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The Left

Why the Left Is Accepting Finnish NATO Membership

(THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

With that said, however, as a country with a 70-year commitment to welfarism, it would not be desirable to substitute this for Russia’s brand of plutocratic capitalism.”

As a formal Finnish application to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) appears imminent, I often find myself in the position—as a British-born permanent resident of Finland—of refraining from joining in online debates about NATO expansionism and the Ukraine conflict in general. The gulf between those on the online (and activist) left in the United Kingdom, United States, and Italy and the majority of my left-of-center friends in Finland (and in other Nordic and Eastern-European countries) is too great to bridge in a simple comment thread. It is simply not worth the frustration, as many Western leftists dismiss me as a NATO shill or as being jaundiced, given Finland’s 830 mile-long border with Russia. 

This assumption of bias, while perhaps unfair, does point to a crucial factor underlying differences between Nordic and Eastern European leftists and Western ones: geography, and the impact it has on forming political opinions. This, in turn, leads to another point, one that is uncomfortable for the hard left, particularly in the social media age where unambiguous statements are favored: Pragmatism is real and a present factor in policy making, and it it as necessary for the survival and progression of leftist values as consistent adherence to socialist principles. 

I do not wish to get into the particulars of the war in Ukraine itself in this piece. It is clear that the online left is divided between those who see the war as arising primarily from aggressive NATO expansionism and those who believe it stems from naked Russian warmongering. I will only state that both views are—to some degree—true. Given this, we need to consider the realities of responding to this situation in light of the strong interest that each country has in avoiding the spread of conflict.

To be clear, this is not to cast aside worries about NATO using its military capacity to strong-arm countries into accepting a neoliberal worldview as mere conspiratorial paranoia. Rather, it is about emphasizing that national security must be assured in order to ensure the continuation of freedoms that, in this case, Finland enjoys while also keeping at bay the atrocities of war currently playing out in Ukraine. Critiques of capitalism can take place only in states where incisive criticisms are permitted. By all accounts, Russia is not one of those states (scoring 155th in press freedom), while Finland comes close to the top on freedom of press tables year after year (scoring 5th in 2022).

Finland also tops indexes of happiness and excels in taking on corruption too. Russia, on the other hand, scores low on both counts. Finland’s social democracy is held up as a model of welfarism by leftists across the West. It is quite simply the case that an invasion by Russia with a view of changing or influencing the current Finnish government would result in a political leadership much less in line with the aspirations of all leftists in the West. People may respond that the “lesser of two evils” argument being advanced here favors centrism, and it is true that Finland’s social democracy has implemented laissez faire economic policies alongside welfarism since the 1980s. Finland today may indeed be a far cry from the socialist dream that both the populist left in the United States and United Kingdom see it as embodying. With that said, however, as a country with a 70-year commitment to welfarism, it would not be desirable to substitute this for Russia’s brand of plutocratic capitalism. 

This is not to ignore the reality of two military powers in competition with one another, with Ukraine currently being the battleground over which they fight a proxy war. Obviously, such a situation benefits the arms trade as well as offers the potential for lucrative contracts for rebuilding Ukraine after the war is over. This point is not lost on the leadership of NATO countries, and it is undoubtedly motivating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to appear as involved as possible among international players vying to give support to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, an awareness of the machinations of realpolitik does not insulate anyone from harsh reality. Right now, the truth is that both Finland’s interests and those of social democracies and other democracies aspiring to develop viable welfare states are best served by deterring Russian aggression. 

Going along with this logic from afar may be difficult, yet this is no reason to discount the opinions of the people in Finland, who have swung from opposition to NATO membership prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to support for membership. A recent poll for Finland’s state broadcaster Yle showed 76% of Finns supported Finland joining NATO; 12% were against and 11% undecided. This is compared to a similar poll conducted in 2017, when only 19% of Finns were pro-NATO membership.

This support has even penetrated into the Vasemmisto (or Left Alliance) party, formerly a stronghold of anti-NATO views. Li Andersson, party leader and education minister, stated on May 7th that the Left Alliance would stay in government even if the previous red line of NATO membership were crossed. Even though Left Alliance member of parliament Markus Mustajärvi argued that Finland’s NATO membership would likely cause an escalation of tensions with Russia, the party voted 9-6 in favor of membership. The vote to join NATO was passed 188-8 across the parliament. 

It is true, of course, that Finland has benefited from its neutrality since World War II, enabling it to flourish as a trade and diplomatic gateway between East and West. NATO membership will likely upset perceptions of this Nordic state as being a parochial idyll, removed from the world’s problems. Yet bear in mind that Finland already mandates national service for its young men, meaning it can raise an army of 900,000 soldiers, and that 75% of the public express support for defending Finnish territory against a potential Russian invasion. Finns have, ever since the Winter War, lived with a sense of preparedness for a Russian attack. As part of that preparedness, and in the interest of avoiding the bombardment of its cities, Finland now approaches NATO membership.

While the arguments set out above are unlikely to convince a number of online left-of-center commentators, the case has been made to judge each situation on its merits and in light of the pragmatic need to defend self-determination. Aside from avoiding a descent into barbarity at all costs (on par with that seen in Ukraine), in the case of Finland, such pragmatism also enables a defense of a welfare system which is the envy of leftists across the West. How to deal with NATO is a decision that can be then worked out. And it is crucial to recall that the Nordic system of governance and welfare is the aim of much of the Left throughout the world. For this reason, defense of the Nordic states should always be a priority.

Mike Watson is a theorist and critic, who is principally focused on relationships dealing with culture, new media, and politics. 

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