Should Finland join NATO?

The public debate on Finland joining NATO has been marked by misrepresentation and historical amnesia.

Close to 60 percent of Finns are understood to oppose their country joining NATO [AFP/Getty Images]

The prime minister of Finland, Jyrki Katainen of the National Coalition Party, made headlines recently with a peculiar assertion on the question of Finland joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). According to Katainen, the overwhelming opposition to the NATO membership by the Finnish public is “an insufficient reason” to reject NATO membership.

“It cannot be presumed that the public is able to draw conclusions on such a major question, since many people don’t even have a chance to familiarise themselves with these things to the extent the politicians do,” he elaborated.

The remarks, both curious and alarming, serve as a telling reminder that there are powerful factions within the Finnish establishment eager to bring Finland fully on board with NATO, led by the US, fostering bilateral relations between Helsinki and Washington and to express stronger support for the US role in world affairs.

Of the Finnish factions supporting the country’s NATO membership, the one with the biggest clout is the National Coalition Party. Having gained 44 of the 200 seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections, this right-wing party became, for the first time in its history, the largest political party in Finland.

Among other prominent Finnish actors with a pro-NATO agenda is Helsingin Sanomat, the most influential Finnish daily newspaper and the largest subscription newspaper in the Nordic countries. In 2006, the then editor-in-chief Janne Virkkunen confirmed that the paper was in favour of Finland joining NATO. Besides a number of National Coalition Party members advocating Finland’s NATO membership, and, as was to be expected, Helsingin Sanomat has featured a great deal of pro-NATO advocacy during the ongoing Crimean crisis.

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Prime Minister Katainen has emphasised his fondness of US government policy and that of its allies. In 2012, he described his meeting with US Vice-President Joe Biden as “fantastic”, praised Finnish-US relations and informed the Finnish media that Biden told him that there was “not a single problem between the two countries”.

Katainen has also declared that Finland should regard Israel as the appropriate model for its economic development. With Israel having the highest poverty rate in the OECD – as well as OECD’s fifth largest gap between the rich and the poor – Katainen’s choice of economic reference took many by surprise.

Conventionally, roughly a fifth of Finns have favoured joining NATO, while a considerable majority of the public has opposed the move. However, whether the public will maintain its opinion is uncertain, partly because of a campaign of misinformation and lobbying by Finnish pro-NATO sectors.

Be that as it may, a recent Finnish poll suggested that 59 percent of the Finns remain opposed to Finland joining NATO; only 22 percent were in favour.

Praising NATO’s track record

While Finland’s peripheral location and small population have traditionally rendered the country a somewhat marginal actor in world affairs, the current mobilisation by Finnish pro-NATO political and media actors and the ongoing debate on Finland’s future relationship with NATO may indeed have prominent international implications.

Instead of focusing efforts on convincing people that joining the alliance would further Finland’s national security, many of the pro-NATO advocates are seeking to bring about a radical change in Finns’ perception of the organisation, by embarking on quite a different PR mission, – vacuously praising its ostensible virtues.

A case in point is a recent petition signed by a handful of Finnish cultural figures, advocating Finland’s NATO membership:

“We wish to belong to a community of states ruled by law that respect freedom, democracy, and human rights – a community of nations that have committed themselves to upholding these values. To combine their forces, these countries have established the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. […] Democratic states do not wage war on one another. Together NATO and the European Union are among the most successful peace organisations in the history of the world.”

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Putting aside the cherished US foreign policy tenet of directly and indirectly destroying democratically elected regimes around the world – whether in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954 or in Chile in 1973, to name but a few examples – the above characterisations make a mockery of NATO’s actual historical record even within EU and NATO countries.

Remembering Operation Gladio

The petition’s formulations reflect an extravagant shortcoming of prevailing public discussion in Finland on NATO: refusing to acknowledge the history of Operation Gladio. Even a superficial look into the matter leads to quite different conclusions on NATO’s relationship to “freedom, democracy, and human rights” than the one presented by the petitioners.

Operation Gladio was the codename for an extensive clandestine NATO operation in Europe that went undetected for decades. It organised underground stay-behind military structures in a number of European countries (including Finland), collaborated with right-wing extremist and terrorist groups and undermined the democratic processes of the states targeted by the campaign. The secret NATO operation was fiercely condemned by the European parliament when the programme was finally revealed in 1990.

Voicing a number of pressing and grave concerns, the European parliament resolution deserves to be quoted at length:

“A. having regard to the revelation by several European governments of the existence for 40 years of a clandestine parallel intelligence and armed operations organisation in several Member States of the Community,

B. whereas for over 40 years this organisation has escaped all democratic controls and has been run by the secret services of the states concerned in collaboration with NATO,

C. fearing the danger that such clandestine network may have interfered illegally in the internal political affairs of Member States or may still do so,

D. whereas in certain Member States military secret services (or uncontrolled branches thereof) were involved in serious cases of terrorism and crime as evidenced by, various judicial inquiries,

E. whereas these organisations operated and continue to operate completely outside the law since they are not subject to any parliamentary control and frequently those holding the highest government and constitutional posts are kept in the dark as to these matters,

F. whereas the various ‘Gladio’ organisations have at their disposal independent arsenals and military resources which give them an unknown strike potential, thereby jeopardising the democratic structures of the countries in which they are operating or have been operating,

G. greatly concerned at the existence of decision-making and operational bodies which are not subject to any form of democratic control and are of a completely clandestine nature at a time when greater Community cooperation in the field of security is a constant subject of discussion.”

Reading this resolution, one cannot but wonder how has NATO been upholding the values of the rule of law or of democracy.

Conveniently ignoring the track record of NATO, the US and the UK of collaborating with fascist organisations and political figures – be they Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Klaus Barbie or the Turkish fascist leader Alparslan Turkes – among the signatories of the Finnish pro-NATO petition is a vice-chairman of the Finnish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Indeed, a vice-chairman of an alleged anti-fascist committee describing the US-led NATO no more nor less than “a community of states ruled by law that respect freedom, democracy, and human rights” arguably indicates that there is no shortage of historical revisionism in the public discussion on NATO in Finland.

It is possible that Finland’s membership in the US-led military alliance could come into being through successful attempts by the pro-NATO elements to either circumvent the democratic process or to manipulate it with disinformation. It remains unclear whether the Finnish public will be able, in the coming months and years, to thwart such efforts.

Bruno Jantti is an investigative journalist specialising in international politics.