As history is written by the victors, so is the agenda of world politics dictated by the powerful. The themes and priorities of the international debate are set by a handful of politicians, officials, editors and scholars in half a dozen capitals: a form of cultural imperialism which is not rendered any less effective by its being unintended. The view of the world underlying influential analyses of international relations reflects primarily the interests and aspirations of the great powers. Smaller nations are treated as objects of policy, statistical units in categories of states classified in terms of their relationship to their respective protectors or oppressors, as ours and theirs-pawns to be gained or lost in the conflicts or deals between the great powers.

In the case of my own country, Finland, the difficulty of gaining recognition and understanding on her own terms, as an autonomous actor rather than a function of the policies of others, is compounded by the language curtain that conceals the innermost life of the Finnish people from outsiders. Few foreign diplomats, journalists or scholars know Finnish, and only a fraction of the texts needed for a comprehensive understanding of the past and present of the Finnish people is available in other languages. Much of the information about Finland available to foreigners is secondhand and second-rate. Since Finland on the whole has been successful in her efforts to keep out of the quarrels between the great powers, there has been no incentive for those who make policy or influence opinion in the leading capitals of the world to follow Finnish affairs; their knowledge about the country tends to be superficial and fragmentary.

As a result, Finland is forever at the mercy of the itinerant columnist who after lunch and cocktails in Helsinki is ready to pronounce himself upon the fate of the Finnish people. A person visiting, say, London for the first time, who does not know English and has only a vague notion of the significance of Dunkirk or the role of Winston Churchill, would hardly be regarded as qualified to comment on the British scene today. An equally profound ignorance about Finland is no deterrent. Obsessed as they usually are with one single aspect of the Finnish situation, relations with the Soviet Union, visitors from the West almost invariably produce a one-dimensional view of the country, corresponding to the current state of Western relations with the Soviet Union. Thus, in 1939-40, the Finns were idolized for their resistance against the Red Army; in 1941-44, ostracized for continuing to fight the Russians; at the end of the Second World War, castigated for their failure to heed Western advice to trust Moscow; in 1948, written off as lost for signing a treaty with the Soviet Union; and finally, at the present time, they are subjected to a kind of character assassination through the use of the term "Finlandization" to denote supine submission to Soviet domination.

Is it possible that the Finnish people have resigned themselves to giving away what they were willing to die for during the last war? Or is the truth rather that the purpose of Finnish policy throughout these decades has remained steady, while the means employed to maintain the independence and way of life of the nation have varied in accordance with changing circumstances beyond Finnish control?

For an answer we must look back briefly to what happened 40 years ago, for without knowledge of the elementary historical facts concerning Finland's role in the Second World War it is not possible to understand her present situation.


In October 1939 the Finnish government was invited to send a delegation to Moscow to discuss "concrete political questions." Stalin himself explained to the Finns what these were. He said he needed more depth for the defense of Leningrad and this could be obtained only at the expense of Finland. The Finnish border had to be moved farther north from the city and the Soviet Navy had to have a base on the southern coast of Finland close to Helsinki.

Stalin's demands were made in the shadow of his agreement with Hitler giving the Soviet government a free hand in the eastern part of the Baltic. The three Baltic states had already given in to similar Soviet demands. Berlin advised the Finns to do the same. Stockholm told them not to expect military aid from Sweden. London and Paris were uninterested, and Washington remained neutral. The Finnish leaders knew they stood alone, and they agreed to give up some territory north of Leningrad. But they refused to yield the base Stalin asked for, fearing that it might be used to subvert Finnish independence.

On this issue the talks in Moscow broke down, and at the end of November 1939 Stalin launched his attack. For a hundred winter days the Finns held out, but in the end they had to make peace on terms that appeared to be worse than the ones they had rejected before the attack.

A trivial tale in the context of world history: throughout the ages bloody skirmishes have been fought along the edges of empires. In the vast drama of the Second World War, the Soviet-Finnish conflict was merely an incident within an episode, a local Soviet campaign to move by force a recalcitrant pawn into the square assigned to it in the deal between Stalin and Hitler. The spotlight quickly moved on to new campaigns, fresh tragedies; Finland once again sank below the news horizon of the international media. It was generally assumed that the Finns had shared the fate of the other nations of Eastern Europe.

