependent, as they, to a large extent, describe the same phenomenon, albeit from two different angles.

Through military and security policy integration into NATO, Norway achieved a credible deterrent, while screening against further integration was the foremost expression for Norway’s desire to weaken the basis of the Soviet Union’s fear of Norway’s NATO affiliation, i.e, reassurance.[ix]

One of the most important reasons for the Norwegian policy of screening towards the west and policy of reassurance towards the east was “consideration for Finland”, i.e. an increased Norwegian NATO integration and an increased element of deterrence towards the Soviet Union would risk triggering Soviet counter-measures in Finland. This consideration towards Finland was certainly based on Norwegian self-interest, but it is worth noticing that the Norwegians attached such great importance to this reasoning, which can be related to the idea of a “Nordic balance”.

One clear example of this situation is from the years 1959-1960. At a NATO
meeting in December 1959, the Norwegian restrictive position towards nuclear arms in the Norwegian Armed Forces, and particularly the storage of nuclear weapons on Norwegian soil, was criticised by several of the allied member states. The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Halvard Lange, responded to this criticism by stating that the Norwegian restrictive attitude towards the question of nuclear weapons was due to consideration of Finland in particular. This argument was further developed at the secret NATO Council meeting on 6 April 1960. Under-secretary of State, Hans Engen, gave a thorough account of the Norwegian government’s perspective, using the motives for the Norwegian base policy from January 1949 as a starting point. The most essential issue at that time had been the danger of Soviet pressure on Finland and possible demands for establishing bases in that country. The considerations that shaped the framework for the base policy, according to the Norwegian government, were the same as the ones for the nuclear policy.[x]

The Norwegians also followed Swedish plans for the development of nuclear arms with great interest, which can be connected with the idea of a “Nordic balance”. Swedish nuclear armament could affect the Norwegian attitude on the issue of nuclear armament, i.e. lead to Norway also equipping its armed forces with nuclear weapons.[xi] This could in turn affect Soviet behaviour in Finland and thus the level of tension in the Nordic region. 

When Prime Minister Gerhardsen’s security policy adviser Andreas Andersen in April 1957 had a conversation with the Swedish ambassador in Oslo, Rolf Edberg, Andersen said: “If Sweden chose to adopt nuclear weapons, this undoubtedly would affect the Norwegian standpoint”.[xii] A few days later when ambassador Edberg spoke to Prime Minister Gerhardsen, the Prime Minister said that the Norwegian alliance policy, as he described it, was basically relatively close to Sweden’s policy of non-alignment:

The main aim of Norwegian policy must of course be, if possible to avoid being drawn into war. Without renouncing their NATO
membership – since this would be out of the question – they wanted to shape their policy so as to contribute to pacification in the Nordic region.[xiii]

It appears, therefore, to be evident that the Norwegian government took the idea of a “Nordic balance” into great consideration when shaping their security policy during the 50s and 60s. They avoided measures that could give rise to a higher tension level and thereby increase the risk of crises or war in the Nordic region. In an almost perfected form, these considerations were presented by the Norwegian Minister of Trade O. C. Gundersen in a conversation with the Swedish diplomat, Nils Montan, at a meeting in Geneva in March 1962. Gundersen stated that the foreign policies practised in Sweden and Norway “were very closely connected” and were conditions for the preservation of “ the foreign policy balance reigning in the Nordic region”, which in turn were a “condition” for Finland’s desire and ability to
maintain its current relations with the Soviet Union: “If any of the links in this chain were broken, changes would automatically also occur for the other two countries”.[xiv]

3.2 The Swedish government and the “Nordic balance”

There was a widespread opinion in Sweden, both among the military and the politicians, that there was an imminent risk that crises or war in any of the other Nordic countries would also affect Sweden. If the Great Powers were to further strengthen their presence in the Nordic countries in peace-time, this risk would increase considerably. One of the most important motives for the Swedish security policy choice in 1949 and the politics afterwards, i.e. the retaining of non-alignment in peacetime with the aim of neutrality in war, can be explained by these conditions. A change in the traditional Swedish non-alignment policy was considered to amplify the risks of a Soviet occupation of Finland and thereby considerably increase the tension level in the Nordic region. Such a change was considered to diminish rather than increase Swedish security, which is in line with the idea of a “Nordic balance”. This meant, put in incisive wording, that the Swedish government regarded Finland’s relative independence as being of greater importance for Swedish security than a Swedish NATO membership.[xv]

