The Quadrangle of Finland’s Fate

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Margus Laidre – April 2017


This year, as Finland celebrates a century of independence, the course of the world has all of a sudden become harder than ever to predict.

Numerous sources of uncertainty barely allow us to get a glimpse of a possible future. In order to determine what this thick fog of global affairs could have in store for Finland, the publisher Otava proposed to three Finnish diplomats that they write a book on this topic immediately after the outcome of the US presidential election was announced. Petri Hakkarainen, a diplomat of the younger generation, and veteran ambassadors Jaakko Iloniemi and René Nyberg finished the book Trump, Merkel, Putin ja Suomi (translated into English as Trump, Merkel, Putin and Finland) in only four months.

The authors claim to have based their work on unbiased analysis and, to my mind, perhaps cling to this principle too tightly, as is evident from the title, which implies the primacy of the Finnish point of view. Iloniemi writes about the United States, Nyberg describes Russia and Hakkarainen analyses Germany. The goal is to depict these three countries and their leaders, whose decisions and choices have a considerable effect on Finland’s global status, as realistically as possible. One should say in advance that the authors have managed this task well. The conclusion that Helsinki must accept this trio of countries, warts and all, is not only characteristic of the authors of this book but also of the Finnish political elite. These three nations cannot be changed, but one must learn to deal with them.

The book ends with a collectively penned chapter that bears the intriguing title “The Quadrangle of Finland’s Fate”. This is an update of the idea of the triangle of Finland’s fate coined by former president Juho Kusti Paasikivi, which suggests that the most decisive relationships for Helsinki are those with Berlin, Moscow and Stockholm. With the addition of Washington, this triangle has now become a quadrangle.

Iloniemi notes that a great country, especially one such as the US, cannot operate without a foreign-policy doctrine. At the same time, current data is insufficient for drawing any long-term conclusions about Donald Trump’s foreign-policy intentions. China appears to have occupied a central position in both security and trade questions. According to Iloniemi, Trump’s favourable attitude towards Russia has made the Baltic States wonder about the effect this could have on their national security. Similar questions had been raised before, but there was no worry that Washington and Moscow would go over the heads of Europe and make their own deals regarding questions that, among other things, concern the security of Russia’s western and southern neighbours.

Regardless of whether or not Russia actually has plans to attack, the mere military presence of the Allies offers the Baltic States enough support not to let aggressive political demands push them into giving up their independence simply for fear of an incursion (p. 45). However, the talk of Trump’s major “deal” with Russia causes a number of the latter’s close neighbours to fear that the US has adopted an understanding stance towards Russia’s sphere of interest (p. 46).

Rekindling old fears, Iloniemi also says something that is likely to upset Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius—namely that the Baltic States’ independence is so fragile that a mere verbal threat could lead them to surrender to a potential enemy. This unintentionally gives the impression that Iloniemi is indirectly drawing parallels with the events of 1939, i.e. divines the future from the past, which he thinks is likely to repeat itself. As for the speculation about a possible but unlikely bilateral agreement between Trump and Putin (another example of walking backwards into the future), the fear of the redistribution of spheres of influence is not inherent to the Baltic States but rather reflects, albeit covertly, the situation in Finland. Sometimes it is convenient to hide one’s own terror by stating that someone else “is more afraid”.

Iloniemi believes that current evidence still places Trump’s statements relatively close to the realist school of thought in US politics. He considers Henry Kissinger, who has been in close contact with Trump’s people, to be one of its representatives. This should placate the Baltic States somewhat, because Kissinger has stressed that the US has responsibilities that must be honoured in any situation. Nevertheless, in stating this, Iloniemi fails to mention that, if the US should indeed move away from Europe, Finland and some other countries would be left facing Russia on their own, which is to be avoided at all costs.

One might agree with Iloniemi that America is unknown to Europe. Many Europeans only know the US from the East Coast, California or Florida. Others believe they have been to the States when they have stayed in Midtown Manhattan in New York. This is comparable to foreigners limiting a trip to Finland to visiting Helsinki and walking the length of Aleksanterinkatu.

Nyberg believes that Russia’s problems are mainly caused by the absence of the rule of law on all levels. The greatest challenge of Russia’s historical policy also concerns Finland. Putin thinks that Nicholas II was a weak ruler, just like Mikhail Gorbachev. Both caused the fall of the empire due to their inability to make decisions. Lenin, however, was a leader who planted the seed for the fall of the Soviet Empire by granting the republics the right to leave. This leads Nyberg to ask: what exactly is Russia planning to celebrate in 2017?

