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Managing Conflictual Relationships Between International Rivals

July 11, 2022
Elizabeth Radziszewski and Jeremy Berkowitz


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Elizabeth Raziszewski, an associate research scientist at START, and Jeremy Berkowitz, a lecturer in political science at Prairie View A&M University, analyze why Sweden and Finland are choosing now to join NATO

Sweden’s and Finland’s recent decisions to join NATO marked a historic moment for the two Nordic states known for their neutrality. The move not only reflects evolving security concerns about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine but marks a shift that is set to end decades of accommodation toward Russia. It also sheds light on a broader question about why some rival countries—or those that have a history of tensions—sustain policies of accommodation over the years, and what pushes them to abandon such policies. Why would Sweden and Finland refrain from alienating Russia for years only to break suddenly with this tradition with their unprecedented decision to apply for NATO membership?

In most instances, accommodation—when positive gestures between enemies outnumber negative ones in a given year—is seen in scholarly research as a step towards terminating a rivalry, and is usually driven by shocks to the system, such as the onset of democratic transition or warsReciprocating cooperation helps to sustain this positive momentum. Yet in our research we have found that states can pursue accommodation in response to immediate threats from enemies and may do so with the aim of conserving resources and reducing the risk of war without necessarily aiming to terminate the rivalry. Put simply, accommodating enemies is a way to manage rivalries in a world full of constraints.

Accommodating an enemy in response to a threat presents domestic risks to leaders, who can be seen as weak and suffer electorally. Those costs for leaders can increase as cooperation with the enemy is prolonged. This is one of the reasons why international rivalries can last for a long time without a change in momentum. Yet Sweden and Finland pursued military non-alignment and restraint towards Russia for years. In Finland, for example, accommodating Russia during the Cold War through the policy of Finlandization meant that there was virtually no negative coverage in the media of the former enemy.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.