The Nordic Countries and the Cold War
The Nordic Countries and the Cold War, 1945-1991: International Perspectives and Interpretations
H.E. Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Iceland
Reykjavík, 24 June 1998
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For someone of my generation, it creates a peculiar feeling to address a historical conference on the Cold War. The term "history" usually evokes images of long-past events and having lived through what appears to be a relatively recent period, already being analysed by historians, must be a sure sign of advancing years! Furthermore, for those born and raised under the sharp ideological divisions of the Cold War and the constant threat of a potentially catastrophic global conflict, it seems almost unbelievable that this era has passed without bloodshed. Who would have believed 15-20 years ago that the peaceful reunification of Germany was a realistic prospect, that the Soviet republics would become independent states or that the Warsaw Pact would be dissolved and its former members would join NATO? Anyone making such predictions would have been associated with science fiction rather than international politics!
The exact causes of the Cold War are still a matter of historical dispute, which I will not enter into. However, it is safe to say that the stage for this struggle was set by the end of the Second World War. Indeed, the experience of individual countries during the Second World War largely determined their policies during the Cold War, at least those which retained their sovereignity. This is particularly
apparent in the case of the Nordic countries. Denmark, Norway and Iceland were occupied by foreign military forces and subsequently concluded that neutrality and strictly national defences were not feasible options. Sweden managed to preserve its territorial integrity through the conflict and continued to maintain its neutrality and strong national defences. Finland suffered the ravages of war and had to take into account the demands of a powerful victorius neighbour.
Despite common values and similar interests amongst the five countries, the harsh reality of the situation following the conclusion of the Second World War described separate paths in the field of security and defence. It might be noted here that in the debates at the Nordic Council it was indeed an unwritten rule not to discuss security issues. Today, however, discussions on security and foreign policy questions are central in the debates there.
The Nordic countries did, however, share a common aspect; they were all on the political and military front lines of the Cold War. Being actively democratic societies, the Nordic countries all conducted their own open debates on the fundamental issues of the Cold War and, frequently, the views expressed and positions taken were neither black nor white, but various shades of grey. This led one academic to describe Iceland as the "reluctant Ally" (Donald Neuchterlein), although there was always a solid majority of Icelanders behind NATO-membership and the bilateral Defence Agreement with the United States. This was partly because the Nordic countries could not simply ignore or reject the neighbouring Soviet Union and other member states of the Warsaw Pact; the geographical proximity did not allow such hostile detachment. Besides, these countries to the South and the East were traditional partners in commerce and culture. The part played by the Nordic countries in launching the CSCE, now replaced by the OSCE, bears witness to this.
The Nordic countries also had a particular stake in maintaining peace and stability in Europe, as they would all have become the battleground in an extraordinarily destructive conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which would probably have preceeded the possible employment of nuclear weapons. Democracy and transparency in the Countries of Central and Eastern-Europe has since revealed that the battle-plans of the late Warsaw Pact were based on seizing the initiative through overwhelming offensive actions. But a conflict was avoided and, apart from dialogue, defence preparedness and vigilance was a deterrance. This meant that at the height of the Cold War, the police and armed forces of the five countries had a great number of encounters with some manifestation of the probing military might of the Warsaw Pact.
Having emerged unscathed from the Cold War, it is possible to claim that the Nordic countries, amongst themselves, derived political benefits from the unusual circumstances of this period. A common security policy was not attainable, but it was desirable to enhance security in the broader sense by increasing the social and cultural integration of the five countries. Regardless of the feelings of Nordic fraternity, it is doubtful that such rapid progress would have been made within the Nordic Council and generally in Nordic cooperation, had the external circumstances been different. Only 20-30 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a majority of the Nordic countries would join the EEC, but following the end of the Cold War three of these countries are members of the EU. As this is an academic gathering, it is tempting to ask whether the Nordic option
would have been developed had there been other alternatives? If the answer is negative, then perhaps the Cold War had some positive results!
Before concluding, I would like to thank the organizers, sponsors and co-sponsors of this conference for their very timely and interesting initiative. One of my predecessors as Minister of Foreign Affairs called his memoirs rather modestly "Between Washington and Moscow", and on that note I think it is very appropriate that a conference on the Cold War should be convened in Reykjavík. Furthermore, President Gorbachov did not see the NATO-membership of Iceland as an obstacle to his summit meeting with president Reagan in1986, so I believe you are in the right place!
I wish you success in your deliberations and look forward to hearing about the general conclusions of the conference.