May 17, 2013

Finland and NATO: Inching Towards Membership?

Last week the Finnish Parliament debated the 2012 Defence White Book. It was to be a formal, well-choreographed discussion, with the Kokoomus-led six-party majority government already firmly lined up behind the text. But then something happened: a question was raised as to whether or not Finland could still be called a militarily non-aligned country.

Last week the Finnish Parliament debated the 2012 Defence White Book. It was to be a formal, well-choreographed discussion, with the Kokoomus-led six-party majority government already firmly lined up behind the text. But then something happened: a question was raised as to whether or not Finland could still be called a militarily non-aligned country.

This does not perhaps sound like a terribly pertinent question anywhere else, but in the Finnish context it certainly is. Words do matter in Helsinki, and the words used to describe Finnish foreign and security policy are particularly loaded with meanings. As the excitement level of Finnish NATO debate over the last two decades could be politely described as tantamount to watching paint dry, challenging one of the principles of Finnish NATO policy amounts to at least a tremor, if not an earthquake.

The question was asked by Timo Soini, Chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee, who is also leader of Perussuomalaiset (True Finns Party), which in the 2011 parliamentary elections more than quadrupled its previous totals, earning about 19 % of the popular vote, and which in recent polls continues to challenge Kokoomus, the Social Democrats and the Centre for the largest party in Finland. It is not totally inconceivable that Soini’s party could finish first in the next elections, slated for 2015, thereby making him prime minister of the country.

Soini answered his own question in the negative: Finland can no longer call itself a militarily non-aligned country, and to continue to do so will only hurt its national interests. Through its efforts with the Nordic and Baltic countries in national defence cooperation (NORDEFCO), through the European Union’s security and defence agenda, and especially through the various Partnership programmes with NATO, Finland is ever more tightly integrated in a network of mutual defence cooperation. It may not be a member of a military alliance, but it no longer is militarily non-aligned.

While Soini stopped short of calling for NATO membership for Finland, in its intervention the Kokoomus Party (represented by Pertti Salolainen, the Vice Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee) went as far as noting how beneficial for Finland the Alliance membership would be. As it is, Kokoomus happens to be the only political party in Finland whose members support NATO membership, albeit only by a slight majority.

All of this does not mean that there will be an immediate change of policy on NATO in Helsinki – far from it – but questions like Soini’s might at least help open serious discussion on the issue.

But why is the NATO issue such a difficult one for the Finns? To understand why, one needs to understand the Finnish national psyche. For many, it has to do with the way they view the United States and its role as the key member of the Alliance. It is feared that membership in NATO would force Finland to participate in U.S. military ventures all around the globe and to fight America’s wars; in short, to involve Finland in conflicts that a small country should stay out of.

Another fear is the loss of independence. It is noted by the Finns that a huge majority of the NATO members have opted for small professional defence forces. In Finland, on the other hand, military defence is built around vast reserves, called to serve and trained through general conscription. In fact, three out of four young men receive miltary training; thus, if need be, the country could produce a field army of more than a quarter of a million men. Membership in the Alliance, it is feared, would pressure the Finns to change that popular and longstanding practice.

Furthermore, and most importantly, it is widely believed that when the chips are down and when push comes to shove, NATO would not be able or willing to help defend Finland. Just like in the Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939-1940, Finland would be left alone again. If that is so, then it is only through its own efforts that Finland can provide for its security. The fear of being left alone is perhaps the deepest psychological scar in the Finnish national psyche, and the one that is hardest to heal.

It is not because of a lack of information that the Finnish attitudes vis-a-vis NATO are what they are. There have been several comprehensive studies conducted during the past decade (for example the one produced by Ambassador Antti Sierla at the behest of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs as well as two separate studies carried out by the Ministry of Defence) that explain what NATO is and how it functions, but the myths live on, and for many Finns NATO remains a four-letter word.

However, in view of last week’s parliamentary session, NATO membership might well be seriously debated before the 2015 elections.

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