How will you approach policies relating to Russia as a NATO member? Will Finnish membership escalate the conflict with Russia? How do you see China’s development? These were the questions that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) asked the Finnish Foreign Minister before deciding how to vote on Finland’s NATO membership. We were sitting in his Capitol Hill office in May 2022. On the Finnish side, we demonstrated our firm commitment to national defense and our traditionally pragmatic approach to foreign policy. In the end, Senator Paul voted “present” on our membership – an accomplishment, considering his long-standing opposition to NATO’s enlargement. To me, his vote signaled trust in Finland as a country that solves problems instead of causing more of them.
Adapting to NATO Dynamics and Regional Defense Strategies
Finnish-US relations are at an historic high point. For the first time, our countries are treaty allies sworn to each other’s defense. The United States has also become Finland’s largest trading partner. The background for these developments is, of course, the dire security situation in Europe and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. However, it would not have happened if Finland had not taken the lead by applying for NATO membership.
Finland has been close to NATO for a long time through NATO’s Partnership for Peace and as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner (EOP). Even so, it will take time for Finland to learn how to navigate the internal dynamics and politics of a 31-nation alliance. Solidarity for the concerns of all allies and skillful consensus-building will be the keys to successfully advancing and defending Finnish interests.
NATO membership has increased, not decreased, the need for bi-, tri- and minilateral defense cooperation with other countries in our region and beyond. The most important of these partnerships is with the United States. The recently signed Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) facilitates military-to-military cooperation between our countries. For the United States, DCA is a global concept used to regulate troop and material movements between partners and allied nations. The idea is to have a similar set of standards and regulations across the globe to ease planning and respond to crises more effectively.
Regional Security and Cooperation in Northern Europe
In the Finnish case, the agreement is primarily about the United States delivering and planning for the security commitments it has already given us through NATO and efficient deterrence of hostile actors in Northern Europe. The United States now has Defense Cooperation Agreements with Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway. It looks at the region since reinforcements and defense material would flow from the Atlantic Ocean to Norwegian and Swedish harbors and airports in any crisis or conflict and continue to Finland and the Baltic states as founding members of NATO, Norway and Denmark have a long history of close defense cooperation with the United States. Their experiences can benefit Sweden and Finland. Overall, it will be essential to avoid competing for US attention between the Nordic countries and instead focus on a joint approach to US engagement in Northern Europe.
Anchoring the United States to the security of Northern Europe in the long term is a high priority for all Nordic countries. At the same time, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark understand that from a strategic perspective, the United States wants to and needs to focus more on competing with China. Article 3 of NATO’s founding treaty lays the primary burden of responsibility on each member state for their defense and security. This suits the Nordic countries well. By and large, we are unproblematic allies who want to take care of their security and the defense of NATO’s new northeastern flank. In exchange, the Nordic countries seek certainty that the United States will stand with us in a tough spot.
Looking Towards the 2024 Election and Beyond
The US presidential elections will directly impact how transatlantic relations will develop. According to recent polls, many Americans are worried about inflation, the economy, immigration, and global conflicts. In a larger picture, the US population is growing, getting younger and more diverse. More and more families trace their origins to Latin America. For Europe, we must engage broadly with American society to foster and uphold connections and understanding between Europeans and Americans.
No matter who wins the US presidency, a good working relationship with the next administration is necessary for Finland and other countries bordering Russia. The most important thing we can do to achieve this end is to take care of our national defense capabilities, contribute to collective defense by showing solidarity with the security concerns of other allies, and actively take part in solving everyday problems in Europe and globally. Instead of bringing more issues to Washington, D.C., we would do well to solve problems both in our neighborhood and more broadly.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), where he studies Finnish foreign policy, Northern European Security, and NATO. Before joining FIIA, he worked as a Special Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2019-2023). He is also a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki.