A woman who specializes in foot care and who spoke Swedish with a Finnish accent came to the house of my wife’s relative in a small Swedish town earlier this month. She was not afraid to tell me how much she dislikes Vladimir Putin. She has relatives in a remote part of Northern Russia who, because of Putin’s control over the media, were unaware of the war in Ukraine.
But she also expressed her concerns about politics in the United States.
Time and again during a recent family vacation to Scandinavia, I would drop a question or two about global security concerns to strangers. I speak Swedish and Norwegian, making it easier for locals to speak freely. Time and again, we heard the same concerns.
People are acutely aware of American politics, and genuinely concerned.
NATO gives Russia’s northern neighbors a strong sense of security. Swedes I spoke with appeared happy to be approaching membership for the first time, and to have newly accepted NATO member Finland as a buffer. But the people I spoke with understood that any weakening of that alliance would give a sense of anxiety, instead.
Whether such a weakening would happen is unclear. Certainly, waning right-wing support for Ukraine is real. A recent CNN poll found that 71% of Republican respondents want Congress to end further funding, while 62% of Democrats said the exact opposite.
But future support for NATO seems less uncertain.
In a piece for The Atlantic last year, Tom McTague argued that NATO has come to resemble the type of organization Trump and right-wing Republicans want it to be.
“NATO’s European members are paying more for their own defense, the alliance is more Eastern European in its outlook and positioning, and, for the first time, it is explicitly focused on America’s great-power rivalry with China,” he wrote. This came about more because of the fear of Putin’s belligerence than Trump’s policies as president, he said, but the new shift “signal(s) an important moment for the West, as Europe moves to more closely align itself with American domestic political concerns.”
In contrast to waning support for Ukraine, recent polls show strong American support for NATO.
In the meantime, normally placid Scandinavia seems to be turning into a mini-cauldron of global events, bringing its freedoms and general openness into question.
The nation’s immigration laws have allowed large numbers of Muslims to enter the country in recent years. The influx has strained the nation’s politics and welfare state, even as it has given rise to a right-wing party the Brookings Institution said is attracting Swedes “disgruntled by ‘the establishment’ response to these concerns.”
In recent weeks, several people have burned copies of the Quran as a protest in public places around Stockholm, a practice allowed under the country’s free-expression laws. But the Quran burnings have caught the attention of others around the world. Because of this, the head of the Swedish security service last Thursday announced that the nation was on a level-4 security threat risk, with 5 being the highest.
“We have gone from being considered a legitimate target to a priority target for violent Islamism,” the security chief said.
Reuters reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged severe punishment for those responsible for the burnings, and that he said Sweden was in battle mode against the Muslim world.
One man told me he found it “ridiculous” that the Swedish government allowed Quran burnings, given what’s at stake. For a time, the Turkish government had threatened to withdraw its support for Sweden’s NATO membership over the burnings, but it has since backed down.
Still a recent Swedish television report said lawmakers are considering changes that would make such public burnings more difficult.
These troubles are, of course, not related to Ukraine or Russian belligerence. They are further evidence, however, of how the outside world is forcing difficult decisions on northern European nations.
In Norway, relatives told me they are slightly amused by outsiders who assume they feel the effects of the war in Ukraine. They don’t. Indeed, the conflict feels as far away from Oslo as it does from the United States.
And yet, below the surface, people know that the world is much closer than ever before. The luxury of feeling secure against Russia will remain so only as long as the United States remains Europe’s closest ally.