Finnish foreign policy: a brief intro

The Finns hold a unique position between East and West, and are also active in EU and global matters.

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Finland has always possessed a fascinating and unique foreign policy because of its proximity to Russia. More recently, the Finns have emphasised an active profile in the EU and in global challenges. Hiski Haukkala makes this detailed topic surprisingly easy to read.

To make a long story short, a state’s foreign policy can be seen to have at least three functions. First, it is a set of actions that a state and its machinery undertake on behalf of a nation to promote and protect its interests using all the instruments it can muster. This can take the form of competition or, as is increasingly case in the contemporary world, cooperation with other actors.

Second, a foreign policy is used to signal intents: the speeches and diplomatic messages from any given state are meant not only to be deciphered but correctly understood in other capitals and by the general public. Increasingly, the role of public diplomacy is coming to the fore in all aspects of foreign policy and Finland is no exception.

Third, in addition to interacting with other countries, a foreign policy can also entail changing the very parameters within which such interaction takes place to begin with. For obvious reasons, this has traditionally been the prerogative of Great Powers. For example, in the aftermath of World War II the United States sought to create a new international order in the West based on multilateral international institutions. In a similar vein, the US emphasis on promoting democracy in the “Greater Middle East” in early 2000s can be seen as the latest attempt at devising new rules of the game internationally.

Finnish way of life

Finnish President Urho Kekkonen (foreground, right) greets US President Gerald Ford on July 29, 1975. Leaders of 35 countries arrived to sign the Final Act of the European Security Conference Summit in Helsinki.

Finnish President Urho Kekkonen (foreground, right) greets US President Gerald Ford on July 29, 1975. Leaders of 35 countries arrived to sign the Final Act of the European Security Conference Summit in Helsinki.Photo: Lehtikuva

Like any country, Finland has a set of priorities that it seeks to promote – you can call them national interests if you like. The obvious priority is the protection of national security, or what could more pompously be called “the preservation of the Finnish way of life”. Yes, there is indeed such a way of life, and it includes much more than visiting the sauna twice a week. In essence, it means safeguarding the republic and its political institutions.

But in the 21st century security is, more and more, framed in terms of individuals, and Finnish foreign policy is no exception. So it’s increasingly concerned with the wellbeing and safety of Finnish citizens, or human security. This emphasis was highlighted in the aftermath of the tragic tsunami in Southeast Asia in December 2004, when some Finns were angry with their government for not protecting and helping the survivors better in their distress on the other side of the globe.

We should bear in mind that Finland is a small country. With a population of 5.3 million it is not exactly a major powerhouse in the global games of brinkmanship. Finland is clearly constrained in its ability to effect change on the wider political and normative structures in the world.

Rule-based world

This is not such a damning conclusion, however. The 21st century seems a rather safe era for small countries like Finland. Although the persistent problems, for example, in agreeing to a new post-Kyoto treaty concerning greenhouse emissions, might be frustrating at times, it is a far cry from the cynical balance of power of the 19th century, which once led German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to remark how the great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood.

Keeping this perspective in mind, it might not come as a big surprise that at the end of the day the biggest international agenda that Finland might have is essentially a rather conservative one: It’s about keeping what you have got while gently pushing for changes in the margins that would preserve and enhance the manoeuvring room of Finland and other small countries.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (right) and Finnish President Urho Kekkonen sign a programme for trade and the economy at the Kremlin on May 18, 1977.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (right) and Finnish President Urho Kekkonen sign a programme for trade and the economy at the Kremlin on May 18, 1977.Photo: Hans Paul/Lehtikuva

In a sentence, the Finnish agenda could be summed up as the promotion of a rule-based world where the power of the strong is constrained by effective multilateral institutions. This is the lesson that can be drawn from the Finnish history: When the power of the strong is constrained by common norms and institutions, manoeuvring room for small countries is also the greatest. Unfortunately the strong do not always want to be constrained, and one way of accounting for the international politics of the last 300 years is to see it as constant ebb and flow between two polar extremes: common norms and values on one hand and the cold logic of power politics on the other.

