• Non-aligned countries still have a role in the new Europe
  • Non-Alignment and Neutrality from a Nordic Perspective

  • By Antero Eerola | Posted under: Peace and War
  • Tradition has it that back in the good old days the world was much easier to understand. During the Cold War two ideologically hostile camps faced each other over the Berlin Wall, barbed wire fences and mine fields, an Iron Curtain between them and huge war machineries on standby. Between these two camps there were several neutral countries, which for individual historical reasons stayed outside this confrontation.

    During the Cold War, for some of the neutral countries – Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland – the choice of neutrality was motivated by security policy; for others it was a matter of principle and law. As is well known, Switzerland has the oldest tradition of neutrality, already proclaimed in 1684. Switzerland’s neutrality has been recognized at least since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This in part is why the Swiss are not too eager to abandon the neutrality of their country. The neutrality of Austria was confirmed in the so-called Moscow Memorandum of 1955 by the Western allies and the Soviet Union who had occupied the country up to that point. The Austrians defined their neutrality at that time as everlasting (”immerwährend”). They thought that by declaring the country neutral it was possible to regain sovereignty.

    Ireland’s neutrality can be explained to a certain extent by geographical factors. This democratically governed small country at the Western edge of Europe has never felt a need to seek military protection from any nation. Neutrality was the cornerstone in Ireland’s international relations during the whole period of the Cold War. Military non-alignment is still a delicate question in Ireland. In the summer of 2001, the Irish voted down the Nice Treaty of the European Union partly because it included steps towards a common foreign and security policy. The Nice Treaty was approved only in the second referendum, when other EU-countries accepted Ireland’s declaration, which stated that the treaty does not affect its non-alignment.

    However, among Nordic countries, Finland’s and Sweden’s traditional neutrality rests on a different basis. In Sweden it was adopted as a basic line of the country’s foreign policy at the latest in the beginning of 19th century, when Swedes had lost their former province of Finland to the Russian empire in the Finnish War of 1808–1809. In the last century, Sweden’s policy of neutrality successfully kept it out of two world wars. This is why neutrality has grown to be part of Swedish identity. 

    Still, a few violations of this neutrality occurred. Sweden willingly sold steel and iron to Germany in both world wars, and during the Cold War it was secretly committed to co-operation with NATO in the event Europe drifted into a military conflict.

    The roots of Finland’s neutrality date back to the last century. It is often thought that Finland made neutrality the foundation of its foreign policy as a result of having lost the war against the Soviet Union. In fact, Finland had already experimented with neutrality before the Second World War, but the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty of August 1939 and the beginning of the war put an end to this policy. During the war, Finland also tried military alliance with the West, namely with Nazi Germany. But Finland’s experience of participation in this “coalition of the willing” led by Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler was not entirely positive… After the war, Finland adopted a neutrality that differed from that of other neutral countries. One of the cornerstones of Finnish neutrality was the Treaty on Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance signed with the Soviet Union in 1948. According to the first article of the treaty, Finland was to repel on its own soil “any attacks against the Soviet Union by Germany or its allies”. Finland was obliged to defend its territorial integrity by any means necessary and if needed together with the Soviet Union.

    The precondition of military co-operation with the Soviet Union, however, was that both parties would have conjointly and unanimously to determine that a military threat existed. This gave Finland important room for manoeuvre, and the articles of the treaty were in reality never used. Still, Finland’s policy was often described as a “policy of neutrality” or “aimed at neutrality” rather than pure neutrality.

    From Neutrality to Non-aligment

    In the good old days, when Europe was divided into a socialist block led by Soviet Union and a capitalist one led by the United States, being neutral was much easier to understand.

    Fortunately, times have changed for the worse and the good old days will never come back. What we have lost is a world easy to understand, but what we have gained is more security. The threat of a large-scale war has vanished, interdependence between European countries has increased and practically all of Europe has been opened to the free movement and interaction between people.

