The illusion of walking in step
By Erkki Pennanen
On a television interview programme recently, Speaker of Parliament Paavo Lipponen became unexpectedly effusive in his praise of the government’s activities during the Finnish EU Presidency. Listening closer to what he said reveals that he was also very concerned about the future of Finland’s own security policy line.
Lipponen saw signs in decision-makers of a "NATO allergy" and ending up on a different path than Sweden in attitudes toward the NATO Response Force (NRF). Lipponen feels that it is important for Finland and Sweden to keep moving forward "in step" in foreign and security policy.
In that respect, Lipponen actually only repeated what we have grown accustomed to seeing as true, and as desirable in relations between Finland and Sweden.
It is certainly true that Finland and Sweden continue to swear to the name of being militarily non-allied, and have no intention of joining NATO. On that basis, both have much in common. In that respect we can even say, as Lipponen did, that they are walking in step.
However, it would be better to avoid too much enthusiasm, as it is partially deceptive, or at least very easily temporary.
We must not close our eyes to the fact that Finns and Swedes look at the world through somewhat different eyes. Causes for this might be sought in questions of geography, history - particularly recent history -, the national self-image, and political culture.
Independence Day was celebrated in Finland again, with Finns listening to Sibelius’s Finlandia, watching the film The Unknown Soldier on television again after goodness knows how many times, and lighting candles in windows. Although more than 60 years have passed since the last wars, they have a central role in our national identity.
The willingness of young people to defend the country is high, according to opinion polls, and the status of conscription remains un shaken. Finland maintains one of Europe’s largest reservist armies in case someone - that is, Russia - happens to attack here again some day.
In Sweden, Independence Day is not the same kind of national celebration that it is in Finland. Independence has always been self-evident for the Swedes, while war is something that goes back hundreds of years. Rich Sweden has nevertheless spent much money on national defence, by maintaining its own armaments industry to this very day, extending to the manufacture of military planes.
There is some limit even for a rich country. Sweden has had to scale back its great-power air force, but cutting back on the army has been perceived as easier. The starting point is the view that Sweden is not threatened by an attack by a land army. Contrary to Finland, Sweden has given up on regional defence, scaled back much of its land forces, deciding instead to put great efforts into taking part in international crisis management.
In Sweden, debate on the limits of traditional peacekeeping activities and of "demanding crisis management" has not been as sensitive a matter in terms of domestic politics as it has been in Finland, which might seem surprising from the Finnish point of view. Even though the Asian tsunami was a great shock to the Swedes, and this shock was expressed in powerful criticism of the government, there has been much less debate in Sweden about the prospect of soldiers coming back from crisis management operations zinc coffins than there has been in Finland.
Finland and Sweden are taking part together in the EU’s rapid response forces, in which Finland will be on call from the beginning of next year. A new demarcation issue in both countries has been whether or not to take part in NATO’s rapid response forces, which Sweden and Finland are being asked to join.
Without waiting to hear the government’s opinion, President Tarja Halonen announced a month ago in Jyväskylä, that she does not feel that it is possible for Finland to make a common political commitment to the force. At this stage, taking part in the EU’s rapid action forces is already a sufficiently demanding task. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen has felt the same way.
Halonen’s and Vanhanen’s views can be seen as understandable, and perhaps even wise. In forces operating purely under the NATO flag, the danger of ending up in hotter crisis areas than is now the case would be greater, as Vanhanen said in a newspaper interview on Independence Day.
In this connection it is noteworthy and significant that Halonen’s and Vanhanen’s point of view differs from the Swedish attitude. From Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on down, the Swedes take a positive view of participation. Reinfeldt repeated this after meeting with Halonen, so in this respect, the neighbours are not walking in step.
Reinfeldt is, in principle, a supporter of NATO membership, as Foreign Minister Carl Bild was already years ago. Politically, NATO membership is nevertheless off the agenda, because it is not backed by broad-based understanding. Instead, Sweden is ready for close military cooperation with NATO as well, under the banner of international crisis management.
Paavo Lipponen would like to do the same. If I have given the correct interpretation to Lipponen’s way of thinking on his recent appearance on a television interview programme, he appears to doubt whether or not Finland can make it through the rapidly growing costs that "a sufficient independent defence capacity" requires. The alternative would be NATO membership, or some kind of cooperation with Sweden, as suggested by Lipponen.
The latter model could be realistic to some extent within NATO, but hardly as an alterative to NATO. The leaders of both the Centre Party and the Social Democrats appear to have closed the door on NATO membership in the next electoral term even more tightly than President Halonen has, citing public opinion as the reason.
One can only wonder about such indecisiveness, if and when the cost of the present defence doctrine of self-sufficiency is being identified only gradually to be unsustainably high .
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.12.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sweden more positive than Finland toward NATO Reaction Force (11.12.2006)
Finland not to join NATO Response Force (5.12.2006)
Opposition leader welcomes NATO initiative, Prime Minister sceptical (30.11.2006)
Finland to be invited into NATO rapid action force at Riga summit (29.11.2006)
Minister Kääriäinen: Finland must spend more on defence, or join NATO (2.11.2006)
Sweden and Finland pledge to keep each other informed of NATO plans (16.10.2006)
ERKKI PENNANEN / Helsingin Sanomat