Mixed Signals: The Changing Nature of Finland’s Non-Alignment and its Relationship with NATO

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In Finland, the election of a new centre-right coalition government in this past April’s parliamentary elections brought renewed debate over Finland’s position as one of the few remaining European Union states without membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Led by new Centrist Party Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, the coalition brought the discussion to the forefront of the country’s foreign policy agenda, pledging to weigh the potential policy costs and benefits of joining NATO, and releasing a policy memorandum that entertained the ‘option to apply for NATO membership at any time’ over the four-year course of the coalition’s mandate.[1] Although Finland remains – to a certain extent, as will be explored in this article – militarily non-aligned, keeping the sincere possibility of ascension to full NATO membership represents Finland’s aim to further integrate its defence policy with that of the rest of Europe. This policy trajectory effectively reduces the traditional notion of Finnish neutrality and non-alignment down to its sole founding principle: the conscious policy choice of not joining NATO. However, due to the absence of a legitimate cause to overturn the seventy-year precedent set by its policy of military non-alignment, talk of Finland joining NATO is premature for the foreseeable future.

Image courtesy of Julia Velkova © 2011, some rights reserved.

Despite its geographical location on the periphery of Europe, Finland has played a vital role in the European security framework in the post-World War II international system. In 1961, former Finnish Prime Minister Ralf Törngren wrote an article entitled, ‘The Neutrality of Finland’ in the journal Foreign Affairs, in which he explained that Finland’s ability to act as a diplomatic bridge between the great powers of the time – the United States in NATO and the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact – came as a result of Finland’s refusal to align with either aforementioned military alliance.[2] Törngren emphasized that the organizing principle of Finland’s neutrality revolved around the preeminent purpose of foreign policy of small states: ‘the safeguarding of its independence and security.’[3] To safeguard its security, two basic considerations corroborated Finland’s neutral stance: its history and geography. Historically speaking, Finnish politicians, remembering the 108-year rule under the Russian Empire until Finland’s independence in 1918, as well as defeat by two Soviet invasions during World War II, realized that any foreign policy that would guarantee the country’s survival would have to pursue friendly relations with the Soviet Union. Finland further recognized this history and its geographical proximity to the Soviet Union in the 1948 Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, in which Finland agreed to not join any military alliance that Moscow would perceive to be a direct threat. The treaty essentially prevented Finland from joining the precursor organization of NATO, and confirmed Finland’s neutral foreign policy path. Crucially, unlike countries in the Eastern Bloc, Finland’s engagement with the Soviet Union did not come at the price of abandoning, above all, its liberal-democratic political system or its cultural ties with the West. Over time, Finland’s neutral policy allowed the country to culture a high degree of political trust and economic trade with Soviet Union, arguably neither of which was shared by any other states outside of the Eastern Bloc. In addition to primary security concerns, Finland’s neutrality also enabled the country to cultivate a valuable position in the international community as a peace-broker and staunch upholder of international laws. Linked to the basic success and identity of the Finnish state, Finland was able to establish a strong historical precedent as a neutral country.

With the end of the Cold War, Finland’s foreign policy evolved to recognize its historically non-aligned security policy, whilst also avoiding any form of isolation in the post-Cold War world order. In particular, Finland’s integration into the European Union and its deepening engagement with NATO are two areas that reflect this guiding principle of foreign policy. Notably, Finland supported the direction of an EU-wide foreign policy and defence strategy; for example, the creation of the EU’s Common Security Defence Policy (CSDP). Established by the Lisbon Treaty, the CSDP stipulates that EU member states have an ‘obligation of aid and assistance’ in the case of an ‘armed aggression’ on the territory of other EU members.[4] As a member of the EU, and thus the CSDP, Finland – which also retains its own highly developed military – benefits from this mutual defence agreement, which fills the security gap of remaining outside NATO’s mutual defence clause (Article 5).[5] Unlike NATO, the CSDP’s objectives do not specifically stipulate a military-backed defence policy, allowing Finland’s participation to avoid aggravating its neighbour Russia. Taking into consideration its historical ties with Russia, Finland also pursued a closer relationship with NATO without seeking full membership, signing the Partnership for Peace agreement in 1994 – the same year as Russia – a framework through which Finland has participated in NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan. To this extent, as an article published in The Economist points out, Finland is clearly no longer the neutral country it was during the Cold War.[6] However, semantics must not be overlooked: although Finland’s membership in the EU means it is no longer a ‘neutral’ country by any means, Finland has yet to disavow its non-aligned military policy by intentionally choosing to avoid full NATO membership status.