However, Swedish efforts aiming at contributing to the relatively low great power presence in the Nordic region during the Cold War were not limited to Sweden’s own situation. It was also considered important to observe how the neighbouring countries – not least Norway – behaved and shaped their security policies. Particularly in the beginning of the 50s, when NATO integration generally increased and American pressure on the Norwegian alliance policy was strong, Swedish concerns over Norway’s alliance policy were expressed. From time to time, the Swedes were suspicious against the Norwegian government’s judgement regarding their alliance policy. An excessively “provocative” Norwegian alliance policy was considered to entail risks of Soviet “counter-moves” in Finland and thus increase tension in the Nordic region. This is closely linked to the notion of a “Nordic balance”.

A clear example of this situation is found around the turn of the year 1953. In December 1953, there were Swedish fears, that Norwegian base policy was about to be changed because of so-called “visiting missions”, i.e. that allied air units would rotate between Norwegian air bases in order to fortify Norway’s air defence. The Swedish ambassador in Oslo Hans W:son Ahlmann, received instructions to present Swedish apprehensions to the Norwegian government ministers in a suitable manner:

Apart from the surely unavoidable consequences at the political
level, perhaps foremost concerning Finland but possibly also Sweden, it seems reasonable to assume that such basing in peacetime will also trigger the possibility of far-reaching military counter-measures of a kind that would to a considerable extent neutralise the situation.[xvi]

In mid-January 1954, when ambassador Ahlmann had a lengthy conversation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lange, the Swedish opinion was put forward. Lange said that the Norwegians were aware of the risks, but that it must be weighed against Norway’s own defence needs.[xvii]

It thus seems apparent that also the Swedish government took the idea of a “Nordic balance” into considerable consideration in shaping its security policy. It was a matter of not upsetting the pattern in the Nordic region as this could increase the tension level and thereby cause risks of crises or war. Sweden’s own non-alignment and a continued restrictive Norwegian alliance policy were regarded as contributing to this low-tension level.

In this context it should be added that the Danish government also took the
notion of a “Nordic balance” into careful consideration, in a similar way to Norway, in shaping its security policy. During the first part of the 50s, when American pressure for permanent air bases on Danish soil was periodically strong, there was a widespread Danish opinion that Danish and Norwegian restrictions pertaining to such bases were a pre-requisite for a successful Finnish refusal of undesired Soviet military position advancement in Finland, at the same time as they strengthened the Swedish neutrality policy. It was argued that Denmark’s overall security would diminish if bases were established and the Soviet Union was to take military counter-measures against them. [xviii][xviii]

4. Conclusion

In an article in Militärhistorisk tidskrift [Journal of Military History] 1987, the
Swedish researcher Robert Dalsjö examined the criticism that can be levelled against Brundtland’s theory of “the Nordic balance”. Dalsjö concluded that the balance model, despite its weaknesses, gave “a largely accurate picture of the security policy driving forces and connections relating to peace and stability in the Nordic region”.[xix] I hope that I have shown that the present body of research undoubtedly supports this conclusion and thereby Brundtland’s theory. The main objection, which was also made by Dalsjö, was related to the possibilities of making predictions based on the theory. Would substantial security policy changes in one of the Nordic countries actually have led to “adjustments” in the others? That question will never be answered. However, there is substantial documentation supporting the view that the central actors in the Scandinavian countries, during the 1950s and 1960s, often reasoned in terms of a balance, even internally. Therefore it seems that theory and practice according to the “Nordic balance” correspond rather well. 

[i]For an overview of Brundtland’s theory and the criticism that can be put at it see Robert Dalsjö: ”Tungt vägande kritik? En granskning av kritik mot teorin om nordisk balans” in Militärhistorisk tidskrift 1987. Dalsjö’s article has been an outstanding guide for this account. 

