The country without a past: the Janus face of Finnish neutrality

/// Yearbook of Finnish Foreign Policy

Book review: Alpo Rusi (ed.), Ei enää erityistapaus – Suomen kansainvälinen asema kylmän sodan jälkeen, (No longer a special case – the international position of Finland after the Cold War), Porvoo: WSOY 2003, 314 pages.

Dr Alpo Rusi has edited a collection of articles under the title No longer a special case – the international position of Finland after the Cold War (Ei enää erityistapaus – Suomen kansainvälinen asema kylmän sodan jälkeen). The Pact of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union rendered Finland a special case in the post-war period up to 1992. [:]

The end of the Cold War precipitated an identity crisis for Finland. As President Mauno Koivisto unfashionably concluded at the time, joining the EU was tantamount to a decision on the security of the nation. Ten years later, politicians and public alike are debating the participation of Finland in the newly emerging security structures – the EU defence plans and an eventual Finnish NATO membership. The political consensus is that the latter is not an issue under the present circumstances, but the new emphasis is that it is “a serious option”. Rusi’s book enriches the reader’s understanding of how the country and its citizens might now position themselves internationally in the current political climate.

It is now over a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several of the contributors to the book have called for an “Auf-arbeitung” of the special way in which Finland organised its relations with the Soviet Union and its socialist allies during the Cold War, a process which was euphemistically dubbed “Finlandisation”. It remains to be seen whether politicians will finally have the courage to help conduct proper research into the dark side of relations with their big neighbour.
Large sections of both the Finnish state and Finnish society were permeated by the peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. It was, in effect, a mixture of fear and opportunism under the cloak of “friendship”. Besides politics, it also pervaded scientific circles, the media and the economy. As Dr Martti Häikiö shows in his article, the success story of  “Nokia-land” is, by the side of the market deregulation, investments in research and development, and various forms of governmental support, a result of the fruits of this special relationship. It may not be common knowledge that the morphing of the corporation from a manufacturer of rubber boots and cables into a mighty force in IT technologies was greatly enhanced by the export of large numbers of switchboards to the Soviet Union.

In his contribution, Unto Hämäläinen, a senior Helsingin Sanomat journalist, has studied the main principles and policies of a long succession of Finnish governments in order to shed light on how “the Janus face of Finnish neutrality” changed over time. As Max Jakobson, an influential, high-ranking Finnish diplomat of many decades, put it, the messages relayed to the west and east were slightly different. While it was important to prove to the west that Finland was no mere satellite, the Soviets were told that the country remained neutral, friendly and fully committed to the obligations of the mutual Pact.

Jakobson himself was at the upper echelons in the Foreign Ministry which, having gained the confidence of the President, was able to control the definitions and formulations of the foreign policy chapters. One can see how these civil servants could, particularly in the 1960s, ensure that Finland did not define its foreign policy entirely in relation to the Soviet Union. This irritated the Soviets so much that they were determined to diminish the influence of this group of civil servants in Finland. By 1977 the Soviet Union attempted – but failed – to delete all references to neutrality in the joint declarations. This situation dragged on into the late 1980s, so when President Gorbachev unexpectedly defined Finland as “a neutral Nordic country” in his speech in Finlandia Hall in Helsinki in the autumn of 1989, the political elite were stunned.

As it was the president alone who could guarantee the national security of the country after the war, the government was only allowed to participate in foreign policy by degrees. Little by little the foreign policy chapters got longer. Now even the political parties were able to have a hand in creating them, to the extent that the civil servants in the foreign ministry, according to another senior diplomat, had to read the results of “the work of amateurs” in the newspapers. Somewhat surprisingly, the growing influence of the political parties adopted a more Soviet-friendly style. The centre and left parties had, of course, very strong ties with the Soviet Union. 

It is now apparent that tensions existed with regard to foreign policy even during the Cold War, and that various lines emerged as a result. Sami Moisio has studied how those lines survived the turmoil of 1989–1992 and reappeared in the process of the (West-) European integration in the first half of the 1990s. He defines three “geopolitical world views” which emerged as the Finnish elites were discussing joining the European Communities. Opposed to the membership were the “traditionalists”, who argued along the lines of the Cold War. The most vocal traditionalist was Paavo Väyrynen, the then foreign minister. The “precautionists” had cherished  Finnish neutrality but were now ready to gradually join in the process of integration. President Koivisto and Prime Minister Holkeri represented this orientation. The third category in Moisio’s analysis are the “west-oriented”, who had always been advocates of an alignment with the west wherever possible. Among them were Paavo Lipponen, for instance, and Max Jakobson. Of the three “foreign policy parties” the west-oriented were a genuinely new formation, a product of the room for manoeuvre created by the end of the Cold War. Typically, they were embarrassed by the cool and cautious attitude of President Koivisto towards the question of the independence of the Baltic states, as this was seen as jeopardising the country’s change of image.

Moisio believes that the reactions to the attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991 showed that the tide had turned. However, the present writer is surely not the only one who recalls the Helsingin Sanomat editorial on the day it advised caution when judging the consequences of the coup for Finland. The nation and its elites were reminded that Finland had always been able to adapt to the changes occurring in its big neighbour. But one long era had now drawn to a close, and after an uninhibited debate, the country duly joined the European Union.