    The cooling-down period in relations between Russia and the US and bilateral problems between Russia and EU have been understood as a return of the Cold War, but this interpretation is not valid. An ideology that could challenge, let alone have the capacity to subvert, the whole Western system based on liberal market economy, does not exist anymore. On the contrary, the countries of Eastern Europe, including Russia, want to enjoy the fruits of the capitalist system. Rather than being an ideological conflict, the problems in bilateral relations between Russia and Western Europe can better be described as a conflict of interests. This conflict has crystallized on the EU side around questions of supply of energy and on the Russian side around the price it can get from selling oil and gas to the rest of Europe.

    Despite all the changes, militarily non-aligned countries still exist in Europe. Although the old confrontation has ceased almost two decades ago, the same countries which previously declared themselves neutral now describe themselves as militarily non-aligned. The question is why, and non-aligned in relation to whom?

    Clearly, one cannot speak of the old neutrality, because Finland, Sweden, Austria and Ireland, as members of the European Union, participate in the Union’s common security and defence policy. They, as is the case with any EU member, cannot be neutral in a conflict between EU and a third party. Moreover, these four countries, along with Switzerland, participate actively in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.

    Furthermore, in the struggle against terrorism, non-aligned countries are not neutral. Still, they have stayed out of the war on terror led by the United States, although current developments in Afghanistan may change this policy, or might already have done so.

    The essence and definition of non-alignment nowadays centres around not belonging to a military alliance, namely NATO. It is often asked why the non-aligned countries, such as Finland and Sweden, cannot join NATO. This is not the right question. The right question is: why should they? NATO membership would not solve any of the problems, security or any other, that non-aligned countries in the Nordic region are facing. On the contrary, it would create new problems. From this we can conclude that pressure to change the policy of non-alignment in Finland or Sweden, is not based on external security threats but on internal political choices.

    The President and the People as Obstacles to NATO Membership

    Although continuity and national consensus have been the cornerstones of Finland’s foreign and security policy, some new tones were heard in the discussion, when the center-right government, complemented by the Greens, took office in the late spring of 2007. 

    The smaller of the main coalition parties, the conservative National Coalition Party, had already several years previously adopted the position that NATO membership would “clarify and improve Finland’s position”. In addition, conservatives believe that NATO membership would increase Finland’s influence in Europe and strengthen security and stability of Finland and the immediately surrounding area. Still, the conservatives are not waging a campaign in the government for NATO membership, because they know it will be rejected. This is why the National Coalition Party considers NATO membership not “topical”.

    There are actually two main obstacles to Finland’s full NATO membership: the president and the people, which to the great annoyance of the pro-NATO political elite seem to work secretly together in this question. President Tarja Halonen can lean on strong popular opinion in her anti-NATO position, and the people of Finland almost unanimously support their president. According to the latest opinion poll (conducted in mid-July 2007), up to 81 % of Finns support president Halonen. This means that her approval ratings have gone down a bit. It seems that Kim Yong-Il and Vladimir Putin are not the only presidents in the world, who are blessed with populations who unconditionally love their leaders!

    The same Finns who support their president say in one opinion poll after another that they oppose their country’s membership in NATO. This fierce opposition has always increased when NATO, or its principal member the United States, becomes active in its “core business”, in other word, when it goes to war.

    When NATO launched its air campaign in the war in Kosovo in spring 1999, support for NATO membership in Finland sank dramatically. When the coalition led by the US and its main NATO-ally Great Britain invaded Iraq in spring 2003, NATO supporters were only 13 % of the population.

    Finns have well learned the lessons taught by post-war presidents J.K. Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen that the country should always protect itself from being drawn against its will into the conflicts of other countries. Finns especially do not want to be party to a conflict in which Russia is involved. Nevertheless, Russia is the key element of Finland’s defence policy and concrete defence planning.

