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Jun 26, 2022

At the end of this week, June 29-30, time for resolution: yes or no – or something less clearcut – as regards Sweden´s and Finland´s Nato membership bid, yes or no therefore to Turkey´s attempt at imposing conditions to this critical step in alliance enlargement in response to Vladimiir Putin´s war of aggression in Ukraine.

Even at this late time of writing, a few days ahead of the summit it remains utterly unclear what the outcome will be, in spite of intense pre-summit diplomacy in various formats. For now, difficulties seem to prevail, in spite of this diplomacy, compromise seems hard to achieve, but that impression can both be a result of successful secrecy, or unsuccessful diplomacy.

But if (a big IF) the answer will prove to be a yes, the summit does produce a yes to the two Nordic countries´ bid for membership, then that could be either the prepared negotiating result of this process of diplomacy, by Jens Stoltenberg and others, a result to be triumphantly presented at the summit. OR it can be the outcome of possibly dramatic deliberations during the summit itself, perhaps even using the old CSCE technique of stopping clocks as a means of beating deadlines. For now the latter alternative seems what is to be expected, in view of president Erdogan´s well-established and well-known sense of drama and brinkmanship, and his domestic policy need to maximize political utility on prestige-loaded matters of international affairs. For Jens Stoltenberg and Nato, the case is not so much about prestige, but of the crucial importance these troubled days of safeguarding Nato´s credibility.

Either way, whether resolution by skillful and successful pre-summit diplomacy or by dramatic last-minute deliberations in Madrid, there clearly has to be compromise, dictated by the respective necessities and perceptions of available time by the respective sides. The alternative to compromise resolution is essentially total “victory” on the one side and total “surrender” on the other, be it Sweden/Finland or Turkey – or US/Nato, assuming they step in with offers or gestures that are seen in Ankara to be attractive enough to withdraw its Damocles sword over the Nordics. Total Turkish “victory” (to be celebrated in triumph as proof that defiance and endurance works) would mean seeing Nato persuade both Sweden and Finland to accept all Turkish 9 demands, for the greater good of Nato. Total Nordic – and “Western” – “victory” would be Turkey in the end withdrawing all its conditions, without a “price” having to be paid for it. Other than escaping from the criticism of de facto weakening Nato in front of Putin´s war of aggression.

But if compromise, then these extremes are avoided and some position in-between is found out, perhaps in exhaustion, to be sufficient, for now, Nato style. Here, of course, only the sky is the limit when it comes to combinations of diplomatic smartness, to the extent, indeed, that Erdogan is at all interested in anything else but concrete Nordic surrender. Of long-term importance here is that it would be unwise for Nato (et al) to be seen later to have forced the arm of the prospective Nordic members to make concessions to Erdogan´s Turkey (for the greater good…) that would be weakly compatible with the alliance´s own basic values and hence conceivable and defensible. Perhaps, in view of the importance of the subject, way beyond the role of the Nordics here and now, the outcome will be one of classical strategic ambiguity, e.g. Turkey accepting, in response to vaguely positive language, to let go, for now, but with reference to a final answer in the context of the ratification process in the fall. We shall see.

And then there is the “no” alternative: that there is no compromise (or “victory”) because Turkey refuses to lift its veto because the Nordics refuse to make the kind of concrete concessions that Turkey demands, and because third parties have proved unable to come up with the necessary rabbits in the hat, sufficient to break the stalemate between the two sides. Perhaps, in this difficult scenario, the summit will also face unexpected difficulties in achieving its other main summit objective, adoption of the “strategic concept” for the years to come, in view of the radically changed security architecture situation.

Is there, one would now have to ask, a Plan B for such a difficult, still not unlikely, outcome? How will the combined power of the remaining 29 member states play out, all or most of whom have already strongly endorsed the Nordic enlargement of the alliance, stressing unequivocally that this particular enlargement step, in comparison with earlier steps, strengthens Nato militarily and politically and is therefore essential in Nato´s collective self-interest? What will be the consequences for the relationship, already complicated, between these 29 and the trouble-making Turkey from Madrid onwards, if Turkey insists – apparently with an eye on its own electoral process next year (or before) – on sticking to unfulfillable conditions that only serve the strategic interests of the alliance´s main adversary, or indeed enemy?

After all, time is this time not on the side of Nato, and its prospective new members. So perhaps there is little if any patience on the part of the 29 for member state Turkey claiming, or being seen, to have a different, own, timetable.

The bottom line is – or so it seems now, ahead of the summit – that in all probability advanced diplomacy and recourse to constructive, strategic ambiguity will be in great demand in Madrid, leaving us, the affected Nordics, with a perhaps very difficult task of interpreting, adapting to and having to live with whatever lack of strategic clarity we have to buckle up for, soon. But there is still time for surprises, good one and bad.

 Michael Sahlin