NATO´s recent summit in Bucharest changed a central assumption behind Finland´s security policy. The summit showed that joining NATO is not a mere formality. From now on, Finland has to take into account the possibility that NATO´s door will not open when we knock. This is a radical departure from the idea that Finland could join whenever we wanted.
NATO summit in Bucharest declined to give Ukraine and Georgia a clear perspective of membership. For Germany, France and other countries in the European heartland it was a simple calculation between Russian gas and Georgian feelings. For Finland, the Baltic States and other countries in an exposed geopolitical position, it was a reminder of how great powers make deals above the heads of lesser powers. ”Small potatoes!” as Molotov used to say of Finland after the Second World War.
Finland is not a member of NATO. It contributes troops to NATO missions. Its defence forces are interoperable with NATO forces. A clear majority of officers in the defence forces would like to join the alliance. Yet, the government has not wanted to join NATO for fear of antagonising Russia. Instead, it has repeatedly stated that if Russia started to act in a nasty way, Finland could always join NATO. (In the Finnish debate, this is known as the ”NATO option”.)
The notion that Finland – or any other country – could join NATO at a moment´s notice never convinced hard-nosed defence analysts. They pointed out that all NATO member states have to accept a new member. In an international crisis, there will be countries that prefer appeasement over expansion of the alliance.
So why did Finland believe it could join NATO whenever it wanted? Because leading US diplomats kept telling Finland that it would always be welcomed with open arms. The Bucharest summit showed that Washington can no longer speak for the entire alliance.
The United States still matters. After all, its defence budget is bigger than the combined defence spending of the rest of the alliance. The salient point is that the Alliance has outgrown its dependency on the United States. How else can one interpret the fact that Georgia and Ukraine are left in the cold despite a very strong backing from Washington?
Washington has never been able to dictate what NATO does – even if it used to have a bigger voice than today. According to General Wesley Clark, NATO´s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO is the world´s largest ”consensus machine”. It takes an issue and keeps working on it until everyone agrees on the way forward.
The image of NATO as a ”consensus machine” has never been understood in Finland. Instead, politicians and the public at large have seen NATO as a mere tool of US foreign policy. For example, Prime Minister Vanhanen recently stated that if Finland were a member of NATO, our soldiers would be forced to fight in southern Afghanistan. He did not say who would do the forcing but most observers thought he referred to attempts by the US administration to get Europeans bear a bigger military burden in southern Afghanistan. He clearly had not realised that Washington no longer calls the shots. ”Porukka päättää” (the gang decides) as Finns often say.
Should Finland join NATO? Reasonable people can disagree on the merits and disadvantages of membership. What everyone should recognise is this: joining NATO is not as easy as we thought. Either we join the Alliance during normal times or we are likely not to get in at all.