In this respect, the fallout from the recent severe global economic crisis has been followed with some concern in Finland. Some have seen it ushering in a new era of multipolarity where Great Power politics will hold sway and small countries will once again be pushed to the margins. Obviously, such a development would not be to the Finns’ liking. If anything, recent developments have only made Finland an even keener promoter of multilateralism and rule-based world order than before.

Let’s touch upon some key issues in contemporary Finnish foreign policy: the role of European integration, relations with Russia and the growing role of a wider global agenda. But before that, it might be a good idea to say a few words about the overall post–cold war setting of Finnish foreign policy.

The cold war ends

It’s fair to say that almost everyone on Spaceship Earth was taken more or less unawares by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was the case with Finland as well, which during the cold war had pursued a policy of neutrality geared at maximising its own freedom to manoeuvre: enabling Western economic integration while seeking to preserve the delicate balance of power with the sometimes overweening Soviet Union. Although not entirely unproblematic, in hindsight the policy can be deemed to have worked fairly well.

The end of the cold war was a systemic shock for Finland, too. The lucrative trade with the Soviet Union collapsed (although painful in the short term, this turned out to be a blessing as it forced the Finns to become much more competitive and innovative on the world markets).

The old maps of international politics that had served rather well became obsolete almost overnight. In the post–cold war period Finland pursued a new foreign policy course by relinquishing neutrality and replacing it with not being a member in any military alliance, and taking up European integration in full, an option that had been impossible during the cold war due to the political implications in the East.

Maximising international influence

In essence, the name of the game during the last two decades has been Finland maximising its international influence. In practice this has meant securing a seat at the right tables. Admittedly, identifying exactly what the right tables are has not been entirely straightforward, as the perpetual debate about whether or not Finland should seek to join NATO shows. Nevertheless it is the European Union that has become the main forum for Finland in terms of gaining say in both European and global processes that affect the country.

Participating in peacekeeping: Finnish soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force stand in front of the mountains of Afghanistan in 2006.

Participating in peacekeeping: Finnish soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force stand in front of the mountains of Afghanistan in 2006.Photo: Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva

In the EU Finland has sought an active profile, even a place at the very political core of the Union. This has not, however, been an easy task for a new and fairly peripheral member state. In recent years the dynamic “vision thing” of Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen (1995–2003) has been replaced with the more cautious and issue-specific approach of Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen. To be fair, this might also be a reflection of the radical changes in the internal constitution of the Union itself, which has grown over the past five years from a cosy club of 15 to the current pan-European organisation of 27 member states.

Interestingly, it seems that lately Finland has been rediscovering its zest for more Europe. In spring 2009 the government published a report on EU policy that was remarkable in its euro-enthusiasm: According to the report, Finland wants more community competences and a vastly enlarged Europe (including Turkey), and aims at a truly global role for the Union.

This should not be seen as a surprise, nor should the fact that the report coincided with the deep economic crisis and all the speculation about the advent of a new age of multipolarity be seen as a coincidence: Seeking a stronger Europe is a natural response from the part of a small country like Finland – as an influence multiplier the EU is simply unsurpassed.

Russia and the three security strategies

Despite the westward drift in Finnish foreign policy, Russia has by no means lost its significance. In fact the reverse is the case, as in recent years Russia’s new-found confidence and economic growth has meant that as an economic and political partner it is much more important now that it was 10 or even five years ago. Currently, in stark contrast to most of the 20th century, Russia is seen more as a possibility and a challenge than an outright problem or threat. That said, Russia’s development still holds several unanswered questions that could spell trouble for Finland in the future.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) presents a book to Finnish President Tarja Halonen during informal talks in Sochi on August 11, 2009.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) presents a book to Finnish President Tarja Halonen during informal talks in Sochi on August 11, 2009.Photo: Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Lehtikuva

According to Finnish scholars Tuomas Forsberg and Tapani Vaahtoranta, Finland can basically be seen as having three different security strategies vis-à-vis Russia. First, strategy of balancing: Russia is too strong a factor in northern Europe and therefore its military presence must be balanced. This is done, firstly, by having a credible defence capability, as the recent government white paper on security and defence policy has put it.

