October 7, 2013

Sitting on the Fence

As a consummate politician, the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö chose an appropriate venue for explaining his views on NATO. His audience was the gathering of Finnish ambassadors at their annual August meeting, and the place was the venerable Finlandia Hall in Helsinki. The timing of his remarks was hardly an accident. The following week he was due to meet with President Obama in Stockholm, to be followed by a meeting with President Putin in late September.

07.10.2013, Pauli Järvenpää

As a consummate politician, the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö chose an appropriate venue for explaining his views on NATO. His audience was the gathering of Finnish ambassadors at their annual August meeting, and the place was the venerable Finlandia Hall in Helsinki.  The timing of his remarks was hardly an accident. The following week he was due to meet with President Obama in Stockholm, to be followed by a meeting with President Putin in late September.
President Niinistö’s remarks are so important that they are worth citing at length: “Dissatisfaction with our current NATO policy – consisting of close cooperation with NATO and the potential of applying for membership at some point – often appears in two different ways. Viewing this as sitting on a fence, one way is to think we should be quick about jumping over the fence, while the other is to think we should not have climbed it in the first place – or at least there was no point to it.”
Then he continued: “I happen to think that being on top of the fence is quite a good place to be. Our present position serves our interests well at this point in time, taken overall. We have freedom to take action, we have choices available, and we have room to observe and to operate. We are not pulled one way or another. And as one of my distinguished predecessors warned, nothing must be done ‘in timeless time’ – at an abstract level, without a sense of the situation and the moment. Finland decides on her position and her direction herself, in accordance with her interests and acknowledging the context that history may place us in at any given time.”
He concluded by arguing that: “This policy we follow is much more than just sitting around. Our NATO co-operation is versatile, and also directly serves the development of our own defense capacity. Participation in Iceland’s air surveillance carried out by NATO, to be launched next year, is an example of this.”
To summarize, as far as the Finnish president is concerned, Finland now enjoys the best of all possible worlds: it is satisfied with the present level of cooperation with NATO; it sees no reason to change its policy in the near future; and it prefers not to rock the boat in its relationship with Russia, a country that has clearly warned Finland of consequences should it start moving towards membership.
In other words, “in the context that history now places Finland”, the best option, according to the Finnish president, is to sit on the fence.
This all is disappointing news to those Finns hoping for fresh ideas – perhaps even a new direction on NATO – after the 12-year presidency of Tarja Halonen. Only a fool would have expected a quick fix, given that public support in Finland for joining the Alliance is hovering just below 30 per cent; nonetheless, many dared to think that the new president would encourage discussion and even lead a debate that over time would inform and educate the Finnish population, encouraging it to accept membership in NATO, just as it has with other Western organizations, such as the OECD, the Council of Europe, and the European Union.
Unfortunately, the president has chosen not to do so – quite the contrary. Moreover, it is also somewhat perplexing why he chose to frame his arguments the way he did. Past discussion on NATO has spawned many erroneous myths in Finland, and now in his speech the president seemed to give his weighty political support to many of them.
Let’s take a look at some of the points he made:
First, while it is doubtless true that as a fence-sitter Finland enjoys full freedom of action, it does not hold true that as a NATO member it would be somehow hamstrung in its actions. Members are fully sovereign nations – if in doubt, ask the French – and free to make any defense arrangements they choose, or take any action they wish. What unites them is solidarity; that is to say, their common interest in working together on sharing the burden of maintaining security and national defense, and, as a last resort, in providing assistance to each other should any one of them become the target of an armed attack. This latter interest is embodied by their solemn commitment to participate in collective defense, “by taking forthwith, individually, and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force”, as stipulated in Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty.
That is the core commitment of the Alliance members to each other, and it is something from which a country will simply not benefit, if it chooses to sit on the fence.
Second, there is no automatic response required of NATO members on any specific issue. All decisions in NATO are taken on a consensus basis after long, often exhausting, democratic debates; and each member has a total, unchallenged veto power over any decision. If all members do not agree, no NATO decision will be reached. As a rule, acceptable compromises are found, as members tend to share the same values and interests. Of course, those who choose to stay outside the Alliance forfeit their opportunity to participate in members-only discussions and to influence NATO decisions.
Third, it is the small and weak members in particular who tend to benefit from being members of NATO. They have exactly the same rights as the larger and more powerful member countries, and for reasons of solidarity their views are carefully listened to. For example, one needs to go no further than to Estonia – which pushed the Alliance to draft and approve proper Article 5 defense plans for their country – or to Iceland, which obtained air policing coverage from Alliance fighters after taking the issue to NATO for consideration.
Fourth, in Finnish discussions on NATO membership one often hears an argument that joining the Alliance will be fast and easy, “a quick jump over the fence”. It is quite sobering, however, to remember that it took the better part of a decade before Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary were able to complete their membership negotiations in 1999, and even longer for the Baltic countries to complete their membership path by 2004. In purely military terms such a country like Finland will no doubt fit in comfortably, after almost two decades of being a reliable member of the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace program. Yet, one  should not lose sight of the fact that negotiating a membership in the Alliance is above all a political process. In the best of times it will take years, and at the end of that long process, an application must be individually approved by all 28 current members’ parliaments. Last but not least, NATO will surely not be interested in new members if the membership application comes during a period of heightened tensions. In that situation, the options of a committed “fence-sitter” will be strictly limited.
Fifth, while NATO is indeed a consensus-based organization that offers a common solution to its members on how to organize collective defense, it is also much more than that. It offers its member countries a forum for various levels of partnership, dialogue, and cooperation, e.g., in civil emergency planning, energy security, cyber defense, and crisis management. It also provides opportunities for advanced education, training, and exercises – to name just a few of NATO’s ways of adapting to changed circumstances and modern needs. Moreover, not all of these programs are open to partner countries.
Finally, perhaps the most vital question for a prospective NATO member will be the following: would it be better for it to be a member in the Alliance if a military crisis breaks out, or would the membership in NATO instead act like a magnet that would draw a military attack upon it?
During the Cold War, the Finnish answer was clear: our own national defense had to be credible enough not to leave room for speculation. A potential attacker would need to be convinced that Finland would in all circumstances be able and willing to guard her territory against any and all military encroachments.
Our own military capability was then backed up by a strong Sweden. Today, that situation is radically different. Over the past decade and a half, Sweden has built down its national defense to the extent that its military capabilities can now be seriously questioned. The situation is perhaps still somewhat better in Finland, but it is a fact that unless we get considerably more resources in the second half of this decade, we simply cannot maintain the credibility of our national defense.
It is perhaps ironical that the Finnish and Swedish national defense policies and strong national defense postures that stabilized the security situation in northern Europe during the Cold War are now doing just the opposite: their credibility is now in serious doubt, and therefore the Finnish and Swedish military contributions no longer produce stability but rather instability.
Membership in NATO for Finland and Sweden would bring back the military credibility that is now quickly fading away. Hostile powers are more likely to attack a country whose abilities are doubtful than one who can draw on the collective defense commitments of an entire 28-member Alliance. For example, were both Finland and Sweden members of NATO, an attempt to take over Gotland or vital parts of the southern Finnish shoreline would not be only a matter for Sweden or Finland but for the Alliance as a whole. In an escalating crisis, Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO would thus have a strong stabilizing effect in the whole of northern Europe.

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