    Although Finland has preserved its non-aligned status, it has been active in international military crisis management, including under the banner of NATO. Finland has contributed significantly to NATO-operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

    Nevertheless, Finland, unlike Sweden, maintains a traditional defence system based on large-scale territorial defence – i. e. defence of the whole country – and comprehensive conscription which will soon be unique in the whole of Europe. In Finland, over 80 % of the male population still receives military training for 6, 8 or 12 months. The main threat scenario for the defence forces, however, is so-called strategic attack, where a potential enemy tries to paralyse the main functions of the society or eliminate government leadership. In any case, Finnish defence policy is prepared for the highly unlikely possibility of a large-scale war.

    It is often said that generals prepare for wars already fought. In the case of Finland this is especially true. Although points of compass are never mentioned, Finnish defence planning is not based on the possibility of a surprise attack from Sweden, Norway or Estonia.

    New Members Joining the ”Old NATO”

    Quite understandably, Russia is a key element in the discussion over NATO membership in Finland. Russia has been used as an argument for and against NATO. The most primitive arguments in favour of NATO membership propose that Finland join the alliance in order to be protected from the military threat of Russia. Although Russia is not a threat now, it might become one at any moment in future, so the argument goes. The opposing side argues that possible NATO membership would damage relations with Russia, relations that are now good, if not excellent. 

    Although there is much talk of a “new NATO” mostly oriented to international crisis management and rapid-reaction operations outside its territory, the very nature of NATO is still that of a military alliance whose core is collective defence. At least the new members of NATO – especially the Baltic countries – joined the “old NATO” whose identity is made explicit in the fifth article of the North Atlantic Treaty.

    The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – joined NATO to disengage from the influence of Russia and of the Soviet era and to insure that the horrors of Soviet occupation would never return.

    Because Baltic and other ex-socialist countries joined NATO mainly for protection from Russia, it is only natural that Russia should be hostile to NATO’s eastern expansion. If new NATO countries expect NATO guns to point east in a possible conflict with Russia, it is understandable that Russia will take this into account in its own defence planning and is prepared to point its own guns to the west. In principle the same goes for Finland.

    In Finland, the long tradition of understanding Russia’s needs persists. A certain wisdom emerged in our country after the Second World War. The core of this wisdom was that the Russians should not a have the slightest grounds for suspicion that the territory of Finland could be used in military operations against it. At the same time, Finns understood that good relations on a political level would bring huge economic benefit and prosperity to them. This basic relationship has not changed, although after czars and general secretaries, Russia is now ruled by presidents – weak or strong.

    Finns love to think they are experts on Russia, although the attitude of the man on the street can more likely be characterized as prejudiced than expert. Very few Finns speak Russian and the picture of Russia found in the Finnish press is becoming increasingly negative.

    Still, Finland made a courageous move when it chose relations with Russia as a main theme of its presidency in the European Union in the latter half of 2006. Although concrete results where few, the dialogue between Russia and EU continues.

    In this dialogue, Finland, along with other EU-countries, emphasized that the Union should speak to Russia with a unanimous voice. This tactic of one voice was put to a test in the late spring of 2007, when relations between Russia and Estonia deteriorated after the Estonian government’s decision to remove the old Soviet monument of the Bronze Soldier from the city centre of Tallinn.

    When Russian pressure on Estonia increased, the conservative Finnish foreign minister, Ilkka Kanerva, approached his colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany with a letter in which he strongly emphasized the need for the EU to show internal solidarity with Estonia. According to Kanerva, EU-countries ought to give support to a small member country, because if they did not there would be little left the EU’s internal solidarity.

    This particular activity was partly due to Finland’s special relation to Estonia, our kindred nation. On the other hand, Finland was also seeking guarantees of solidarity in the future in the event that Finland becomes the next small country in trouble.