However, Finnish politicians have rightly re-evaluated their post-Cold War foreign policy calculations in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, destabilization of eastern Ukraine, and alleged aggression in the Baltic Sea. Central to this policy rethink, the new legislative coalition signalled for a renewed debate over Finland’s ascension to NATO membership, including an unprecedented investigation into the costs and benefits of membership. This development suggests Finland has a high level of confidence in its foreign policy decisions, and that the country will debate NATO membership regardless of the Russian response. Sticking to previous tactics, Russia has continued to exert pressure on Helsinki to not join NATO; as top Russian lawmaker Andrew Klimov mentioned in May, ‘Finland is doomed to be Russia’s neighbour, and that can’t be changed… Neutrality and peaceful coexistence have worked well for Finland, and I think this will continue.’[7] However, with the Finnish government now appraising the potential for NATO membership, the prospective for Finnish membership largely depends the level of Moscow’s provocation against Helsinki. As of now, reports of Russian submarines in the Gulf of Finland and other violations of Finnish airspace both represent a serious threat, though one which is admittedly mild enough for Finland to respond to on its own, as suggested by Finnish president Sauli Niinistö.[8] Any potentially grave Russian provocation, such as a military build up that directly threatens the independence or security of the Finnish state, will certainly cause Finland to deviate from its policy of military non-alignment. Although relations between Helsinki and Moscow are delicate at present, it must be said that there is no signal that Russia plans to carry out such a high level of provocation. Hence, in the absence of any grave threat to the Finnish state, Finnish foreign policy lacks the impetus to divert from military non-alignment, a policy that has provided the country with several decades of peace, prosperity, and stability.

In the face of Russia’s unpredictable foreign policy, the focus of Finnish foreign policy will remain on safeguarding its security and sovereignty and ensuring a united EU response against Russia’s disregard for international law. In the Cold War, a foreign policy of strict military neutrality best ensured Finland’s security; throughout post-Cold War system, a foreign policy of deep integration with the West – albeit technically staying militarily non-aligned – best guaranteed Finland’s security and prosperity. Both of these foreign policy paradigms draw from Finland’s historical and geographical need to provide Russia with security assurances, and prompting Finland to shun NATO membership. Although Finland must continue to rely first and foremost on its diplomatic efforts to reconcile with Russia, followed by its own security apparatuses, given Moscow’s uncertain and opportunistic actions in the region, Finland would be wise to continue to bolster its cooperation with NATO, but restrain from fully joining NATO in order to avoid aggravating Russia. In effect, the Finnish government’s willingness to debate potential membership in NATO comes at an important time: all policy scenarios must be thoroughly considered in order to prepare Finland for all potential developments in an increasingly unpredictable and fractured geopolitical climate. However, such perceived threats against the Finnish state are not currently dangerous enough to break the historical precedent of remaining outside of the NATO military alliance.


[2] Törngren, Ralf. “The Neutrality of Finland” in Foreign Affairs, v.601, 39. 1960-1961.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://eeas.europa.eu/csdp/about-csdp/lisbon/index_en.htm

[5] http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2013/partnerships-nato-2013/NATOs-neutral-European-partners/EN/index.htm

[6] http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21604586-russia-stokes-fresh-debate-among-nordics-about-nato-membership-what-price-neutrality

[7] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2015/0519/As-Russian-bear-stirs-Finland-reconsiders-its-neutrality

[8] http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/world-int/world-news/finland-in-the-world-press/12721-finland-warns-of-new-cold-war-over-failure-to-grasp-situation-in-russia.html

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