Article by President of the Republic Martti Ahtisaari for Harvard International Review, summer 1998



Challenges Facing Finnish Foreign Policy
as the Millennium Turns

For hundreds of years Finland and the Finns were small change in international politics. We were the eastern part of the Swedish realm for centuries and then for over a hundred years an autonomous grand-duchy within the Russian Empire. We could not determine our own fate, but instead were pawns in a struggle between surrounding powers. Sometimes the rivals were the rulers of Sweden and Novgorod, at other times Napoleon and Alexander I.

The Finns fought their way to freedom just over 80 years ago when Czarist Russia was collapsing. Even after that there was a desire to determine our affairs over our heads: Hitler and Stalin made decisions on the fate of our country. Through her own resolute resistance during the Second World War, Finland secured a status that no longer belonged in the small-change category.

That status took shape partly as a result of the outcome of the war, partly on the basis of agreements between the superpowers. Our country’s lot was not an easy one: Finland became an exception in the Cold War world of strictly-defined spheres of interest. Our survival strategy was one of adaptation whilst preserving essential values. Part of it meant accommodating our behaviour to requirements, but also grasping opportunities whenever they presented themselves.

The Finnish exception found many forms of expression. Our country lost a war against the Soviet Union, but was not occupied. A relatively strong communist movement grew in Finland after the war, but the democratic tradition that had begun budding in the early years of the century and our market economy survived, uninterrupted, the times during which many of the countries of Central Europe slumped into dictatorship. In a world of military alliances Finland chose neutrality and was able to support her decision with arguments that the Soviet Union could tolerate.

The ending of the Cold War brought the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and gave Finland genuine freedom of choice in her foreign policy. At the same time, Europe began uniting on the basis of the principles of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That was the background against which Finland joined the European Union in 1995, a move that linked our country to the political and economic core of Europe. Any vagueness that had surrounded our status was dispelled in the same conjunction; Finland was released from her role of exception. As the turn of the millennium approaches, she is a decision-maker in her own affairs to a greater degree than ever before, a remarkable achievement for a small country and people.

At the same time as Finland has been strengthening her position in the international community, the surrounding world and our own society have been undergoing change. Economic internationalisation has bound states and nations tightly together. Globalisation is no longer solely a matter of economic endeavour; it is a sphere of interaction that has now broadened to encompass virtually every area of human life: the labour market, services, culture and ideas. We are in transition to an information society, in which distances and administrative boundaries are of ever-dwindling significance.

The importance of borders has always been accentuated in security questions. In this sector, too, the receding threat of a major war has provided better opportunities to strengthen peace and stability by developing democracy, the rule of law and a market economy. A parallel development, though, has been a growing threat of smaller conflicts, often internecine ones. This has increased the need for crisis prevention and management.

In such a world, foreign policy can no longer be managed on the assumption that states are islands, links between which can be maintained with the aid of infrequent shipping services.

It is especially important from Finland’s point of view that a parallel global development of integration and distinctiveness does not emphasise power and greatness alone, but also flexibility and capacity for cooperation. A large integrated entity is useful when one is creating global rules. Rules and their observance are particularly important for small nations. In an orderly world where rules are respected, a small nation can succeed through flexibility and on the strengths of smallness.

At a time when the new millennium is posing new challenges for us to meet, we also have better opportunities to act than ever before. Small states must be able to develop their strengths. As John Naisbitt put it in Global Paradox: "The bigger the world economy, the more powerful its smallest players." From a Finnish perspective, we could adapt that and say: "The more globalised and complicated the world, the more powerful its smallest states."

Nevertheless we must constantly assess how, in choosing her security strategy, participating in European integration or sharing global responsibility, Finland can best use the influence that she has gained during her time as an independent state.


Experience of membership of the European Union

When Finland acceded to membership of the European Union, we were ready to take part in both economic and political integration. In the economic sense, membership was a natural continuation of the development that had been ongoing since the Second World War, and in which we had become part of the international economy by acceding to global and European agreements and organisations intended to promote trade liberalisation.

Deepening of political cooperation follows from our own aims and a changing environment. Since the mid-eighties, a transformation of the world economy and especially liberalisation of capital flows have increased the need for political cooperation between states. The ending of division in Europe provided an opportunity for renewal of our continent, a process in which we wish to be involved. We joined the European Union because we wanted to be in a better position to influence the decision making that concerns the entire continent, and therefore is of vital importance to use.

For political decisions to be on an enduring foundation in a rapidly changing world, they require the support and acceptance of citizens. Our accession to the European Union was decided in a referendum in autumn 1994, when a clear majority of the Finns voted for membership. Early the same year, the person responsible for the conduct of Finnish foreign policy - the President of the Republic - had for the first time been chosen by direct popular vote. Thus our foreign policy is anchored in the will of people as expressed at the ballot box.

A good example of the way in which we work to promote our goals can be seen in our attitude to economic and monetary union and the common European currency, the euro, that is now emerging. Participating in the third stage of EMU is a natural course of action from Finland’s point of view. The common currency will enhance stability of exchange rates in Europe and indeed further afield, something that is nowadays becoming increasingly important. Economic and monetary union will strengthen Europe’s position, something that accords with Finland’s interests.

