Northern Perspectives on the Future European Security Architecture. Finland as a Special Case

The Common Base and Northern Cooperation

Already during the Cold War the Nordic states formed a security community, but high politics was avoided on the common agenda and crystallized in the concept ‘Nordic balance’. It softened the East-West confrontation in Europe, but together with the sense of community gave also a good start to develop European security architecture. In the north the eastern border was quickly transcended by non-military security. Some of first institutional expressions were the Barents Euro-Arctic Region and the Council of the Baltic Sea States, both of which involved also Russia. The security community expanded to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Finland and Sweden joined the European Union in 1995 while the Baltic States joined both the EU and NATO in 2004. Also, new institutions preceded the inauguration of the policy of Northern Dimension in the European Union.

The new advanced northern security cooperation included monitoring and search and rescue operations in the Baltic Sea, development of border control of the Baltic States and environmental cooperation. Military cooperation between Estonia and Finland began soon after Estonia’s regained independence and well before its NATO accession. Sweden had similar efforts with Latvia and Denmark with Lithuania. The common past laid a strong ground to further European security integration. Now also the hard political-military issues can be discussed and advanced in subregional cooperation.

In the north, basic perceptions about the future European security do not differ much what comes to the role of the European Union. Northern countries share perceptions of threats and uncertainties included in the European Security Strategy. No northern country wants EU to be a new superpower in military terms. They also accept NATO as the cornerstone of transatlantic relations in Europe and the leading institution in common military crisis management.

The Stoltenberg initiative 2009 is one recent step to deepen subregional security cooperation. Sweden and Finland also unite their surveillance in the Baltic Sea. Nordic countries cooperate to develop resources for military crisis management and their future operational capabilities. In its present form, EU civilian crisis management has been largely developed after a Finnish-Swedish initiative in the 1990s.

During its almost 15 years of existence the Northern Dimension of EU has been more turned into practice. It is understood foremost in terms of well-being and localised security. It is about environmental, social, health and cultural partnerships as well as about transport and logistics, which extend to and much focus on Northwestern Russia. The Dimension emphasises EU as a provider of societal stability, that is the basis for conflict management and reduces need for divided hard securities in the north.

In the ‘Second Age of the Arctic’ energy issues and policies have been lifted on the side of environmental concerns and they also influence military policies and the interplay of EU, NATO and Russia in the European North. But energy policies inform security around the Baltic Sea, as well. The Nord Stream pipeline matches common European and Russian interests, but the issue has also been divisive in the north. The Baltic States and Sweden have voiced traditional security worries, but Finland has stuck by economical and environmental issues. The vulnerability of both the Arctic and Baltic Seas is quite equally shared among all the countries involved. Close to a half of Russian raw oil is exported via the shallow Baltic Sea. In addition, the Arctic and Northern dimensions of security in their new, less military guises are increasingly becoming an all-European issue.

In spite of the commonness every country is a special case. Divisions of security views reflect different EU and NATO affiliations of northern European states and attention on Russia. A certain cleavage between the ‘old’ Nordic and the Baltic States was very visible in their different reactions to the Georgian war 2008. The Baltic States woke to demand that NATO should take its collective defence role more seriously in the north and that may well happen after the new NATO strategy has been endorsed.

A Finnish Perspective

The case of Finland is one story. The latest White paper, titled Finland’s Security and Defence Policy 2009, shows that Finland shares views about most pressing challenges, non-military threats and required responses with its Nordic and Baltic neighbours and wants to develop security capacities of the EU, but Finland thinks differently about its own defence in the context of NATO and Russia. Finland shares with Sweden, the other northern non-NATO country, the view that it is not now the time to apply for membership in the alliance, but – spite all cooperation – considers requirements of national defence differently from its western neighbour.

Defence and the role of NATO once again received the greatest attention in the White paper, though military threats were not thoroughly discussed. Finland is being prepared ‘for different scenarios’ and ‘the possibility of armed aggression against Finland or the threat thereof cannot be categorically excluded’. Such almost self-evident statements rely on the high legitimacy that the military establishment enjoys in Finland, but it does not mean that there would not be the highest challenge for defence, and that is Russia.

Certainly, Finland does not claim that Russia is an actual military threat today but admits it being the most important security-political factor in the neighbourhood. Yet, Russia is the only country which can be imagined to be the counterpart to Finland’s  territorial defence system with its widest conscription in Europe. Unlike its neighbours Finland is not adopting either a small professional military or a highly selective conscription in the foreseeable future. It does not keep international tasks the number one preference for its military, either, and makes a sharper difference between them and the defence of the country. Finland has began to recognise the need for a deeper defence networking, but at the same time wants to be ready for most difficult situations without a guaranteed foreign support, if necessary. The defence concept combines military and non-military elements in the Strategy for Securing Vital Functions of Society.

Views about Russia’s potential challenge for defence do not prevent Finland from seeking cooperation with its neighbour. Finnish perception is based on a long experience, but also on a long-term reliance on its own defence model and posture, adopted already during the Cold War time but developed ever since. These dispositions still influence present-day discourses.

During the Cold War Finns learned a ‘double-talk’ about Russia:  an official way and the other way of talking where people were supposed to know without saying the challenge that the neighbourhood of the Soviet Union ‘actually’ posed for defence. That discourse sustained a deep-rooted security-political consensus, which still effects on the present governmental reporting process.

Finnish perceptions are a pragmatic mixture of trust and cautiousness. It emphasises Finland’s own defence but approaches Russia in a relatively relaxed way. This policy is different from the Baltic States which are much more anxious about Russia and accordingly lean more strongly on NATO and the United States. Finland sees great benefits both in the developing roles of EU and NATO in Europe, but maintains in some sense a ‘stubborn’ defence concept. That ‘realist part’ of Finland’s policy sets limits in front of a strengthening institutionalism in Europe, but it is not about neutrality any more. Finland is strongly committed to the European Union.

But the so-called NATO discussion – should Finland join NATO or just keep it ‘an option’ – has been the most central security-political public debate in the country for almost 20 years. Why Finland does not join already now and develop NATO from the position of a member?  First of the reasons is the strong public opinion and its influence on political parties. According to the 2009 poll of National Board for Defence Information 62 percent of people does not favour the membership and only 28 percent favours. Such standpoints differ much from elite opinions, though only one major party, the moderate right-wing National Coalition, is relatively strongly for the future membership. Close to 60 percent of Finnish military officers supports it, too. But participation in NATO-led crisis management is widely endorsed and Finland is planning to participate in NATO Response Force.

For many people in Finland, NATO itself seems to move away from such defence understanding that still prevails in Finland.  A less studied reason to continue outside NATO is actually the vast improvement of Finland’s closest security neighbourhood after the Cold War and avoidance of risks which the NATO membership might bring to Finland’s freedom of action in international conflict management.


A common northern perspective on the future European security architecture can be best found concerning the European Union as increasingly the cornerstone of broad European security, and in the importance of deepening subregional security cooperation as part of it, even if it is the second after developing European common structures. National policies of individual countries are more divided in military issues and about NATO. Differences of views largely reflect each countries’ attention on Russia: what kind of challenge it is understood to be in the future, and what should be the readiness for the most improbable but, if materialised, most serious eventualities?

© Dr Arto Nokkala is Adjunct Professor, Department of Strategic and Defence Studies, Finnish National Defence University, Helsinki, Finland. This article is based on his paper presentation at the day conference on the Future European & Global Security Architecture organised by the International Security Forum, Palm Beach Hotel, Larnaka, Cyprus, 29 May 2010.