However, keeping the difference in relative capabilities between Finland and Russia in mind, this might not be enough. Therefore the presence of both the EU and the US in one form or another in the region is needed. Especially the continued presence of the US has been seen as indispensable. So Finnish foreign policy contains some fragments of classical balance-of-power thinking, at least when it comes to Russia.

Second, the strategy of not provoking Russia: This is rather self-evident. Finland seeks to avoid confrontation with its neighbour. One example is the avoidance of the issue concerning the territory of Karelia – an area that was annexed by the Soviet Union in the Peace Treaty of Paris in 1947. Another is the fact that the questions pertaining to the hard end of the security spectrum are often excluded from Finnish foreign policy agenda altogether.

Avoiding the issue of NATO membership can be seen as the case in point. Instead, Finland has pursued the policy of not being a member in any military alliance, although at times it is really a line drawn in water, with Finland being an integral part of the EU’s military crisis-management processes and currently taking part in NATO-led operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Finally, Finland seeks to promote policies in the North, such as the Northern Dimension, that strictly exclude the realm of hard security and seek multilateral solutions to a host of soft-security–related threats instead. Indeed making sure that the EU and Russia are on each others’ good sides is one of the key aims of Finnish European policy.

Taming the Russian bear

Finally the strategy of strengthening norms and institutions: Finland basically seeks to “tame” the Russian bear once and for all, thus eradicating its historical security dilemma. This strategy, and indeed the very core of the Finnish foreign policy, is driven by the democratic peace theory according to which liberal democracies do not fight wars against each other. Therefore Finland has sought to support the democratisation of Russia while seeking to tie it with many multilateral bonds into the Western security community: the EU, regional councils in the North, the OSCE, Council of Europe, WTO, perhaps even NATO, are all tools that are seen as useful in domesticating the Russian bear.

To be sure, the brief but hot conflict between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 put a dent in Finnish optimism. It showed that European security architecture is far from foolproof and that the issue of lingering mistrust is still very much present. That said, the Finnish analysis seems to be that there can be no substitute to the well-established principles and practices developed for European security during the past four decades: reinvigoration, not drastic reconstruction, would seem to be the order of the day for Finland.

Global norms for good governance

To make a generalisation, the strategy of strengthening international norms and institutions is the essence of Finnish foreign policy, not only in bilateral and regional level but also globally. The tradition has its roots in the cold war era when Finland, to paraphrase then-President Urho Kekkonen, saw itself more as a doctor than a judge in international crises.

Tarja Halonen and her Tanzanian counterpart Benjamin Mkapa talk at a meeting of the Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democracy. From 2002 to 2008 the Process gathered stakeholders from all over the world to identify ways to improve global governance.

Tarja Halonen and her Tanzanian counterpart Benjamin Mkapa talk at a meeting of the Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democracy. From 2002 to 2008 the Process gathered stakeholders from all over the world to identify ways to improve global governance.Photo: Helsinki Process Conference

This rhetoric notwithstanding, in reality the bipolar superpower constellations often resulted in a highly constrained freedom of action for Finland. But in the post–cold war era these constraints have largely disappeared and Finland has sought to be a good global citizen in earnest. This has been the case with the so-called Helsinki Process, in which President Tarja Halonen has, together with the President of Tanzania, sought to take the lead in devising new rules for global governance. Finland is also a staunch supporter of the United Nations and other multilateral management of global challenges. Finland has thrown its hat in the ring to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2013–14.

At first sight, the idea of Finland as the vanguard for global morality might seem to be a pipe dream. Former Finnish diplomat Keijo Korhonen once quipped how the peaceful coexistence of a lion and a lamb can only be guaranteed by introducing a fresh lamb at regular intervals. This is indeed how we have been used to thinking about world politics and foreign policies.

Although a world of global justice, equality and wellbeing may seem like a distant prospect at times, it is nevertheless one worth aspiring to. Perhaps the fact that a country like Finland can now find itself in a position where it has the luxury to devote a considerable amount of its energies to these issues speaks volumes about today’s world and the progress already achieved.

Hiski Haukkala is a special adviser at the Unit for Policy Planning and Research at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official Finnish positions.

By Hiski Haukkala, March 2010

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