Our aim is that in a few years from now the euro will be a central, stable world currency. A possibility of that kind is an indication of the benefits that European cooperation can bring a small country. It is of course true that changing over to the common currency will require reforms in our own society, but it would be self-deception to argue that failing to adopt it would obviate the need for those reforms. On the contrary: the changes required would be a lot more painful in such a case.

Thus Finland is now an active wielder of influence; no longer an object, but rather a subject. We have gone beyond being "a new EU country" and become an experienced, fully-fledged member of the European family. Finland’s contribution in the negotiations that led to the Amsterdam Treaty is one good proof of this. An important period from our point of view will be the latter half of 1999, when it will be our turn to hold the Presidency of the EU. Then it will be our responsibility to drive forward decision making in the Union; we shall be "the voice of Europe". Rather than concentrating on the internal affairs of the Union and Europe only, we shall also represent the Union externally, for example in its transatlantic relations.

The new Europe and the European Union are not well known in the United States. The Cold War configuration is no longer valid. What the new situation implies and what role the European Union plays in it from specifically an American perspective are only now taking shape.


Stability and security

We have learnt from history that economic forces are ultimately the decisive factor in the development of societies. For that reason we can most sustainably promote security by increasing international cooperation and stimulating economic development. In pursuing a policy of stability, however, one cannot exclude questions of military security.

Finland considers it important that cooperation be increased on many levels. Cooperation within the European Union is important, and it has been demonstrating its worth as a producer of stability and security for decades. Especially in view of the radical transformation that has been seen in Europe in the past decade, it is important that also the other countries of the continent, including Russia, be brought within the compass of cooperation. Nor must cooperation be limited to Europe only; it must extend beyond the borders of the continent.

For Finland, the European Union is the most important instrument for strengthening stability and security in our continent. It is through the Union than an enduring foundation for a peaceful development in Europe can be built. The Finnish approach has manifested itself also in the shape of our initiative concerning the development of a Northern Dimension of the European Union.

The idea in developing this Northern Dimension is to assemble all of the European Union’s measures in northern regions into a coordinated totality. This includes cooperation in the Baltic Sea region, cooperation with Russia and the possibility of combining forces to exploit vast natural resources like those in the Barents Sea. We believe that in this way we can promote stable development in Northern Europe.

The core of Finnish security policy is non-participation in military alliances and an independent, credible defence capability. We likewise participate in security arrangements that emphasise cooperation, such as the NATO Partnership for Peace programme. Finland has contributed forces to the NATO-led SFOR operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The configuration in Europe is changing, and Finland is playing an active role in this change. Here, too, we emphasise the importance of rules. International security problems can not be resolved without cooperation that is founded on each country’s freedom of choice and equality.


Finland and global responsibility

Recent years have seen a strengthening of the global dimension both in foreign policy and in the economy. This development will become only more pronounced as we make the transition into the next millennium. The world is changing into a smaller and more communal place. Mobility of capital and its speed and sensitivity have increased strongly. As technical development forges ahead, distance means less and less, and international frontiers are no longer meaningful barriers in the way that they used to be.

This change does not of course mean that a country like Finland has less importance than formerly or that its role has been diminished. In the future, a state’s capability will not be assessed, as was formerly done, on the basis of geographical size or military strength. Instead, the criteria will be, for example, capacity for cooperation, flexibility, creativity and comprehension of development.

The ongoing transformation of the global economy is probably a more important matter for a big country than for a small one. Finland has benefited from liberalisation of trade. We have been able to increase our prosperity with the help of foreign trade, and exports account for a very considerable proportion of our economy. On the other hand, the relatively small size of our national economy has taught us how important it is to develop systems for managing the global one. Some 12 per cent of our exports go to East and South-East Asia. The economic crisis in those countries brought it home to us that events and decisions in place that are remote from us have a considerable influence also on our economy.

The development of information technology and electronic commerce will have effects on society and the economy comparable to those of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Both in the United States and Europe, information systems based on the needs of citizens and with some differences of nuance distinguishing them from each other are being put in place. The biggest differences in their mode of operation relate primarily to the role of the public authorities. More important than any differences, however, are the points of similarity between the goals, the common values on which they are based. Where the citizen is concerned, the goals aimed for are very similar.

In several sub-areas of information technology, especially the Internet and the development of electronic commerce, the US global lead is indisputable. In a European framework, Finland is one of the countries in the forefront of developing the information society. We are striving through our active efforts to contribute to a strengthening of a similar development throughout the European Union. It is especially important to involve emerging economies in this development; failing to allow for this perspective will only lead to a clearer division between privileged and exploited.

Internal change in our society, its transformation into an information society is a very important question for Finland. In terms of the level of technological development that we have attained and our R&D inputs, we are at the top of the international league. For that reason, also the social consequences of technological development may manifest themselves earlier and more forcefully than in many other countries. We have already had to ponder many central questions associated with the new kind of society: how to safeguard the position of civil rights and freedoms and to strengthen them as technology and society change? Freedom of speech and protection of the individual are values respect for which must not be jeopardised as new technology evolves. The development of a balanced information society demands the creation of international ground rules and international cooperation. Therefore we intend to be active in these questions.

History has taught Finland what important matters the defence of our own sovereignty and international justice are. At the same time we have also learnt the importance of cooperation and we understand what great challenges the international community faces. Finland wants to take an active part in that community’s search for answers to the challenges of the next millennium.