Heikki Patomäki – Finland and Sweden in NATO: where we stand and with what possible consequences?

The Finn Heikki Patomäki on the political shift of Finland (and Sweden) to the Right and to NATO

Heikki Patomäki is Professor of World Politics of the University of Helsinki. He is also a  civic activist and former member of the Board of the Left Alliance in Finland.

Cross-posted fron Heikki’s blog


1. How do you think Finland’s entry into NATO would impact on Finnish politics?

The impact of Finland’s entry into NATO cannot be disentangled from other processes of change, which in no way originate in Finland or are confined to Finland. Neoliberal reforms in Finland started step by step in the 1980s, at first, especially in terms of financial deregulation, yet the big change did not kick-off before the currency and banking crisis of the early 1990s that coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet trade. In the 1990s, the identity of Finland was redefined as a Western country, and as a member of the EU, to replace the earlier idea of a neutral social-democratic Nordic country, though the two coexisted for some time. Neoliberalisation in turn has gradually changed meanings, mentalities, practices, and institutions in Finland, paving the way to the rise of nationalist-authoritarian populism in the 2010s that followed the global financial crisis of 2008-9 and its aftermath, including the Euro crisis. Overall, these changes have resulted in a gradual but systematic shift of the entire political field to the right. Some details may be peculiar to Finland, but otherwise, these processes are common across our interconnected world.

Finland’s entry into NATO has been made possible by the actions of Putin’s regime. The first peak of support for NATO membership was in 2014-2015, but especially impact of the current crisis and war has been huge. This is obvious, but what may not be so clearly visible is that the Finnish response to Russia’s invasion stems in important part from gradual changes in the taken for granted background of politics, preparing the ground for what could be called a further shift to the right in terms of nationalist-authoritarian populism – that now cuts across all political parties.

What we are seeing are forms of Russophobia and hatred that we have not seen since the 1930s and 1940s. The prevailing climate of opinion has gone so far as to see any form of critique or analysis in terms of historical causation as “Putinism” or as the actions of “Russian agents”. Such an atmosphere is also conducive to encouraging both censorship and violence at least at the level of attitudes. Paradoxically, these tendencies in Finland and elsewhere mimic developments in Russia, albeit still (mostly) in a relatively benign form and within a liberal-democratic framework.

Finland’s entry into NATO may be less important than the processes and events that have prepared the ground for Finnish membership, but obviously, membership will consolidate these changes. Also, this entry will further erode some good democratic practices that Finland has inherited from the earlier era, such as transparency and publicity regarding military matters and finances.

2.     And what about the way Finland looks at itself?

The main motivation behind the current turn toward NATO membership is fear, yet the direction of this response cannot be explained by fear alone. During the Cold War, the fear of a nuclear war motivated neutrality and initiatives such as Nordic Nuclear-weapon Free Zone or Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Whereas the Cold War era neutrality of Finland was understood, at least at times, as an attempt to transform the worldwide conflict that threatened humanity, the current response stems from a narrow self-regarding perspective that is committed to the theory of deterrence, the ultimate form of which is MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The basic idea of MAD is that the threat of using nuclear weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy from attacking. The Pentagon-style Cold War mentality has finally reached Finland.

3.     How do you judge Finland’s debate on NATO?

Nato proponents think membership will avert a Russian attack on Finland, which of course presupposes that such an attack is an imminent possibility. In their eyes, the alliance is like a big father with big guns who comes to protect us. I think that is a rather primitive argument.

In reality, things are a lot more complicated. Finland’s membership can provoke as much as deter, not only in the context of bilateral relations but also much more widely. A lot depends on how we understand the real reasons for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to the interpretation prevailing in the West, Russia is seeking to expand and is therefore attacking its neighbours. If Ukraine collapses, it will soon be the turn of other European countries.

According to the second interpretation, this is a classic security dilemma. When State A does something for defense purposes, State B understands this as a potential threat and takes defensive action, which State A, in turn, treats as an increased threat. This is how the conflict expands.

Evidence can be presented in favour of both interpretations. The Russian leadership has embraced ideas of Eurasian ideology, and some of Vladimir Putin’s speeches show nostalgia for tsarist or Soviet imperialism. Russia, on the other hand, is a small country in terms of resources as compared to the West, and its military capabilities are limited.

Between 2000 and 2001, the leadership of Russia, the United States, and NATO discussed Russia’s membership in NATO. Putin considered the abolition of NATO the best option at the time. He also considered it possible to involve Russia in NATO’s security arrangements. The United States made it clear that this would not work. Russia was positioned outside NATO, and at the same time, the new NATO members in particular saw Russia as a threat and potential enemy. I hasten to add that all this came on top of continuities from the Cold War, not least nuclear weapons, and the Russian humiliation in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Apart from Russian political economy developments that resulted from the catastrophic shock therapy, the Iraq war and the colour revolutions fueled confrontation between the West and Russia. Since 2007 at the latest, Russia has interpreted NATO enlargement as a security threat to itself. The Bucharest Summit in 2008 paved the way for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. There was a strong reaction in Russia. Even then, Putin said that trying to join Ukraine in NATO would mean fragmenting the country.