    Still, there are problems of tactics in speaking with one voice. While the EU has many interests in common with Russia, it is also clear that Russia – with which Finland has more than 1300 kilometres of common border – has an economic and political importance to Finland much greater than that of countries like Portugal, Ireland or Malta for instance.

    Non-aligned Finland also has an attitude towards Russia completely different for example from its attitude toward Poland or Estonia, which are mostly seeking vengeance and carrying on a very particular political- historical feud with Russia. This being the case, why should the EU always speak with one voice?

    The other side of the coin is the common idea in the West that Russia is somehow trying to divide the EU by maintaining bilateral relations only with some of the Union’s member countries. In the EU opinions may differ as to whether this is right or wrong, but from the Russian perspective it is understandable. For Russia it is easier to do business with countries like Finland, Germany or Italy, because dialogue is easier with those countries. At the same time the EU contains the above-mentioned countries, which, on their part, are trying to use the EU as a tool to take revenge on Russia.

    The Dispute over Energy is a Dispute About Money

    The problems in EU-Russian relations can most clearly be seen in the question of energy security. Still, dependency is not a one-way street. President Vladimir Putin pointed out at the Lahti EU Summit last autumn, that Russia is actually more dependent on the income it gets from selling oil and gas to the West, than the EU is dependent on Russia’s rich energy resources. 

    The common understanding in the EU-countries is that Russia is using its energy resources as a tool of political extortion towards its neighbours, who are trying to free themselves of its influence. At the same time, there is growing concern that Russia might not be a reliable energy supplier for the EU.

    In the last parliamentary term, the Finnish Parliament’s Committee on the Future named a group of experts to study scenarios for Russia in the next ten years. According to the material collected by the expert group, Russia has for the last ten years subsidised countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) with around 100 billion US dollars by selling them cheaper gas. From a Russian perspective, this makes no sense. It would be as if the Finnish forest industry sold cheaper pulp to Estonia just because Estonians are a kindred people.

    Russia’s motives for raising the price of the oil and gas it sells are mainly tied to money. Russians want more money for their natural resources. This makes possible a higher income level and through that a higher standard of living for the average Russian – and for the elite of course. This is also a way to buy political support for the current regime. The interests of common Russians have nothing to do with a romanticism for the old empire or shady aspirations to re-establish the old Soviet empire. Everyday interests of Russians include travelling, buying a new car, a decent apartment and household appliances. The interests of the Russian political elite are not that different – although their taste might be much more expensive.

    Even if one tries to understand problems in EU-Russian relations from the Russian point of view, the fact remains that the relations have cooled down. This also brings a new perspective to the discussion on the non-alignment of Nordic countries, especially of Finland. If Sweden and Finland were to join NATO, the Baltic Sea would almost become the internal sea of a military alliance. At the same time, Russia would see its traditional gateway to Western Europe shrinking to a small peep hole, and the city of St. Petersburg – whose security has always been vital for Russia – would be surrounded by NATO. As a counter measure, Russia would strengthen its military presence in the vicinity of the Baltic Sea. This would create new confrontations, which Europe, to be honest, does not need.

    Finland, which throughout its whole history lived in the neighbourhood or under the rule of Russia, has learned to cope with great powers, and do so alone if needed.

    In our country there is an understanding that great powers are either completely nonchalant or extremely quick to take offence at outside criticism. Russia is no exception. Russians have made ever more clear that they will not accept any outside advice on how to organize their society. Finns have understood that a better way to turn Russia into an easier neighbour is to integrate it into European cooperation. Constant criticism and efforts to isolate Russia cannot achieve good results. Among friends it is also possible to talk about sensitive issues – like human rights, freedom of press and questions of democracy – but first you have to be friends. As in any human relationship – that of neighbours, friends or married couples – constant nagging and pointing to mistakes does not lead to lasting results.

    As a non-aligned country, Finland’s problems with Russia are not political, but technical, and at most economic by nature. If Finland were to join NATO, there would be new political problems on the agenda. This would not serve anyone’s interests.