Diplomacy Without Pique
At this time next week, we might know if President Donald Trump has been elected to a second term. This election campaign has focused little on foreign policy despite foreign attempts to interfere in election campaigns both in 2016 and 2020 and the loss of American standing in the world. The discontinuities that the Trump administration has brought to American foreign policy has tested the continuities of Finland’s policy toward the United States. Finland obviously has not been alone in this challenge.
The goal of Finland’s foreign policy since World War II has been to avoid all possible conflicts not just with its eastern neighbor, but with all major powers. Finland’s constitution states that the president in collaboration with the prime minister and cabinet determines the country’s foreign relations. The prime minister and cabinet are primarily responsible for relations with the European Union. In relations with other countries the president very often has a leading role particularly in relations with Russia, China, and the United States. Every president of Finland since World War II has made it an extremely high bend-over-backwards priority to maintain very good relations with the United States. The one mild exception to this is Tarja Halonen (2000-2012), who made known her opposition to the Iraq War.
Halonen’s successor since 2012 has been Sauli Niinistö, whose second and final term in the office ends in 2024. President Trump’s dealings with President Niinistö demonstrate President Trump’s disrespect for foreign leaders who are not dictators. It also has demonstrated to what extent Finland’s foreign policy leaders will withstand any embarrassment to maintain good relations.
President Niinistö became best known to Americans during his visit to Washington D.C. in October 2019. What was supposed to be a press conference with both presidents speaking about Finnish-American relations, President Trump erupted into a seemingly never-ending screed concerning his impending impeachment. President Niinistö became yet another prop in Donald Trump’s show.
This was not the first time President Niinistö was a prop for the American president. In the previous year in July 2018 President Niinistö hosted a summit conference between Presidents Trump and Putin in which President Trump famously proclaimed that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election because President Putin told him so. A few months later Trump has also cited President Niinistö as a source for his claims that forest fires are not as common in Finland because Finns go out and sweep their forests of dead brush.
Despite the treatment President Niinistö has received from President Trump, the Finnish president has not shown any pique for reasons that go deep into how Finland historically has conducted its foreign policy. First, as stated earlier, relations with the great powers are to be maintained regardless the cost to national pride or sacrifice of the country’s values as a democracy. It is the survival instinct of a small country. Realpolitik but without the military firepower. Second, Finns for decades lived by the motto that there is no such thing as bad publicity as far as their country is concerned. This belief has remained even as Finland in recent years has gained very positive publicity internationally, some of it actually richly deserved. Third, relations between two open societies such as the United States and Finland are much greater than one American presidency, no matter how narcissistic and destructive. As president, Sauli Niinistö has clearly used Urho Kekkonen as a role model. Hosting meetings between the USA and Russia fits the president’s self-image. In addition to the summit in 2018, Helsinki is the location of American-Russian nuclear talks.
Despite having to serve as a prop, President Niinistö has been one of the few democratically elected European leaders that President Trump consistently has said only nice things about over the last four years. Trump has not said anything bad about Finland either, even if for a while he thought that Finland belonged to Russia. If there is one thing President Trump understands it is leverage, and actually Finland has some for the moment. Finland is shopping for new fighter jets to replace its current fleet of F-18 Hornets. Of the five finalists two are American: the Lockheed-Martin F-35 and the MacDonnell Douglas F/A Superhornet. The other finalists are France’s Dassault Rafale, Sweden’s Saab Grippen, and the multinational Eurofighter Typhoon. A President Biden will not weaken relations with Finland if it does not buy American. He has been around long enough to remember that during the Cold War Finland bought its fighter aircraft from the USSR. A Finnish decision not to buy American in a Trump second term might turn President Niinistö, who, like Trump, would serve until 2424, from a prop into a target.