Which of the two interpretations is considered the most plausible directly affects how Finland’s possible NATO membership should be assessed. Despite Putin’s undeniable Eurasian and neo-imperialist inclinations, I tend to think that the implementation of the Minsk II agreement and guarantees for Ukrainian military non-alignment would have sufficed to avoid the 2022 invasion.

Moreover, the Russian perspective is clear: Finnish NATO membership means military installations of the alliance directly on the western side of Russia and an expansion of territory that would in effect be under US military command in case of a war. With that move, we risk a nuclear war. There is a real danger of escalation and any contribution to that escalation is one too many.

In contrast to the implications of the theory of deterrence or MAD, I think we have the imperative to de-escalate. The memories of the Winter War and the sentiment that comes with it are understandable, but also too simplistic. I would hope that our politicians will take a broader view. Acting now from an enemy image may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4.     Are you worried about Russia’s imperialism? As a citizen, would you like Finland to join NATO?

I am not only worried about all forms of imperialism but also tend to think that nostalgia for the empire, wherever it may occur, is an anachronism. The problem is that anachronisms may be causally efficacious. At the time when the younger Bush’s administration and 9-11 paved the way for USAmerican neo-imperialism, though perhaps in a somewhat new and non-territorial sense (this is when Hardt and Negri wrote their book Empire), I thought it was only a question of time when the same rhetoric begins to expand and become more common, in each context differently.

True, the Russian turn to geopolitics that tends to imply imperialistic policies emerged first already in the 1990s through the activities of such politicians as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but in the case of Putin’s regime, the turn has been gradual and taken time. As far I can see, Putin’s imperialism is limited in scope to Russian speakers and concepts such as “the near-abroad”, though we must remember that the dynamics of conflicts involves also the escalation of interpretations and claims.

Also, the idea of the need for multipolar world order and building countermeasures to U.S. hegemony first emerged in the 1990s but gained new momentum with ideological changes during the Putin era. The idea of multipolarity is in line with the limited ambitions of the Putin regime – Russia aims to be a regional great power – and is also consistent with the security dilemma interpretation of Russia’s vital interests, although there may also be other interests.

It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union accounted for 10% of the world’s population and was the second-largest economy in the world. Russia’s population is less than half that of the Soviet Union, while the world population has continued to grow very rapidly in recent decades. In addition, Russia lost about 45% of its GDP between 1989 and 1998. Privatization and shock therapy led to rapid deindustrialisation and a 40% decline in GDP. Since the late 1990s, Russia’s dollar-denominated GDP has been comparable to the Canadian economy. Measured in purchasing power parity (PPP), Russia is larger but still smaller than France or Germany. Russia’s share of the world’s population and GDP is less than 2% and continues to decline. Even if measured in PPP terms, Russia spends on military only about 1/10 of NATO’s combined military expenditure.

So yes, I am concerned about Russia’s imperialism as it can and does have repressive and violent effects in local contexts. Nevertheless, this concern must be put into a perspective. The turns to geopolitics, nationalist-authoritarian populism and various forms of imperial nostalgia are more general; and Russia’s capabilities and ambitions are limited. My main concern lies in the escalation of this conflict toward a nuclear war. I am not looking at things from a limited national viewpoint only. As a citizen of Finland, the EU, and the world, I would not like Finland to join NATO.

5.     How would the Nordic region change if Sweden and Finland were to join NATO?

Again, this question has to be put into a wider perspective. During the Cold War, Norden was widely seen as the model of an enlightened and antimilitaristic society that follows the principles of distributive justice and that is assumed to be morally superior to two alternative models of modernization: the United States and the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it started to appear that the question of whether there is a future for the Nordic model also means ‘Is there any socially oriented, democratic alternative to the Washington consensus-led neo-liberal globalization?’ What emerged in the Norden were economistic discourses about the requirements of ‘new times’, the gradual changes in the meaning of the notion of the Third Way, and the neo-liberal framing of new social problems. Similar arguments were made also from a security perspective.

Of course, Denmark and Norway have been NATO members since 1949. This did not prevent them from being part of the highly integrated Nordic community with common labour markets and social security systems etc. or taking part in a pluralist security community where trust and the possibility of peaceful changes prevailed. Therefore, we should not exaggerate the role of NATO in this regard. However, I nonetheless think that it is not only that the progressivist orientation is now gone, but also that the pluralism of Norden has eroded as well. What we have instead is a form of Cold War liberalism, coupled with neoliberal policies and general nationalist-populist orientation.

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