In his recent response to my article “Democracy and human rights under threat in Scandinavia?,” Dr. Lyal S. Sunga criticized some of my observations and conclusions, reiterating the mainstream view that Sweden and Finland should join the NATO alliance.

I criticized the idea that Sweden and Finland should join NATO, as well as the argument that this needs to be done because of the threat these countries are facing, since no credible evidence has been presented that the security situation for these countries has so dramatically changed for the worse over the past months. For example, the existence of plans to invade Sweden or engage in other types of activities that would constitute a substantial security threat for the country would represent such evidence. Dr. Sunga dismisses my criticism by pointing that “Russian Federation invaded its own sovereign and independent neighbour, Ukraine, against a background of persistent degradation in structural European security, caused by Russia itself.” “If Russia can invade Ukraine — a NATO partner country, like Finland and Sweden — which other country could figure next on the list?” asks Dr. Sunga rhetorically.

The first problem with this statement is that a sheer speculation “what if…” is offered as evidence. We are told that it is reasonable to expect that Russia will continue attacking other countries that are not in NATO, since it already attacked Ukraine, and therefore, as a preemptive measure, those countries that are still neutral should rush to join the military alliance which is hostile to Russia. Unless there is something ontically different about Russia, we should be able to apply the logic Dr. Sunga proposes as a principle, and not just in this particular case. When, for instance, the US, together with its allies, invades an internationally recognized country (e.g. Iraq), following the logic proposed by Dr. Sunga, we should ask “who’s next?,” and neutral countries should rush into a military alliance which is hostile to the invading power. Does this mean that all the countries in the Middle East that were not in NATO, should have rushed to join the Collective Security Treaty Organization led by Russia in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq? When the US-led NATO alliance attacked Yugoslavia in 1999, following the same logic, all European countries that were outside of NATO at that moment should have asked “who’s next?,” and should have rushed into CSTO in order to safeguard their security? Is this a reasonable position?

Dr. Sunga is right that “Russia has launched provocative aerial and naval incursions into Swedish territory,” but provocative and intruding activities of powerful countries are, unfortunately, an all-too-familiar phenomenon, which of course, does not justify them. One should remember, for instance, that, following the reports, the US conducted surveillance of cellphones of top-level politicians, including the German chancellor. When this happens to allies, one can only imagine what is the approach toward the governments that are not perceived as that friendly or obedient. Not to mention other types of sovereignty breaches, coupled with major human rights violations (such as organizing illegal detention camps to which I referred in the initial article). If those provocations and intrusions, coming from the US, Russia or any other mighty state, are taken as a sufficient ground to justify joining a military alliance which is an enemy to the intruding state – then it is a high time for many European countries, Germany included, to rush to apply for a membership in CSTO, or seek a military partnership with China, for instance. Is this a reasonable position?

Dr. Sunga is absolutely right that the “invasion and brutalization of Ukraine is not just a Ukrainian issue, nor even solely a European issue, but a serious break of international law of concern for the whole world.” No less important, for Europe and the world, are numerous other invasions and destructions, done by NATO members or the alliance as a whole, to which I referred in my article, but which Dr. Sunga chose to ignore. He is also right that “the security of a country… is not a bubble separate and distinct from the security of its neighbors.” However, we are still left without any argument which would demonstrate how this leaving of the neutral status would increase Finnish or Swedish security? In fact, following the logic of the argument, one could claim that Finnish, Swedish or, for that matter, Ukrainian security, would be strengthened to a significant extent if they joined the Russia-led CSTO. If security is the sole concern, and if it gets divorced from other important political issues (such as the question of what kind of society do we want to live in, does democracy and human rights matter, etc.) one could make an argument that the best way for countries that perceive that their security is under threat by Russia is to join CSTO. I am not sure that Dr. Sunga, or most people in these countries would find this a reasonable position, and for a good reason (they would immediately become the potential enemy-targets of NATO).

This is precisely why promoting neutrality instead of joining this or that aggressive military alliance is, to my mind, a much better idea, and a path toward more sustainable security.

I will refrain from commenting the sections in which Dr. Sunga polemicizes with Putin, since these are in no way related to my text, and do not even contain any merit for the major topic discussed both in my original article and in Dr. Sunga’s response. Instead, I will comment on Dr. Sunga’s remark that NATO has a “controversial record in bombing Kosovo,” “problematic security assistance mission in Afghanistan” and “abusive involvement in Libya” as “legally and morally dubious actions.” This is a strangely generous qualification of large-scale aggressive military interventions that led to major atrocities. Also strange is Dr. Sunga’s comment that “none of this can possibly excuse President Putin and his government” – a comment whose purpose remains unclear, since nobody in this discussion claimed anything of that sort.

Dr. Sunga dismisses my concern about the speed with which the Swedish and Finish governments are rushing to join NATO as “overblown,” since these countries “have been cooperating closely with NATO through joint exercises, and contributing to peacekeeping missions and information sharing, since they joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994.” True. So have other countries. Russia also cooperated with NATO, most notoriously within the “Partnership for Peace” program. How is this cooperation a demonstration that the decision to join NATO has not been made hastily, without a proper democratic procedure and legitimacy? We are, again, left without an answer. Why there hasn’t been a proper public discussion about the issue as a basis for a referendum or at least a new parliament so that the parties could clearly voice their positions on this issue before they are given legitimacy to decide on it? Why have democratic procedures become such a threat to many Western governments, not only to Putin’s regime? Is it because of the possibility that a referendum might fail? This was the case in (North) Macedonia, when, despite the lack of a clear majority in favor of joining NATO, the government decided otherwise. Montenegrin government, probably out of the fear that the majority would have said “no,” did not even dare to conduct a referendum, but the country joined NATO nevertheless. So much about the idea how countries are supposed to “freely decide” on whether they should join a military alliance or not. People seem to often be perceived as an obstacle to a democratic process – the way many elites understand it.

Now, I do not doubt that, if there were a referendum in the current atmosphere, the majority of Swedish or Finnish citizens would vote in favor of joining NATO. That is what the polls suggest – the polls that Dr. Sunga cited but seems to have mistaken them for an instrument of democratic decision-making. However, we do not know what the result of such a referendum would have been, had there been a free and open public discussion, in which pro- and anti- arguments could have equally been represented, in an atmosphere required by a democratic procedure, and without a heavy media propaganda which disproportionately promotes one position.

Dr. Sunga concludes his response with another, ex-cathedra statement, for which no support is given: “Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO will not erode human rights, democracy, or the rule of law in those countries. To the contrary, it will strengthen sovereign independence and solidify human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Sweden and Finland.” Because? Because we say so.

It seems that there is a need, evident among many intellectuals, to construct black and white image of reality, so that in the presence of the crimes conducted by Putin’s government, there needs to be an (imagined) paradise of justice and democracy incarnated in the military alliance which is hostile to Russia. This would explain the motivation behind the downplaying of the scale and horrors of aggressive military campaigns conducted by many Western governments and NATO as such. I don’t see that this is a helpful strategy in promoting justice, freedom or democracy. Let alone understanding. All we are left with are false alternatives, and the reiteration of standard pro-NATO litanies.

*I am grateful to the Press Project for publishing this response, which Australian ABC refused to publish – even though both the original piece and Dr. Sunga’s response appeared on ABC’s website.

Davor Džalto is Professor of Religion and Democracy at the University College Stockholm. He is author of Beyond Capitalist Dystopia: Reclaiming Freedom and Democracy in the Age of Global Crises.