Is Britain making a mistake about Finland and Sweden?
British prime minister Boris Johnson announced that Britain will pledge to support Finland's and Sweden's armed forces in the event of an attack. Britain said that "the new arrangements would intensify intelligence sharing and accelerate joint military training, exercises and deployments." All this comes in the midst of Russia's war in Ukraine and Russian president Vladimir Putin's public warning that Sweden's and Finland's admission to NATO would produce a strong response from Russia.
When Britain was a great power in the 18th and 19th centuries, its statesmen eschewed formal continental commitments, choosing the freedom to intervene in continental conflicts when such conflicts threatened to upset the European balance of power. Thus, King William sent a British army under John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, to prevent French hegemony in Europe sought by Louis XIV in the early 18th century. William Pitt the Younger ordered British forces under the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Horatio Nelson to ally with continental powers to defeat Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. Those continental commitments were temporary, ad hoc arrangements based on unusual European-wide circumstances. When those wars ended, Britain returned to its more flexible and distant policy, which some scholars have described as "offshore balancing" and others have called "splendid isolation," taking full advantage of its insular position. In the late 19th century, Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury continued to follow that policy.
Perhaps Sir Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office explained the policy best in 1907 in a memorandum written as Europe was less than a decade away from a catastrophic war. "The general character of England's foreign policy," Crowe wrote, "is determined by the immutable conditions of her geographical situation on the ocean flank of Europe as an island State with vast overseas colonies and dependencies, whose existence and survival as an independent community are inseparably bound up with the possession of preponderant sea power." He referenced the works of the American naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan. England, Crowe continued, must preserve "equilibrium" on the European continent by upholding a "balance of power." England can maintain such a balance "by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single State or group at a given time."
Crowe questioned whether Germany in 1907 was aiming at "a political hegemony with the object of promoting purely German schemes of expansion, and establishing a German primacy in the world of international politics at the cost and to the detriment of other nations," but he expressed the fear that Berlin's policies and some of its rhetoric were leading to an Anglo-German confrontation. He was not convinced that Germany sought European hegemony, but England could not be sure and must take that possibility into account in determining its policy toward Germany.
British historian Niall Ferguson in his book The Pity of War argued that Wilhelmine Germany did not pose the same threat to British security as Louis XIV and Napoleon did, and that Britain should not have made a continental commitment to that war. Ferguson argues that Britain with its colonies and dependencies transformed a European war into a world war and a global cataclysm that spawned dangerous revolutionary ideologies (communism, fascism) and a second more destructive war that led to a long and costly Cold War.
It is anticipated that the British agreements with Sweden and Finland are a preliminary step on the road to NATO membership for both countries. A story in National Review Online notes that both countries are expected to apply for NATO membership soon and that they will likely be "summarily accepted into the alliance." If and when that happens, the ball will be in Putin's court. What kind of "strong response" will Russia make to the further expansion of NATO? Will he deploy, as he previously threatened to, nuclear and hypersonic missiles near the borders of those countries and perhaps other NATO countries? And how will NATO respond to that? Will historians one day look back and conclude, to paraphrase Bismarck, that it was some damned thing in Ukraine that ignited World War III?
What the world needs now is a statesman of the caliber of Bismarck or Disraeli to replicate their diplomacy at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, where an international crisis caused by the Russo-Turkish War and the ensuing Treaty of San Stefano threatened to engulf Europe in wider war. Don't bother looking to Washington, London, or Moscow for such leaders — none is there.