Nyberg considers the story of how Lenin granted Finland independence a classic historical-political fairy tale. The story originates from post-war communists in Finland, but it was made famous by President Urho Kaleva Kekkonen. At the unveiling ceremony of a memorial plaque in Smolny, Leningrad in 1958, Kekkonen praised Lenin for recognising Finland’s independence. The ulterior motive was to use Lenin’s name to declare Nikita Khrushchev, and later Leonid Brezhnev, as fellow guarantors of this “gift” (p. 78). In addition, this episode demonstrates that Finland’s independence was, or was thought to be, so fragile at the time that Lenin was used as a shield to prevent the Soviet Union from swallowing it whole. Kekkonen’s interpretation was successful, but it took on a life of its own in similar Russian folklore and has not entirely disappeared today.

Nyberg describes Russia’s twofold attitude towards its neighbours. They are treated as either equal partners or the former Khanate of Kazan, which can be invaded, conquered or pressured. Currently, Moscow only sees the US and China as equals. In the case of neighbours in the second category, it is important to highlight Russia’s struggles to coexist side-by-side with them in a normal and harmonious manner. The Finnish-Russian border had operated without incident for more than 50 years but, by letting refugees cross in autumn 2015, Moscow reminded Helsinki that Russia can still interfere in Finland’s internal affairs whenever it pleases.

Nyberg sees no truth in the claim that only Russia believed that Trump would win. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the Kremlin was preparing for the victory of its old adversary, Hillary Clinton. Russia holds political creativity in high regard. Even Trump has said that the element of surprise lies in his weapons of choice, which is what ultimately makes the relationship between him and Putin unpredictable.

German Angst, or the dream to appear as a larger version of Switzerland together with a strong anti-American sentiment, continues to shape German politics. The unsolvable German question—die deutsche Frage—has tormented Europe since the end of the Napoleonic Wars 200 years ago. The highly changeable politics in the German-speaking area meant that the limits of German ideology and power were continuously tested, sometimes peacefully but often bloodily. The German dilemma was solved only after the Cold War, with the country’s reunification in 1990.

Despite everything, Germany cannot escape the ball and chain of its past. Its relations with France, Poland and, above all, Russia, Israel and the US are still not entirely free of the violent history of the last century. At this point, Hakkarainen fails to mention a significant nuance—that the nature of the current Federal Republic of Germany has changed considerably compared to its neighbours. While Germany has moved on from the end of World War II, its neighbours are still somewhat stuck in that time. It is worth recalling that Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was strongly against Germany’s reunification, seeing in it a potential threat of revanchism. The same argument was also used indirectly—though mainly in relation to internal affairs—by the new German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel (who visited Tallinn in March), when he noted that Germany, whose defence budget meets the 2% of GDP target, might appear too powerful to several of its neighbours and make them wonder about the long-term goal of this kind of armament: “We also have to consider whether Europe wants as a neighbour a Germany that invests 60 billion euros a year in its Army”.

However, something is about to change. The number of voices outside Germany who demand a more active foreign policy from Berlin is growing. Radosław Sikorski’s presentation in 2011 was most memorable: he is thought to be the first Polish foreign minister in history to admit to being more afraid of Germany’s passivity than its power. However, one should not fear that Germany is going solo. Solutions are still being sought as a team. Berlin is prepared to assume more responsibility, but its leadership relies on others for support. Germans themselves consider the relationship with America the greatest foreign-policy challenge.

In 2015, the verb “merkeling” (merkeln) entered popular usage among German youth, meaning “waiting until the problem solves itself over time or one’s competitors have neutralised each other”. Many were disappointed with “merkeling”, but it worked well in reality. Nevertheless, the promise of stability and continuity in the style of “you know me”, which was Merkel’s slogan in the 2013 parliamentary elections, is not inexhaustible.

The final, concluding chapter sees the authors return to the quadrangle of Finland’s fate as they analyse Helsinki’s relationship with all the aforementioned countries once more but including Sweden, which was not previously discussed separately. In the case of Moscow, the authors admit that the ability to live next to Russia is a constant challenge for Finland’s statehood (p. 129). Russia has a total of 14 neighbours, ranging from North Korea to Norway, which is more than any other country. Helsinki considers Finland Russia’s best neighbour. The term Finlandisation (Finnlandisierung), which originates from West German internal politics, is not fair from the perspective of Finland’s coping. Finland was indeed impressed by the brutal charm of the Soviet Union. As a by-product, the long post-war period brought about softening that was christened “self-Finlandisation” and weakened Finland (pp. 130–1).

