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Seminar on ‘Small States and European Security’, Dublin, November 20-22, 1997

Small states reinvent themselves in the new European security landscape

For small states a big neighbour can sometimes become the ‘most important external affair’. This observation underlined many contributions to the conference on Small States and European Security, organised jointly by the Royal Irish Academy National Committee for the Study of International Affairs and the Finnish Institute in London.

Comparisons between Ireland and Finland have often tempted historians and analysts of international affairs. Both nations have had to accept a variation of the theory suggesting that they have been able to pursue independent foreign policies only insofar as those policies did not represent a threat to a large neighbour’s vital security interests. Also, both countries have declared themselves neutral, albeit for different reasons.

In spite of differences in other respects, both Ireland and Finland have had to define their neutrality against the background of their respective dominant neighbour. When Professor Ronan Fanning (University College Dublin) stated that, in a sense, Irish "neutrality was in effect the outer limit of how independent of British security policy Irish security policy could come", many Finns might have recognised familiar undertones that brought to mind Finnish-Soviet relations during the Cold War.

But there are striking differences between Ireland and Finland as well. Ireland’s geo-strategic position has been described as extremely comfortable. As Professor Fanning put it, "the irony is that the ultimate guarantee of Irish security is that Britannia, albeit now with Uncle Sam, still rules the waves; and, for as long as they do so, it is difficult to imagine any inducement for Ireland to safeguard her security by way of treaty or alliance".

"Once the level of amity that has now characterised Anglo-Irish relations for the larger part of the twentieth century -- above all, since 1949 -- was established, moreover, the impact of geography has been entirely benign."

 Finnish geopolitics

The Finns, on the other hand, have often seen their geopolitical situation as a curse. Professor David Arter (University of Aberdeen, Nordic Policy Studies Centre) gave a graphic account of the dark side of Finnish-Soviet relations during the Cold War, when the Finnish President Urho Kekkonen allowed the country’s Eastern policies to dictate important parts of the internal political decision-making.

"In the 1970s, Finlandisation involved in the person of Urho Kekkonen an all-powerful Finnish president (...) actively supported by and enjoying the confidence of the Soviet Union, whose style of ‘preventive diplomacy’, that is, his concern to avoid an adverse Kremlin reaction, involved the discussion and resolution of all significant domestic Finnish questions with the Soviet Union."

Arter spoke of "a highly submissive or at best highly deferential attitude on the part of the intelligentsia towards the power-holders, that is, the absence of a critical and independent intellectual class". However, the speaker also quoted evidence according to which "civil society was not Finlandized at least totally -- in other words, reduced to conformity..."

The controversy over ‘Finlandisation’ was pursued in a rejoinder from Dr Pertti Joenniemi (a Finn working at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Research in Copenhagen), who asked the audience not to think of Finland’s position during the Cold War solely in terms of the relations with the Soviet Union. Finland needed to preserve her autonomy in her relations with the West as well. According to Joenniemi, one should not necessarily label Finland as a victim either: in terms of trade the country actually gained from the Soviet Union’s economic weakness.

According to Dr Sergei Medvedev (a Russian working at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs), the present NATO debates in Finland "in which the lucrative prospects of membership meet the inherent reluctance to disturb Russia" reveal the nature of psychological dependence.

"The ‘Russian factor’ is obscure and largely unmentioned; the Finnish elite feels uncertain about future developments in Russia, its traumatic memories mixed with fear, concern and curiosity."

 Changing security policies

What about the post-Cold War Europe? According to Dr Teija Tiilikainen (Finnish National Defence College), of all the Nordic countries, Finland has been the most willing to bring about a change in her security policy. "This willingness is based upon an assessment of its position during the Cold War era. Active participation in the European Union as well as in activities that purport to make the Union more effective has been seen as the perfect instrument for achieving this goal, due to the fact that the EU is not a military organisation and is therefore not directed against anybody. Finland has explicitly stated that her membership in the EU is aimed at strengthening her security and that the country is also prepared to reinforce the common foreign and security policy of the Union."

Professor Patrick Keatinge (Trinity College Dublin) asked what is new since the end of the Cold War. According to him, the Cold War emphasis on military confrontation – ‘hard security’ -- has been replaced by a vast range of preventive measures, from the enormously ambitious further enlargement of the European Union to the consideration of ‘soft security’ issues such as nuclear safety and the struggle against transnational criminality.

Together with these new trends, Keatinge remarked, the question of the ‘democratisation’ of security policy has emerged. According to him, one problem in the current situation was the fact that the media has been losing its way in reporting new questions of foreign and security policy. "Why does this matter? At a time of continuing change and complexity in European security it may well be increasingly difficult to sustain the legitimacy of policies of co-operative security."

 Nordic countries and Ireland compared

In the Nordic countries, internationally active foreign policies have probably been widely accepted by domestic publics. According to Professor Clive Archer (Manchester Metropolitan University), "these activist security policies and many of the values involved have reflected those given a high priority in the Nordic domestic systems -- solidarity, equal rights, peaceful settlement of disputes and consensus."

Archer noted that "the end of the Cold War has provided the Nordic countries with the perfect opportunity -- in the form of the three Baltic states -- to externalise their values and export their security concepts".

The speaker added that both the Nordic countries and Ireland "have moved away from their more definite neutral status in the Cold War period to a more pragmatic stance", and that "the Nordic countries have extended their ‘menu of choice’ in the security field by consciously taking the chances offered them, by acting together and by finding their own niche in the Baltic".

"Ireland’s position in the EU and the development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and membership of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe offer the country a wider scope for action than before. Perhaps a more definite effort to find coalitions of like-minded states to join could extend Ireland’s opportunities. In reality, though, Ireland has one major security concern -- that of Northern Ireland -- and until that is suitably ameliorated Ireland’s resources available for a more active security policy must be limited."

 Small states -- a questionable concept?

Dr Joenniemi triggered a lively debate by challenging the concept of ‘small states’. According to him, the concept has not turned out to be fruitful or stimulating for research in international relations.

Joenniemi saw the presumed clarity of the small states concept as illusory when subjected to analysis. "The concept is relative rather than absolute and should not be treated (...) as a measurable property. The elusive nature of the concept is also indicated by the fact that although quite objective in principle, it has turned out to be difficult to draw the lines separating the small from the large. States certainly vary in size, population, political weight etc., but it has turned out to be difficult to capture this variation in any simple, binary manner. Moreover, the efforts made to do so indicate that the value of playing off the small against the large has turned out to be quite limited."

Joenniemi quoted opinions according to which it is hardly possible to speak of a specific way of behaving that can be identified with small states. This view was criticised by some participants as disregarding the fact that small states have certainly been more benign in their behaviour than empires.

Professor Archer thought that the small states concept has values attached to it. "Often the values are ones that suggest weakness, irrelevance, marginalisation, something to be dismissed. This is, more often than not, the implied value given to ‘small states’ by those talking from a ‘big state’, not to say ‘great power’, perspective."

Archer added a point of reflection about the Nordic countries: "So even if the concept of ‘small states’ is a valid one, not all the Nordic states can be placed in that box. Indeed, if smallness is divined in particular functional areas, then Norway is a big oil and shipping power, Finland a newsprint superpower, and Iceland wields a megatonnage in fish."

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