As a result, the survival of Finland after the Second World War was regarded in the West with the embarrassed disbelief with which families sometimes greet the return of a soldier who has been reported missing in battle and presumed dead. The continued existence of a small independent state, a Western democracy, next door to the Soviet Union, maintaining its freedom not in a state of permanent confrontation but in apparent harmony with its communist neighbor, ran counter to the conventional wisdom with regard to Soviet aims. According to British Cabinet documents recently released, Ernest Bevin, then Foreign Secretary, warned in 1948 that Moscow was planning "physical control of the Eurasian land mass and eventual control of the world: no less a thing than that." How then could Finland maintain her freedom without the benefit of Western military protection? Finnish independence had to be illusory, or a ruse to deceive and confuse the West; at best an anomaly which sooner or later-sooner rather than later-would be put right.

Even today, more than 30 years later, this view underlies much of Western comment on Finland. As none of the usual clichés or labels of international politics quite fits the Finnish case, it is called an "exception." But an exception to what? The term implies that Finland somehow has evaded her predetermined place in the natural scheme of things. That is why many observers devote their analysis of the Finnish situation to a search for the reason why it is not different. Such an approach is bound to lead astray. The pattern from which Finland is believed to have deviated is constructed from the course of events in countries with which Finland never has had much in common. No wonder some Western writers continue to keep alive the myth that Finland's survival was the result of Stalin's sentimental attachment to the place where he had met Lenin for the first time!

The truth is that Stalin twice made a serious effort to crush Finland. The first was of course the Winter War. As the Red Army invaded Finland in 1939, Stalin set up a puppet government composed of Finnish communists living in exile to take over power in Finland: a clear signal of his intention to conquer the country. Apparently he believed in a quick and easy victory. So did the rest of the world. But as the Soviet offensive was stopped all along the long frontier, the situation was reassessed both in Moscow and in the Western capitals. Britain and France began making plans to use aiding Finland as a pretext for an attempt to seize Narvik and the Swedish iron ore mines. A prolongation of the Finnish campaign threatened to embroil the Soviet Union in a wider conflict. Stalin decided to drop his puppet and agreed to reopen negotiations with the Finnish government, thus conceding to the Finns a decisive defensive victory. From then on the war was no longer about Finland's independence; it was about territory-a negotiable issue.

Stalin's second effort to conquer Finland was made in the summer of 1944, after Finland had joined Germany in an attempt to recover the land taken from her in 1940. As the Allied forces landed in France, a massive Soviet offensive was launched against Finland; its aim, according to Soviet military historians, was the occupation of Helsinki. But once again Finnish resistance was strong enough to make the price of conquest prohibitive. The offensive bogged down and the Soviet divisions were urgently needed for more important tasks, above all for the race to Berlin. Stalin no longer insisted on unconditional surrender and accepted, as in 1940, a negotiated settlement.

Thus in a conflict between a great power with wide and varied interests and commitments and a small nation with a single objective of survival, the balance of forces cannot always be calculated by simple arithmetic.


Finland emerged from the war a crippled nation. Yet, while defeated, it had not been conquered. Besides Great Britain and the U.S.S.R., Finland was the only one of all the European countries involved in World War II which was not occupied; the only one to maintain the continuity of her Constitution and political institutions; the only one to make the transition from war to peace without an internal rupture-without a single execution.

This is the key to understanding Finland's postwar position. Finland's continued existence as an independent and neutral state, a Western democracy, far from being an anomaly and therefore something precarious and transient, was part of the pattern established in Europe as the result of World War II. This pattern prevails today in all its parts. All the countries liberated by the Western allies are now members of NATO; all the countries liberated by the Soviet Union are members of the Warsaw Pact. The only countries which remain outside the two blocs are those which managed to stay out of the war, plus two: Finland, which was not occupied, and Yugoslavia, which liberated itself.

The outcome of the war made it possible for Finland to approach the task of creating a new relationship with the Soviet Union without the resentment that follows from humiliation, on the basis of mutual respect.

Another fact of crucial importance was that the Finnish nation, in spite of the loss of territory, remained undivided. The entire population of the ceded areas, one-tenth of Finland's total population, voluntarily left their homes and moved into what remained of Finland, where they were resettled. Relations with the U.S.S.R. would probably be very different from what they are today if a part of the Finnish nation were now living under Soviet rule.

The new relationship between Finland and the Soviet Union grew out of the experiences and consequences of the war. For Finland the lesson of the war was clear: with the defeat and division of Germany there was no longer any counterforce in Eastern Europe to balance Soviet power; Scandinavian cooperation, important as it was and continues to be, did not extend to security; and the Western powers were unwilling and unable to commit themselves to the defense of Finland. As an outpost of a Western alliance, Finland would always be the first to be overrun in the event of a conflict, yet never strong enough to influence decisions on war and peace. She would risk becoming once again, as in 1939, the small change in a deal between the great powers. The solution, therefore, was to develop a policy of neutrality designed to reassure the Soviet need for security on Russia's doorstep.

On the Soviet side, too, the experiences of the war seem to have prompted a reassessment of aims and methods. When Finland was discussed by the Big Three at Tehran in 1943, Stalin told Roosevelt and Churchill that "a nation which had fought so hard for its independence deserved consideration." The idea of converting Finland to communism receded. The evolution of Soviet policy with regard to Finland can only be understood as part of Soviet policy in Europe as a whole. If there is one single theme that could be said to have dominated the European policy of the Soviet Union since the end of the Second World War, it is surely the maintenance of the status quo. From Yalta in 1945 to Helsinki in 1975, Moscow has pursued with single-minded persistence the goal of Western recognition of the borders as well as the power structure that emerged in Europe as a result of the war. Since the status of Finland as it is today is part of that structure, it would make no sense from the Soviet point of view to try to change it: such a breach of the status quo would yield little, if any, advantage, while the damage to the fundamental concept of the European policy of the Soviet Union might be irreparable.

The Finnish policy of neutrality and the Soviet concern for security have been married in the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance concluded in 1948. I should make clear at this point what is meant by Finnish neutrality. It is not based on a juridical claim under international law. It is a political statement describing the way Finland wishes to conduct her foreign relations, not only in some future conflict, but here and now: to remain outside military alliances and to keep out of the conflicts between the blocs; to decide independently how to react to shifting international situations; to maintain friendly relations with all countries.

The treaty of 1948 takes note of Finland's desire to remain outside the conflicts between the great powers and then goes on to make provision for the event that Finland nevertheless is attacked. In essence, the treaty commits Finland not to allow a foreign invader to use Finnish territory for aggression against the Soviet Union. Like so many other treaties made in the aftermath of the Second World War, it is directed against the ghosts of the past. It is an agreement to prevent history from repeating itself. With the passage of time its provisions have evolved like Chinese characters-from simple pictures describing physical objects toward more abstract concepts. This does not make the treaty less important. It is a source of permanent reassurance to a neighbor which, in spite of its enormous power, still seems to suffer from a sense of insecurity bred by the absence of natural or permanent borders.

If I were asked to use a single word to characterize Soviet policy with regard to Finland, I would say stability. It is a conservative policy, designed to keep things as they are, and devoid of ideological ambitions. In fact, the strength of the Communist Party in Finland has declined steadily, and what is more important, its character has changed. The party has split into two factions, and the majority faction has shown willingness to abide by the rules of parliamentary democracy. Revolutionary communism is a spent force in Finland today.

Stability is the watchword also for Finnish-Soviet trade relations. They are based on long-term frame agreements and long-term contracts. The Soviet share of Finland's total trade has remained steady at between 15 and 20 percent for a quarter of a century. Two-thirds of imports from the U.S.S.R. are in the form of energy-crude oil and natural gas-while the bulk of exports consist of manufactured goods-ships and machinery. The pattern of Finland's foreign trade is determined by economic realities, not politics. Trade with the Soviet bloc is not an alternative to trade with the West: it is complementary. Western Europe remains Finland's principal trading partner, to which she is tied through membership in the European free-trade area and a free-trade treaty with the European Economic Community.


Critics of Finnish policy claim that the stability in relations with the Soviet Union is maintained at a price that limits Finnish independence: this, I believe, is what is meant by Finlandization. The price is that Finland must avoid antagonizing Moscow.

