By Tarja Cronberg



My Nordic identity has received a severe blow. I am affiliated with SIPRI, the Swedish International Peace Research Institute and was in the past the director of the corresponding Danish institute. I have been a member of the security and defense committee of the Finnish Parliament and a member of the corresponding committee of the European Parliament. In my experience the Nordic countries have been united in their search for peace and for nuclear disarmament. Today I wonder. Something very unusual happened last week.


In the United Nations General Assembly, more than 130 states were debating a nuclear weapons prohibition. The Swedes were inside the meeting hall. Outside, the Danes were participating in an American action against the negotiations. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN claimed that the time was not ripe for banning nuclear weapons. The representatives of Norway, Iceland and Finland were nowhere to be seen.


The UN effort to ban nuclear weapons has divided the Nordic countries. When the General Assembly voted last October on whether or not to start negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, most nuclear-weapon states and their allies voted against the negotiations, among them NATO countries Denmark, Norway and Iceland. A number of countries abstained, including Finland and the nuclear-armed states China, India and Pakistan. Sweden, one of the countries that launched the ban initiative, voted for the resolution.


The Nordic countries are, as a rule, among the top 10 countries in world statistics for any positive attribute. For example, they are the most economically wealthy and least corrupt. They are the happiest people in the world, with equality as the guiding social principle. They seldom are parties to world conflicts but are mostly found in the peacekeeping forces in conflict areas. Trust is one of the unique qualities of these states. Citizens not only trust each other but also state institutions. Mutual trust also has been the key to ever-increasing Nordic cooperation in security and defense, a unique example in the European context. So why this divide on the question of nuclear weapons, of whether or not they should be prohibited and whether or not the time is ripe for this?


In this case, the fundamental principle for the Nordic countries does not seem to be peace and humanitarian values but their relationship to the United States. Denmark is one of Washington’s closest allies, bombing in Syria alongside the United States. In Denmark there is today practically no discussion or activities related to nuclear disarmament. Norway, in contrast, organized the first conference on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, not only if used during wartime but also due to accidents while stored and transported in peacetime. Nevertheless, the Americans convinced the Norwegians, a fellow NATO member, to vote no. Finland is not a NATO member but a very eager partner. Although the state is active in disarmament, particularly in the Arms Trade Treaty, a close relationship with the United States is vital for Finnish policy. Helsinki abstained in the vote and decided not to participate in the negotiations. Finally Sweden, a country that is not a member of NATO but has close ties to Washington, was the only Nordic country daring to oppose the U.S. and willing to support negotiations to ban nuclear weapons.


At a recent conference in Washington, experts were asked to evaluate the probability that the negotiations at the UN will lead to a treaty banning nuclear weapons. All the experts expected the treaty to become a reality, with a French expert assigning it a probability of 90 percent. What will happen, when the potential treaty is agreed to? Will nuclear weapons and the risk of nuclear war disappear? Not for some time. But the treaty will lead to a new status for nuclear weapons. They will not be something we know exists and is dangerous but whose existence we ignore and try to forget. They will be a constant focus of attention. The UN treaty will delegitimize these weapons, push for a prohibition of nuclear tests and increase the criticism of budgets for modernizing these weapons. For the UN it is about time as the UN Conference on Disarmament has in the past 20 years not been able to take even a minimum of action towards nuclear disarmament.


Would it have made a difference if the Nordic countries had formed a common humanitarian front to prohibit nuclear weapons? The fact that that there are Nordic countries, wealthy and happy, that consider a NATO nuclear umbrella as necessary for their safety, does not make it easy to convince other countries of the need to dismantle their nuclear weapons. At the meeting outside the negotiating room, Haley underlined that it was not realistic to prohibit nuclear weapons; she asked who would believe North Korea would ban nuclear weapons. North Korea is a challenging case but it might be more realistic for Pyongyang to denounce nuclear weapons if all the other countries agreed to do so as well.






Tarja Cronberg is a Distinguished Associate at SIPRI, a member of the board of the European Leadership Network and the chair of the Finnish Peace Union. She is the author of “Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside the EU Negotiations” (Routledge Focus).