Assessing NATO Membership for Finland: Historical, Regional, and Geopolitical Implications

The panel was organised by Global Politics and Communication MA programme & Helsinki Collegium for Advanced studies on 9 May 2022 in the Collegium. It gathered four high profile historians and a Major General Emeritus together to discuss changes and continuities in Finnish foreign policy in the light of war in Ukraine.
The Panel

The panelists were Professor Juhana Aunesluoma, Professor Jari Eloranta, Professor Tuomas Forsberg, Associate Professor Johanna Rainio-Niemi and Major General Emeritus Pekka Toveri; Dr. S.M. Amadae moderated the panel:

Professor Juhana Aunesluoma challenged the common conception that military alignment is a new development in the Finnish history. Finland, as he points out, has been allied with Germany during the Second World War, signed the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance in 1948, secret military alliance with Estonia in the 1930s, and finally as a part of the EU. Aunesluoma argues that Finland has, in fact, used force against Russia since 2014, as a part of the sanction regime. The EU in general marked a change in Finnish perspective. The policy of neutrality started to dissolve after Finland joined the EU.

The drastic changes in the public opinion was an important topic that the panelists discussed. Professor Tuomas Forsberg was amazed with the change. Russia’s wars in 2008 and 2014 had not induced a similar frenzy for NATO membership. Forsberg wanted to highlight that this change was not irrational and without proper reasons and emotional push, and the public opinion was unlikely to turn around. Aunesluoma was equally surprised and could not recall a time when public opinion had such an influence on foreign and security policy.

One of the issues raised in the discussion was the role of neutrality in Finnish foreign policy. Associate Professor Johanna Rainio-Niemi, a contemporary historian focusing on the role of the smaller European states, analyses comparative differences especially between Austrian and Finnish policies of neutrality. As the discussion touched upon Switzerland, Rainio-Niemi points out that their policy of neutrality is a policy of ambiguity and a balancing act. Switzerland, although having similarities in domestic and institutional structure with Finland, has been enjoying a privileged geopolitical location since the World War II compared to Finland. Furthermore, she pointed out that Finland learned from Switzerland a conscious policy of “Armed Neutrality.”

Possible expenses of a NATO membership were also discussed in the panel. Professor Jari Eloranta did not believe that joining the military alliance would be an economic risk. Furthermore, Eloranta questions the idea of “guns versus butter” – that increased military spending would necessarily be a trade off with social and welfare spending. Rather, based on historical examples, he thought it would be more likely that both of them increased, or at least that social welfare spending would stay about the same. Emeritus Major-General Pekka Toveri argues that NATO membership would be a good financial deal. According to him NATO membership would guarantee better deterrence and defence forces than Finnish forces could alone. In his analysis, Russia’s modus operandi is based on the idea that they should not challenge too large players. Toveri’s estimate is that even 5% of the Finnish GDP would not provide sufficient deterrence.

Speaking as moderator, Dr. S.M. Amadae highlights the undercurrent that marks the reality of the war in Ukraine: nuclear weaponry and the nuclear posture and declaratory policy of the United States and Russian Federation. As one of the goals that the US overtly has is to have military supremacy over Russia, Moscow faces a real security dilemma. Whether this dilemma is “real” in a sense that possible NATO expansion constitutes a brute threat to Russia or if the threat that NATO poses is more of political as Toveri argues in his talk is beside the point. Russia perceives that NATO, with its integration into the US nuclear strategic posture, poses a threat and acts accordingly. If there is no other way out of this conundrum than violence, what is the offramp? Amadae does not question the rationale behind applying to NATO but urges us to take into account this overarching geopolitical perspective. Amadae and Professor Campbell Craig’s article elaborates this topic.


See further insightful discussions from panelists in the links below:

Aunesluoma seeks to bring to the fore a historian’s perspective on changes and continuities in Finnish foreign and defence policies.

Eloranta who queries what we can learn from history and compared Finland in the 1930s and Ukraine in the 2020s.

Forsberg addresses the question of why the public and political opinion changed so rapidly and what does it mean.

Rainio-Niemi discusses the policy of neutrality from a comparative perspective focusing on the smaller European states.

Toveri discusses the military strategy of Russia and the risks and benefits of Finland’s ascension into NATO

The final discussion revolves around several themes, such as the policy of neutrality and the role of public opinion.


Watch the entire panel discussion here