[ii] Arne Olav Brundtland: ”Nordisk balanse før og nå” in Internasjonal politikk 5:1966 (Brundtland 1966a) pp. 507 and 514-7; ”The Nordic Balance: Past and Present” in Cooperation and Conflict 2:1966 (Brundtland 1966b). 

[iii] Arne Olav Brundtland: ”Nordisk balanse på nytt” in Internasjonal politikk 3:1976, pp. 600-2, citation pages 600-1. My italics. 

[iv] Brundtland 1976 pp 603-4. 

[v] Brundtland 1976 p. 605 and Arne Olav Brundtland: ”Den klassiske, den omsnudde og den fremtidige nordiske balanse” in Ole Nørgaard & Per Carlsen (red): Sovjetunionen, Østeuropa og dansk sikkerhetspolitikk (Sydjysk Universitetsforlag, Esbjerg 1981). See also Arne Olav Brundtland: ”Fremtidige problemer i den nordiske balanse” in Internasjonal politikk 2:1983 pp 207-8. 

[vi] Brundtland 1966a, especially pp. 497 and 504 , and Brundtland 1976, especially pp. 603-4, 620, 622 and 623.

[vii] Dalsjö p. 175. 

[viii] Johan Jørgen Holst: ”Norsk sikkerhetspolitikk i strategisk
perspektiv” in Internasjonal politikk 5:1966, especially p. 165; Johan Jørgen Holst: Norsk sikkerhetspolitikk from strategisk perspektiv, Volume 1 and 2 (Norsk utenrikspolitisk institutt, Oslo 1967) and Rolf Tamnes: ”Integration and Screening. The two faces of Norwegian Alliance Policy, 1945-1986.” in FHFS notat 5:1986. 

[ix] Sven G. Holtsmark: ”Norge og Sovjetunionen – bilateralisering og fellesstyre” in NATO 50 år. Norsk sikkerhetspolitikk med NATO gjennom 50 år (Den norske Atlanterhavskomité, Oslo 1999) p. 42. 

[x] Kjetil Skogrand & Rolf Tamnes: Fryktens likevekt: Atombomben, Norge og verden (Tiden, Oslo 2001) pp. 140-1. 

[xi] Knut Einar Eriksen & Helge Øystein Pharo: Norsk utenrikspolitikks historie Bind 5: Kald krig og internasjonalisering 1949-1965 (Universitetsforlaget, Oslo 1997) pp. 275f-6 and Skogrand & Tamnes p. 125. 

[xii] Magnus Petersson: ”Sverige och Väst: Det säkerhetspolitiska samarbetet mellan Sverige, Norge och västmakterna 1949-1969” in Lars Wedin & Gunnar Åselius (red): Mellan byråkrati och krigskonst: Svenska strategier för det kalla kriget (Försvarshögskolan, Stockholm 1999) p. 224.

[xiii] Utrikesdepartementets arkiv (UD), HP 1 An, 184, Oslo den 29
april 1957, ”Norge och atomvapnen”, Nr 464, strängt förtroligt, Edberg till Undén. 

[xiv] UD, HP 1 An, 198, Genève den 6 mars 1962, Strängt förtroligt, Montan till de Besche.

[xv] Olof Kronvall: Finland i svensk säkerhetspolitik 1948 – 1962: Ett forskningsprolem och dess utgångspunkter (Försvarshögskolan, Stockholm 1999) pp. 9-12.

[xvi] UD, HP 1 An, 172, Stockholm den 16 december 1953, Strängt förtroligt, Unger till Boheman och Hägglöf. 

[xvii] UD, HP 1 An, 173, Oslo den 14 januari 1954, ”den norska basfrågan m.m.” Nr 52, Strängt förtroligt, Ahlmann till Undén. 

[xviii] Poul Villaume: Alliert med forbehold: Danmark, NATO og den kolde krig: En studie i dansk sikkerhedspolitikk 1949-1961 (Eirene, København 1995), especially p. 473. 

[xix] Dalsjö p. 175. 


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