Finns consider today’s good relations with Moscow and mutual understanding a remarkable achievement. A prerequisite for this was Finland emerging from World War II untouched apart from territorial losses. People’s anger towards Russia would not have vanished without Finnish military capability to protect civilians. This phenomenon is unique among Russia’s neighbours.

Russia has a positive attitude towards Finland and Finns in every sense. This also constitutes a historical achievement and is based on three factors: large numbers of Russian tourists, the knowledge that Finland was the Soviet Union’s leading Western trade partner in the 1970s, and the experience (read: Finns’ courageous resistance) in the Winter War, which is also well-remembered and recognised in Russia.

Finland lost its historical contact with Berlin at the end of World War II but this has now been restored. Germany was Finland’s key ally in negotiations for joining the European Union. The relationship between Helsinki and Berlin was briefly disrupted by a dispute over language, which broke out during Finland’s first presidency of the Council of the European Union in 1999.1 Since then, Finland and Germany have not had any significant disagreements. The authors emphasise that one must not think that Berlin favours a close relationship with Helsinki more than its own success. For a fuller understanding of Germany, it is crucial to know the language. German skills are on the decline in Finnish schools, but the status of the German language is unlikely to diminish in post-Brexit Europe.

Security tensions in the political environment of the Baltic Sea region and worry over Russia’s intentions have increased Berlin’s interest in the Baltic States and the area as a whole. A situation in which Germany continues to consider itself a Baltic country is in Finland’s interests too.

Even in the case of the US, the authors admit that, compared to many others, Finland’s bilateral relationship with America is problem-free and works well. Nevertheless, Americans do not perceive Finland to be as important as members of NATO, for whom Washington is partly responsible (p. 136). At the same time, Finland helps to maintain stability in the Baltic Sea region, which is beneficial to both America’s allies and countries that do not belong to any military alliance. Finland’s political stability suits Russia, too.

It is difficult to overestimate the effect Stockholm’s policies have on Finland, even though this was briefly forgotten during the Nokia boom. Vyacheslav Molotov said as early as autumn 1940 that the Winter War was Sweden’s war. The only possible factor that weakens the relationship between the two countries is the declining knowledge of the Swedish language in Finland.

Sweden has an older and stronger relationship with the US than does Finland. During the Cold War, Sweden found refuge under the US nuclear umbrella. Swedish signals intelligence is highly valued in Washington. A new development is the bilateral military cooperation between Finland and Sweden, whose rapid development has become a fact. The difference lies in Sweden’s refusal to provide assurances or seek them from others, even though Stockholm has admitted that it would not remain a bystander if a member of the EU or a Nordic country should come under attack. Finland recognises the solidarity of the EU but has also said that it will only defend itself.2 The authors admit that geography cannot be disputed and Sweden is territorially more protected than Finland.

Despite the cultural peculiarities of political debate, Finland and Sweden face the same risks. This is expressed in the growing military tension in the Baltic Sea region and related threats. According to the Swedish national defence strategy published in January 2017, the Baltic Sea forms a strategic whole from the perspective of military technology. Moscow has taken the same point of view. Taking this into account, the division of the Baltic Sea into special regional risk zones is a faulty analysis. The main question is the same in both Sweden and Finland: will NATO membership create more problems than it solves? As an observer, one might add that both Stockholm and Helsinki would like the situation to resolve itself without them having to answer this question at all.

As a whole, this book is an enjoyable compendium for a wider readership interested in foreign affairs. However, the questions of what the quadrangle of Finland’s fate means for Helsinki and what kind of conclusions Finland’s leaders should draw remain in the air, with the hope of being answered in the future. This is a pity, considering the authors’ ample experience and expertise. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how Finns discuss matters without actually revealing their true thoughts.

The views expressed are the author’s own.


1 Germany announced that it would boycott informal ministerial meetings unless German translation was provided. Austria joined the boycott. After two meetings of cultural ministers in Oulu and Savonlinna, in which Berlin and Vienna did not participate, a compromise was reached. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the incident “a beginner’s mistake”.

2 This view was most recently expressed by Finnish Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö when introducing the defence policy report on 16 February in Helsinki. See more at