…two recent events in Finnish foreign policy: the UN voted this week to fill up the Security Council’s non-permanent seats (announcment here), and the sending of Finnish planes to monitor Iceland’s air space was discussed in Parliament (Finnish).
Why would Iceland need anyone to monitor its air space? The problem is that the island country has no standing army, only Coast Guards and other agencies that perform tasks delegated by other NATO members to their standing armies. If you remember the 1970s Cod Wars, it was the Icelandic Coast Guard that roughed it up with the Royal Navy. The Coast Guards have also sent specialist soldiers in various NATO battlefields around the world. Until recently, the country also hosted a sizeable contingent of American forces in the Air and naval base at Keflavik. This allied presence had a long history. In 1940, as Iceland was occupied by British forces, the Icelandic government did protest but agreed to the Allies working from the Icelandic territory: Iceland was then described as the Allies’ “immobile aircraft carrier”. Keflavik was used as a transit point until the end of the war. But around 1946-1947, the US found an agreement with Iceland as to a sustained Marines and Air force presence in the base. Iceland becoming a member of NATO in 1949, US and other NATO forces stayed in.
Fast forward to 2006, when the US announced their withdrawal from Keflavik. Following that, Iceland was left without a capacity to patrol its airspace. This was a problem for two reasons: the proximity of Russia, a country increasingly assertive in the Arctic zone, and problems linked with safety at sea. NATO cooperation (the Icelandic Air Policing operation) and Iceland’s own capacities (the Iceland Air Defence system) could help, but Iceland was eager to get a bit more.
So it was time for Iceland, and also Norway, a country with similar problems in the Arctic, to remember Nordic solidarity. In February 2009, the former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg (father of the current Norwegian PM) issued a report to the Nordic Council of Ministers on Nordic Foreign and Security Policy. The report did not touch only on Iceland, but air monitoring and patroling above Iceland was one of the common projects Stoltenberg suggested the Nordic Countries could carry on in common. The report especially highlighted issues linked to changes in the Arctic zone and the new role Russia tried to play in this zone. This happened two years after a Russian submarine had planted a flag under the North Pole, a few years after the explosion of a Kursk-class submarine in the Barents sea, and in a context where global warming makes shipping and exploitation of resources around the North Pole easier. Icelanders and Norwegians clearly wanted to turn their fellow Scandinavians’ heads towards the Arctic.
The reactions to Stoltenberg’s report are sumarized by Clive Archer in a wonderful article, that he starts thusly:
Whatever closeness the Nordic states have experienced in other areas, they
have sought their security separately.
Stoltenberg’s report knew that, and the projects are clearly meant as a list of ad hoc projects, from which each Nordic Countries will pick and choose. In this case like in previous ones, it is very unlikely that a foreign policy Nordic cooperation would start as long as membership in the EU, links with the US and/or membership in NATO will be the main lines of each Nordic Countries’ security policy. In Finland, initial reactions were lukewarm. Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb’s reaction in Finnish was not exactly enthusiastic: while speaking in English reactions of “…a valuable input in the discussion of further development of Nordic cooperation“, the Finnish version spoke of a interesting project containing also “unrealistic proposals“. The rest of the reaction was interesting: “Finland still is a militarily non-aligned country. Cooperation in the Arctic is a nice carrot, and for Sweden and Finland it is a nice plus.”
NATO, and Sweden seem to be the two big issues that the Finnish governement had to consider in this affair, and that made Finland’s relation with the Stoltenberg report uneasy. Stubb was succeeded by a Foreign Minister whose Nordic streak is a bit more developed, Erkki Tuomioja, but even he had to work under the same constraints. Reactions in Russia, of course, are not the smallest part of this: Helsinki would not like to see such a scheme excplicitely directed towards Russia, and would hate to see Finnish air forces in situations where they would have to patrol against Russian planes. But there are other things. Sweden’s decision, for example, has been followed since the beginning. If Stockholm’s decision seems to be positive, the point is that Finland’s decision has appeared to largely depend on Sweden’s.
At the domestic level, questions of costs have (of course) been the usual beating stick with which the opposition has attacked the government. Apart from that, however, NATO looms over this whole debate. NATO has been the bogeyman of Finnish politics for years already; Iceland’s monitoring, even disguised as a “Nordic” venture, might bring Finland too visibly close to NATO for a population who remains overwhelmingly opposed to membership in the Atlantic Organization.
So, at the time of writing, the government has decided, after a row of questions in Parliament by opposition leaders, to postpone the decision to next week. Both president Sauli Niinistö and the main ministers have supported a participation in the scheme, but obviously there are still issues and the Swedish decision is carefully considered.
The UN debate was also interesting for what it showed of Finland’s, and generally small states’ foreign policies and influence capacities. The vote was secret, so discussing it is pointless. What is more interesting is what Finland’s campaign for the seat showed of the country’s relation to the UN. The goal here was obviously to be at the center of important decisions, and also to buff Finland’s image as an “in-betweener”, a honest broker, intermediary, etc. This is rather classical small state’s policy – and Luxemburg, who got the seat this time, works pretty much on the same bases. The PR campaign that Finland started to prepare for this vote emphasized exactly that: Finland as a reasonable, “constructive” country, worthy of the seat for its activities as an international mediator, serving the common interest and with no vested interest of its own. If anybody would be ready for a bit of comparison, one could look into the League of Nations’ debate on Finland’s accession to the League’s Council, in the 1920s. There is a long-term trend here.
The reactions one could read in the press also showed a nice display of the usual stuff: endless discussion as to what did we do wrong, is our national reputation down and why, how much did this cost. In some reactions, I believe the issue of cost was brought up mostly to hide a profound distaste for participation in international organizations. This is kind of a fundamentalist neutrality line, where neutrality means staying apart from international politics, hiding from the world: there is a powerful cultural click here, that one should not overemphasize but that really plays a role. In a Cold War context, the neutrality policy has become a state of mind for parts of the population, a desire to remain outside the fray, to not get involved.
On Finland and the UN, see this for a nice summary of Finland’s presence and record in the organization.
Clive Archer, “The Stoltenberg Report and Nordic Security: Big Idea, Small Steps”, Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook 2010, pp. 43-74.
Edit: Aha… So, as of today, 30.10.2012, Finland and Sweden think it is a great idea, but they still “consider the details“. Nordic Prime Ministers did meet today in Helsinki, where they presented a united front in supporting Iceland’s air monitoring as a way to support Nordic defence cooperation. The “details” under discussion are whether or not the jets will be armed, will it be “monitoring” or “defence”, etc. And, of course, the big boogeyman: Finland’s PM Jyrki Katainen emphasized that a NATO decision would be needed to authorize non-members to participate in monitoring. In the media, the debate has already been cast as anti-/pro-NATO: the Agrarian party Keskusta, the rightist-populist Perussuomalaiset and some Social-Democratic voices take turns to denounce a rapprochement with NATO disguised as Nordic cooperation, while the conservative right supports the government. Of the six government parties, only the extreme-leftist Vasemmistoliitto took a negative stand on the proposal. Everybody plays his/her part.
Edit 2: Aaaand… after all, Finland’s decision will wait for “evaluation” and a vote of the Parliament. The Social-democrats are stuck between good Nordic cooperation and bad NATO, and the opposition is all aroused about what they see as “small steps” Katainen would be taking towards the Atlantic organization.