Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

Maintaining the Balance of Power that favors Human Freedom: The Finnish Strategic Experience

January 2003

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


Why should anyone be interested in Finnish strategic thinking and the historical experiences informing it? After all, the country is one of the smallest and most peripheral in a continent that is rapidly marginalizing itself in international politics. While being safe and boring can sometimes be a result of a successful grand strategy – especially for a small state – the answer to the question above might lie in realizing that for half a millennium Finland’s external security environment has been anything but safe and boring, and yet the country has managed to develop a republican/liberal political culture and to defend it against external threats.

In short, the Finnish strategic experience for the last five centuries is about learning, through trial and error, to live with a rather difficult enemy and the fear created by that enemy. Since the late 15th century Finland has had to develop its political culture next door to the Russian empire, which has subscribed to an authoritarian/totalitarian political and strategic culture, and has had – by Finnish standards – an infinite supply of manpower to draw upon when conflict broke out.

The essence of Finnish strategic culture: non-offensiveness, a strong will to defend republicanism when needed, and a commitment to the idea of international society –could provide some lessons that the international community might find useful in the Age of Terror. After September 11th, the populations of even the most secure of offshore balancers have to come to terms with the omnipresent fear of violence from actors, which have little respect for liberal values. Al-Qaeda is not the Red Army, but in an age when a microscopically small organism can do more damage than a division of conventionally armed troops, and where globalization has provided new opportunities for transnational terrorists to operate, the liberal world faces a threat that politically and psychologically has many similarities with the one Finland has been facing for quite some time.

In a more theoretical sense, Finland provides a unique case of republican/liberal IR theory: For Finns, the liberal legacy has been not only an intellectual inspiration for armchair-theorising or thinking about international law, but a reason to die for. Finns have, time after time had to face a situation where Russia has threatened the security of the population of Finland, and where international law or other liberal countries have been of relatively little help when push came to shove. Finnish strategic culture has developed from the experience of defending liberal/republican values in a distinctly un-liberal (and “un-Nordic”) strategic environment. Consequently, realist instruments such as balance of power policies and war, have played an important role in complementing more liberal strategic practices, such as tying Russia into international society. One could even say that liberalism has survived in Finland partly because realist practices have been merged with liberal practices in the country’s strategic culture.

In the following, relying on the theoretical framework explicated in Leira, Neumann & Heikka, I will sketch the interplay of some of the key structural and cultural factors that lie behind the Finnish strategic experience. The reason for going back in history for several centuries is that the “formative experiences” that inform Finnish strategic culture have roots that are several centuries old. In particular, a loose commitment to the idea of balancing has remained unchanged for almost five centuries, and the importance of nonoffensive defence goes back three centuries. The third pillar of Finnish strategic culture, besides balancing and non-offensiveness, the legacy of liberalism, is more difficult to locate within individual strategic experiences. In the following, I have tried to sketch the evolution of the idea of international society within Finnish strategic culture as it emerged over a long period of time from the Grotian influences within Swedish-Finnish strategic culture.