For a long time, the Nordic countries saw themselves as sleekly humanitarian, peace-keeping powers. To an unusual degree, the national identities of Sweden and Finland are bound up with their foreign policy: Swedes identify with a centuries-old tradition of neutrality, whereas Finns point to their talent for realpolitik, making the best of their volatile geography, which includes an 830-mile border with Russia. As both countries now formally submit their applications to join the North Atlantic alliance, each of them will forgo this deviation from the European norm. Finland in particular now seems poised to adopt a more standard-issue foreign policy. But at what price?
Since the end of the second world war, Finland’s political elite has nimbly navigated between Russian and western power. In a tight spot, the Finns played their hand with exceptional skill. In the postwar decades, Finland went from being the poorest state in Europe in 1945 to the economic level of the rest of western Europe – and maintained a much more equal society. Now, Finland is abandoning this careful strategy of tacking between two zones of power for a wholesale embrace of the west, as the country hurtles into the Nato alliance.
On the Finnish right, commentators speak of the country finally clinching its identity as a “western” nation with its entry into Nato. Among Finnish liberals, there is talk of improving and reforming the alliance from within, making it less hawkish, with the help of Sweden. In general, there is the sense that a country whose leaders have long had their finger on the pulse of the Kremlin has lost the count. “There used to be the sense: we know these people; they know us,” the Finnish thinker and legal theorist Martti Koskenniemi told me. “But you can’t negotiate with a power that no longer knows where its interests lie. And if the power is more powerful than you are – and becomes in a sense crazy – then membership in Nato becomes reasonable.”
Whether Finland and Sweden will actually be safer in Nato is another question. Their declarations have only drawn a mild rebuke from the Kremlin, which has warned against a military buildup in both countries. Vladimir Putin’s regime has never suggested the possibility of hostilities against either country, with which it has consistently enjoyed cordial relations. Memories of past Russian-Finnish military confrontations suggest that anyone considering about an incursion into Finland should consider medical treatment (Finland has historically been able to mobilise vast swathes of its population; the country also produces its own version of the AK-47, and its elaborate bunker system may make even nuclear weapons less effective against it).
One sensitive point in the Finland-Nato question is that Russians make up the largest minority in Finland. Their main representative organisation has made it clear that it can resolve any of its political issues through the procedures of Finnish politics. But some Finnish officials fear Putin could still use Russian grievances inside Finland as a pretext for hostilities. Perhaps an even more salient pretext is Finland is virtually a member of Nato already. Since 1996, Finland has participated in joint Nato exercises in the Baltic states and Nato missions in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Some Finnish politicians now believe that if they are already de facto members they might as well get into Nato proper before it is too late. Putin could, they argue, use Finland’s quasi-Nato status as a reason to stop real membership from happening.
By joining Nato, Finland appears to be giving up an unusual confidence in its own ability to conduct realpolitik. Finland’s peculiarly delicate foreign policy – balanced between Russia and western Europe – typically goes by the name “Finlandization”. Finlandization was a West German invention, forged by the cold war liberals Walter Hallstein and Richard Lowenthal, who fashioned it as a conceptual bludgeon against Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” in the 1960s. They feared that Brandt’s attempts to open West Germany to more negotiation with the east risked making West Germany into a zone of semi-Soviet influence. Finlandization, in this sense, was almost always a pejorative that implied subservience to a greater power.
But it is a pejorative that most Finns do not recognise in their history. In actual practice, the country benefited from its good relations with the Kremlin and with Europe. “Moscow went so far as to make Finland into an example of what friendly relations with the Soviet Union could bring,” the Finnish sociologist Juho Korhonen told me. In the 1950s, Moscow made a point of sending oil to a Finnish oil refinery and buying back the finished product. “The country’s cold war foreign policy can be usefully thought of as a tango,” says Koskenniemi. “It was two steps forward, one step back.” Meanwhile, Helsinki’s warm relations with western Europe made it increasingly attractive for investment.
With Finland now on the verge of joining Nato, the memory of Finlandization risks being retrofitted into its history as a kind of stumbling detour before the country’s foreordained entry into the west. But this would be a pity for the future shape of Europe. It is not that other countries can pursue a policy of Finlandization; suggestions for the “Finlandization” of Ukraine or Georgia do not quite make sense, since neither are in the position to reap the same advantages. But when Finland’s type of aloof posture becomes unsustainable, when there are no longer any zones of ambiguity in Europe, when the continent becomes a more Manichean space, awash with symbolic politics where more extreme measures are required to prove bona fides, then peace is ever more imperilled.
Few Finnish elites seem to think they will be manifestly safer in Nato, and no one is fooled about the sacredness of Nato’s article 5. “Nato’s defence of its members is an open-ended negotiation process,” Koskenniemi freely admits. He sees Finland’s entry into Nato operating at the level of appearances. “It’s not that we were very insecure yesterday, and will be very secure in Nato tomorrow,” he says. “It’s that this is a negotiation with a country that can no longer negotiate, and so Nato membership helps clarify our position to them.” But Koskenniemi is fully aware that with Nato membership, another striking feature Finland once exhibited to the world will recede. The very possibility of a state going its own way in Europe now seems slightly more distant.
Thomas Meaney is a fellow at the Max Planck Society in Göttingen