The divisions have continued – not surprisingly – in the thinking on how intimately Finland should participate in the EU common security and defence policy, and as a possible consequence, in NATO. A Soviet ambassador to Finland, Yuri Deriabin, has recently quite literally tried to revive the Cold War divisions of  Finnish foreign policy –  from the Russian “traditionalist” perspective. According to Deriabin, Russia would not turn a blind eye if its western neighbour did indeed join NATO.1

In reality, the evolution of Finnish security policy while a member of the European Union has followed the  cautious school of thought: gradual conversion of neutrality to military non-alignment and progression to participation in the EU security and defence policy. Not unlike the Cold War era, politicians have made an art out of defining Finnish security, the dual aim being to be aligned without losing the status of non-alignment. The key EU foreign policy agents have often been quick to remind the Finns that it was at the Helsinki Summit that the major decisions on this new policy dimension were taken.  

While the majority of Finns are stubbornly opposed to NATO membership, most people buy into the notion that membership is, in fact, inevitable. This attitude is so prevalent in Finnish society that there were no major reactions when Paavo Lipponen, the Speaker and former prime minister (1995–2003), during an official visit to Berlin in March 2004, stated his conviction: Finland’s membership of NATO is only a matter of time. This only goes to show how well the Finnish people and its leaders understand one another.

Popular opinion is undoubtedly a contributory factor to the success of the precautionary line of Finnish foreign policy. Many Finns believe that their country has not ceased to be a special case, and that it is a virtue to remain an outsider in the conflicts of other more dominant players. 9/11 has only served to fuel  this sentiment.

Raimo Lintonen’s article explores why President Martti Ahtisaari was requested to act as a peacemaker in a tripartite mission to bring the Kosovo war to an end in 1999, a task which he managed brilliantly. Lintonen points out that inviting Ahtisaari to take on the mission was based on Finland’s dual identity: on the one hand Finland was a non-aligned country outside the conflict, but on the other hand, it had committed itself to the positions represented by the west. Ahtisaari’s mission has been cited both by those who believe Finland should remain non-aligned, as well as those who saw the Kosovo mission as evidence of the virtues of relinquishing the policy of non-alignment.    

Where Rusi fails to give a balanced analysis is when he tries to place the present anti-globalisation movement in the arena of international politics. One might even go so far as to say that he is a hard-boiled proponent of the Finnish “west-oriented” school who has yet to liberate himself from the spectre of the Cold War. According to Rusi, anti-globalisation is largely a belated Marxist reaction in the west. But he goes further: “One can ask if the pacifist anti-globalisation movement with its consequences is to be paradoxically compared with the imperial and militaristic Germany before the First World War.” Rusi, a Pax Americana man, favours the leadership role of the USA as, he claims, “the fundamentally anarchic but global economic system needs political leadership and not merely evening out social injustices”. He dedicates himself to shared sovereignty in the “sensible transatlantic marriage”.

Hanna Ojanen writes on the evolving role of the European Union as a foreign policy actor. Her analysis of the multiple dimensions of the EU’s international role differs from the standard discussion in which the (deficient) military capacity is the focus. In addition to the military, the EU has civil and even normative power, Ojanen says, calling the EU “a normative superpower”. The European Union is a unique actor which has to an extent defined its external policies on the basis of its fundamental principles such as respect for human rights, social justice, democracy and rule of law.

Hanna Ojanen perhaps shows more understanding than Alpo Rusi of the new critical participants of world politics. According to Ojanen, the anti-globalisation movements could even be convinced about the usefulness of the European Union if it succeeded in committing the United States to multilateral politics. From the Finnish point of view it would also be particularly useful to try to integrate Russia into the Union. Ojanen writes that it is once again time for the EU, with its policy of shared sovereignty, to be seen as a model for other regions of the world.

Olli Rehn has performed many political roles alongside his academic career, serving, not least, as an adviser to Prime Minister Esko Aho between 1991 and 1995. He claims that in 1991 the Finnish foreign policy attitude was re-invented as “pre-empt and act”, as opposed to the previous policy of  “wait and see”.  He points out that the basis of the Finnish integration policy was, in fact, created after the Second World War in the form of active foreign trade policy, an imperative for a small country.

According to Rehn, the more cautious foreign policy re-emerged in 1999, finding a voice in the statements of former President Koivisto, who started to criticise the military intervention of the EU and the USA as a means of solving the Kosovo crisis. For Rehn, the embodiment of pre-emptive and active foreign policy is former President Ahtisaari – who even now is one of the relatively few who unreservedly propagates  Finnish membership of NATO. It goes without saying that, for him, President Halonen is a clear-cut representative of the “wait and see” line.

Rehn says that Finland is “a country without a past” –  borrowing in part from film director Aki Kaurismäki. Finland must confront the difficult aspects of its past, otherwise a mental renewal, the prevailing challenge of the country in a world of glob-alisation and integration, will not be possible. Alpo Rusi and his colleagues have produced a good instrument for facilitating such a demanding undertaking.

By Heidi Hautala
Heidi Hautala is a Member of the Finnish Parliament (1991–1995, 2003–), and a former Member of the European Parliament (1995–2003).

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1,, 27 February 2004