I have read the entire text of the recently concluded Supplemental Defence Cooperation Agreement between Norway and the United States. If the upcoming Finnish agreement is identical, especially with regards to the Annex about permitting US bases, it will significantly reduce Finnish sovereignty, and severely restrict Finnish geopolitical options.
No doubt the Finnish agreement, like the Norwegian one, will contain flowery language about compliance with international law, mutual consultations in all situations, etc. But we should always look past such things and consider the tangible, real consequences. Since the negotiations have been conducted in secret, we have so far lacked a domestic impact assessment of what the various options in a defence agreement might entail. With this text, I’m hoping to at least start the analysis and the discussion.
A number of other countries that previously had separate defence arrangements of various kinds with the United States outside the NATO framework, have now entered into similar defence agreements as Norway. As an explanation for all the new agreements, it has been emphasised that the US recently has been striving to unify the agreements, on the grounds that this will make it much easier to move American personnel between the different countries. This somewhat prescient justification can be interpreted in different ways. A reasonably keen observer will also notice that the existence of these agreements openly recognises that NATO’s Article 5 is a more or less empty paragraph that doesn’t really commit anyone to much. I am assuming the proponents of US bases on Finnish soil are instead hoping that US bases would be a more concrete deterrent with regards to a potential Russian attack.
But they are rather selfishly assuming a rather unlikely scenario: that a Russian attack – in our case against Finland – would occur as an isolated event from the rest of world politics. Perhaps it’s the more simplistic hypotheses about why Russia attacked Ukraine that have led some to believe that it’s ”business as usual” for Russia to attack a country ”just because it is there”. Or because the attacked country represents a form of government that would be ”dangerous” for the Russian administration to allow in a neighbour. But this is with a high degree of probability not the case. I have on my blog discussed far more credible hypotheses for the attack on Ukraine, so no more on that here.
Seeking US bases solely for the sake of potential deterrence readily ignores all the obvious undesirable consequences: it creates a permanent legitimate military target, not only in the event of a military conflict between the US and Russia which initially wouldn’t even involve Finland, but also in the event of a conflict between the US and some other country, such as China. And this even in the case that the first clash or skirmish between the US and any adversary would take place on the other side of the globe.
Instead of preventing a major war, agreements and bases like these risk ensuring that localised conflicts escalate. History also shows that when great powers start to move, alliances can often change in surprising ways, especially when the interests of smaller countries happen to coincide with those of one or the other great powers. So despite of today’s flowery reciprocal assurances, an American military base on Finnish territory during a global conflict can quickly transform into a military or a political liability.
Anyone debating Finnish security should realise that superpowers like the US have no ”friends”. Like all other large countries, the US has national interests, and global ones at that. This does not mean that co-operation is impossible, or that at certain times mutual interests may even coincide. But we have to realise that one or more American bases on Finnish territory will first and foremost serve American interests. We will only become a new geopolitical pawn for the US administration – not the other way round, if anyone has been nurturing such fantasies.
Curiously, many seem to be able to completely ignore how much our own geopolitical manoeuvrability is limited with US troops in the country. In a sovereign state this whole idea should in peacetime be perceived as a major deviation from the norm.
I have often heard as a rebuttal: ”Better American troops in Finland than Russian”. This argument is of course null, as we are not currently faced with a choice between these two alternatives; we simply have to choose between harbouring foreign troops on our territory or not. But conversely, I of course see a certain perverse logic in this argument. Because philosophically and conceptually, both options should be exactly equivalent anomalies for a sovereign state with sovereign control over its own military forces.
I have also been told that I am worrying unnecessarily. Denmark and Norway have signed similar agreements, and look at them – nothing dangerous has happened.
The scope of this text doesn’t allow for a detailed examination of the military history of Denmark and Norway during the last major war – suffice to say that their experiences largely explains their basic attitude towards such defence agreements. But at least those who engage in these kinds of uninformed comparisons could pull out a map and look at the geographical and geopolitical positions of our three countries. Denmark’s border with Russia is zero kilometres long, Norway’s 196, while Finland’s border with Russia is 1340 kilometres long. Finland has been part of the Russian Empire, Denmark and Norway have not. Finland has fought several bloody wars against Russia. Denmark and Norway have not.
With American troops on our territory, we are guaranteed – regardless of what we say in public – to create a 1340 kilometre long tense border, entirely of our own making. Curiously, there seem to be many people in Finland who see this as a desirable development. But no one has yet been able to explain to me in which way a militarily tense border with Russia serves Finland’s national interests.
”Times have changed. Time for you to admit it.” has also been thrown at me. Of course times have changed. What else is new? Times are always changing. So what? Geography however, doesn’t change. See discussion above.
”American bases would send an important message”. This is another phrase I hear quite often. In fact, this kind of ”messaging” seems to have suffered huge inflation recently, because quite a lot of the current debate with regards to just about anything seems not to be about ambitions to actually achieve something, but more about messaging an ambition.
To the extent that anybody engaged in military and geopolitical matters is concerned with sending ”messages”, as opposed to engaging in cool, practical and pragmatic realpolitik, it is worth asking what kind of message we are really sending if we negotiate to allow American troops on our own territory. Personally, I think we are sending a pretty clear message that we have abandoned the military doctrine that has served, and should continue to serve us well. That is, Finland is prepared in all situations to give even a vastly superior enemy such a nose bleed that any potential attacker will think twice before taking action. By negotiating for American troops on our soil, we are merely messaging that we consider ourselves militarily weak. If this is indeed the case, this weakness should of course be remedied by investing more in our own defence.
But in the end, discussing ”messages” is eventually totally uninteresting. Great powers care as little about messages as they do about international laws, ”rules based world order” or ”common values”, unless such cosy factors happen to coincide with their own national and geopolitical interests. Recognising this, and acknowledging it to ourselves, will open up avenues for all sorts of productive cooperation between countries, including with the US.