Actually, Finnish policy is designed to avoid antagonizing any important power. This surely is the course of wisdom for a small neutral nation which is heavily dependent on foreign trade. But of course it is especially important for every Finnish government to consider what effect its actions might have on its powerful neighbor. In an international crisis Finnish security may depend on whether Moscow believes it can trust Finland not to help its enemies. Such trust can only be secured by consistent behavior over a long period of time. It is therefore not only unrealistic but also irresponsible to make overt hostility to the Soviet Union a criterion of Finnish independence.

In this regard there is a fundamental difference between Finland and Romania, which often is overlooked in comparisons between the two. Romania, an ally of the Soviet Union maintaining strict Stalinist rule, from time to time uses anti-Soviet gestures to signal its separate identity; Finland, a neutral country, tends to play down its foreign policy differences with the Soviet Union while maintaining the ideological gulf that divides the two countries. Ironically, Western commentators frequently delight in applauding the Romanian pinpricks and deplore Finnish restraint, ignoring the suppression of human rights in Romania and the freedom prevailing in Finland.

The real issue raised by the term Finlandization is whether or not Finland has had to give up any essential national interests in order to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union. Here it is important to distinguish between substance and appearance, between abstract principle and political reality and to make the distinction in terms of the Finnish experience. Once again, it is necessary to take account of the legacy of the war.

Finland lost 100,000 men in the years 1939-45, a heavy toll on a nation of four and a half million. Every village has its war memorial. André Malraux, during his visit to Finland in 1963, was taken to see the war graves in a rural cemetery and told how every soldier killed in action whose body could be found was taken home to be buried. Visibly moved, he exclaimed, "Enfin un peuple civilisé."

A civilized people: not only because it honors those who have sacrificed their lives for the nation's freedom, but also because it has had the wisdom to follow a policy that has made the sacrifice meaningful. "Only uncivilized tribes fight to the last man," wrote the Finnish statesman-philosopher J.V. Snellman more than a century ago. In the aftermath of the Polish uprising against Russian rule in 1863, he warned his countrymen not to let their emotional identification with the Polish fight for freedom endanger the essential interests of their own nation by provoking the czar into moving against Finland. A civilized nation, he wrote, is conscious of its duty to bend itself to external necessity in order to safeguard its own future, to rely solely on its own resources, and to desire and seek only what it can achieve and maintain by its own strength. Or to quote Rousseau, "He is truly free, who desires what he can perform, and does what he desires."

Snellman's teaching continues to influence Finnish political thought and behavior. The Finns deny themselves the luxury of making emotionally satisfying gestures. They are careful to avoid arousing suspicions in Moscow or engaging the prestige of the Soviet superpower. They refrain from currying favor with the West by advertising their rejection of such Soviet overtures as might compromise their neutrality. They discourage the use of Finnish territory as an escape route for Soviet dissidents. They play down criticism of such Soviet actions as the suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956 or the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 or the intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, knowing that their silence hurts the cause of the victims about as much or as little as Western protests help it.

Such Finnish restraint is often taken to mean a limitation of sovereignty, an abdication of the national interest. It is of course the very opposite: an assertion of the supremacy of national egotism over the claims of ideological solidarity. Finns learned about ideological solidarity in 1939. Even Marshal Gustav Mannerheim, a man unusually free of sentimentality, was moved to declare at the end of the Winter War, "We have paid our debt to the West to the last drop of blood."

Those who complain about Finland's lack of engagement in the cause of Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights fail to see her dedication to the cause of the freedom of Finland, Finnish democracy and the human rights of Finnish citizens. Finland is not neutral in terms of ideology. There is no symmetry in her relations with the Western world on the one hand and the socialist countries on the other. These relations are structurally different. Finland is a Western country ideologically and culturally, and part of the Western economic system. Relations with the West are thus organic, while cooperation with the socialist countries across the ideological frontier is conducted in a more formalized manner.


What makes Finland unique among Western countries today is the nature of her security policy. It is divorced, as it were, from the nexus of her other international relations. It is not based on historical or cultural ties and affinities or shared values, but on an unsentimental calculation of the national interest.

