Finnish defence policy: One American's perspective


The strength of Finland’s international defense cooperation ultimately depends on its national efforts.

By a mix of design (anchoring Finland’s security in Western institutions) and default (avoiding “provocations” of its eastern neighbor), Finnish defense policy has come to resemble a Rubik’s cube--the three dimensional puzzle where multicolored squares are twisted around until each face of the cube shows only one color. Think of each color as representing a distinctive cooperative relationship established to promote Finnish security. At first, the colors appear to be arranged randomly. And then, voilà! Once the puzzle is solved, a coherent picture emerges.


Picture by Finnish Defence Forces


For example, Finland’s relationship with NATO grew steadily after joining Partnership for Peace in 1994, and it is now a major (and virtually uncontested) facet of Finnish defense policy. As an Enhanced Opportunities Partner (EOP) since 2014, Finland gained more regular access to NATO’s pre-crisis consultations, joint and combined exercise planning, and agencies and staffs that promote intra-European and transatlantic cooperation on interoperable, high priority capabilities, e.g., cyber defense, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, air defense command and control, and logistics. And thanks to EOP, Finnish forces have made sustained and valuable contributions to (and gained vital experience from) NATO-led operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan.


A second facet of the puzzle – Finland’s place within EU-led defense efforts launched in 1999 – had a bumpy start, mainly owing to intra-European frictions and concerns voiced by the Clinton and Bush administrations over possible competition between the EU and NATO. But Finland was an early and staunch advocate within EU ranks of closer and pragmatic cooperation with NATO. And the two organizations now work together on several important projects, such as countering hybrid threats and improving the military’s ability to move troops and equipment across European borders. Meanwhile, Finnish involvement in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation and the separate European Intervention Initiative stands to benefit Europe and, by doing so, strengthen transatlantic ties.


Bilateral cooperation with Sweden and the United States represent a third facet. In recent years, successive governments in Helsinki and Stockholm have committed to a far-reaching agenda, including: joint exercises and operational planning; interoperable communications and information systems; logistics and material procurement; and more intensive defense and security policy dialogue. Complementing those efforts are Finland’s separate bilateral ties with the United States, which were given new impetus by their October 2016 Statement of Intent to broaden defense policy consultations, information exchanges, capabilities development, preparedness and liaison, and cooperation in international operations. And in May 2018, these two sets of bilateral arrangements were brought closer together by a trilateral letter – signed by the Finnish, Swedish, and US defense ministers – emphasizing their expanded joint planning and conduct of military exercises.


Finnish conscripts flying to Norway to attend the Trident Juncture 2018 excercise. The flight was carried out on a C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft. The aircraft is part of the Strategic Airlift Capability multinational initiative of which Finland is one of the participating countries.

Picture by Finnish Defence Forces


Finland’s multilateral engagement with regional partners outside formal NATO, EU, or bilateral auspices represents a fourth facet. Yet, those regional arrangements – e.g., the five-nation Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) structure, nine-nation UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, and German-led Framework Nation Concept – facilitate and reinforce a strategic objective of the other forms of cooperation: improving the capabilities of all the concerned parties to think and act together to deter conflict and, if deterrence fails, to conduct crisis response and/or defense operations in a way that protects their independence, security, and democratic values.


How strong and durable is this Rubik’s cube of international cooperation? My answer: it depends.


The toy cube is only as strong the skeleton core that keeps its squares together. Similarly, the strength of Finland’s international defense cooperation ultimately depends on its national efforts. The good news is that, broadly speaking, its commitment in recent years to increased defense spending, capabilities, training, and readiness seems headed in the right direction.


My worries lie elsewhere. Russian behavior remains unpredictable, given its authoritarian government, aggressive actions (Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, interference in US and European elections), risky military and “hybrid” activities in the Nordic-Baltic region, and military (especially nuclear) buildup and sabre-rattling. And one cannot dismiss the challenge to Western solidarity posed by disturbing phenomena without our own ranks, e.g., the rise of “etho-nationalism,” a looming potential Brexit disaster, and the US President’s jabs (rhetorical and otherwise) at NATO allies, the EU, and the Paris climate accord – to name just a few of his preferred targets.


Still, if the Rubik’s cube of Finnish defense policy remains strong, it can weather those disturbances.


Leo Michel, a Non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council (Washington), has been a Visiting Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs since 2016. His latest FIIA publication (September 2019, co-authored with Matti Pesu) is "Strategic Deterrence Redux: Nuclear Weapons and European Security." Michel retired from the US Government in July 2015, after a 35-year career in national security affairs.


Picture by Eeva Anundi

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