There are of course historical precedents for such a policy. One is described by Henry Kissinger in his early work A World Restored, in which he writes about Metternich's efforts to win French confidence after the defeat of Austria in 1809:

It is a policy which places a peculiar strain on the domestic principles of obligation, for it can never be legitimized by its real motives. Its success depends on its appearance of sincerity, on the ability, as Metternich once said, of seeming the dupe without being it. . . . In such periods the knave and the hero, the traitor and the statesman are distinguished, not by their acts, but by their motives. . . . Collaboration can be carried out successfully only by a social organism of great cohesiveness and high morale. . . .1

It would be foolish to claim that the Finnish performance over the past decades has been flawless. There are both dupes and knaves among Finnish politicians. There are editors who confuse timidity with wisdom. There have been lapses from the strict application of neutrality in the disputes between the great powers. There is an inclination to use a double standard in judging international events. But the validity of a political concept is not nullified by human failings in its execution.

On the whole, Finnish society has retained the cohesiveness, self-discipline and realism required to sustain a foreign policy based on a rational perception of the national security interest. It is a policy supported by a firm national consensus. Indeed, the consensus today extends beyond foreign policy to a wider range of issues. With the integration of the majority of communists into the parliamentary system, Finnish democracy today is more solidly based than ever before in history. There are few countries in the world which can match the Finnish record of political continuity and stability: the Parliament has functioned unchanged since 1906, the Constitution has been in force without substantial revision since 1919. The violent and tragic convulsions that most of Europe has gone through during the twentieth century have hardly touched Finland.

Finland's postwar policy can be summed up as reconciliation and cooperation with the Soviet Union, neutrality in international affairs, membership in the Scandinavian community, economic integration into the Western free-trade system, and active participation through the United Nations in efforts to strengthen international peace and security. Would the world thank them if the Finns were to act with less restraint or caution? Machiavelli warned the Prince not to get into a situation in which his enemies were close by and his friends far away. Imagine what a Cuban crisis in reverse would be created if Finland were to ignore Machiavelli's wise advice. In this sense the policy of Finland has not only served her own interests well but also contributed to world peace.


The threat to Finland in the 1980s is not communism, nor is it absorption by economic means into the Soviet orbit: the Soviet Union lacks the dynamism to pose such a threat. A separate, local Soviet military thrust to conquer Finland is excluded by the logic of Moscow's own policy in Europe. Indeed, Finland as part of the European structure is as secure, or as vulnerable, as is the structure as a whole. Not surprisingly, Finland actively seeks to contribute to efforts to make it stronger.

Yet an analysis of the geopolitical situation of Finland deals only with one aspect of the issue of national independence. True, freedom from outside intervention or other external constraints naturally remains of fundamental importance. But the problem of small nations today is more complex. It arises from the bewildering paradox presented by the seemingly conflicting tendencies of our time: on the one hand an advancing integration and internationalization of economic activity, on the other a continuing fragmentation of political authority. Integration offers small nations unprecedented opportunities for material advancement through the benefits of a developing international division of labor; but it also limits the ability of national governments to manage their internal affairs-to be masters of their own fate.

The danger to national independence posed by integration has been graphically described by a French politician of the Left, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who recently declared that if things go on as they are going now, by the year 2000 France will be a kind of "Algeria" appended to the United States: the majority of the French, "in Basque berets, their liter of red wine and their Camembert in their pouches, will continue to speak French, surviving in mountain villages." A caricature? Of course. But also a warning that touches a sensitive nerve in contemporary Europe.

If the French national identity is seen to be in danger, how could a much smaller and weaker nation like Finland retain its economic and cultural autonomy in an integrated Europe? Finland has already lost more than 200,000 of her citizens through emigration to Sweden-more than twice the number lost in fighting the Russians. It may well be asked which of her two neighbors will prove to be more dangerous to the national identity of the Finnish people in the 1980s-the conservative superpower behind the closed Eastern border or the bright lights of the open society in the West? The military virtues displayed by the Finnish people in the 1940s have no relevance to the defense against the threat of a gradual dilution of national identity in a world dominated by a few powerful entities able to exploit the new "supertechnologies." The survival of Finnish independence will depend on the ability of the Finns to continue to maintain the high degree of social cohesion, self-reliance and originality of national spirit they have shown in the past decades.

1 Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964, p. 20.


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  • Max Jakobson is Managing Director of the Council of Economic Organizations in Finland. He was the Permanent Representative of Finland to the United Nations from 1965 to 1972, and Ambassador to Sweden from 1972 to 1975. He is the author of Diplomacy of the Winter War, Finnish Neutrality, and other works. This article was originally prepared for the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales and is being published simultaneously in Politique Etrangère.
  • More By Max Jakobson