The Baltic States and Their Region: New Europe or Old?

By David J. Smith | Go to book overview

From “east-west” to “new Europe-old Europe”:
The American challenge to Finnish identity

Christopher S. Browning


1. Introduction

In recent years it has become common to argue that Finland's post-Cold War foreign policy has been driven by the desire to affirm a western identity for the country. In this light decisions to join the European Union (EU) in 1995 and to adopt the Euro in 2002 were taken primarily because of their symbolic importance as identifiers of westernness and proof that Finland had escaped its Cold War position of being between East and West.1 Today, similar arguments can be heard regarding the need for Finland to give up its policy of non-alignment and to join NATO. For example, although security concerns are often evident here, former President Martti Ahtisaari has argued that Finland should join NATO simply because membership will finally put an end to questions of Finland's geopolitical identity.2

Underlying some of these arguments is a deeper claim that Finnish identity politics has historically always been structured around an east-west continuum, with Finland at different points in history simply occupying different points along that continuum, but with the general trend being the desire to occupy the western position and to escape any identification with the East.3 Although there are reasons to think that this is not the whole story, and that there have also been other important historical dimensions to the construction of Finnish identity, such as the need to also differentiate Finland from Sweden,4 it is also clear that in contemporary Finnish political debate and public understanding this eastwest configuration has become a hegemonic discourse.

In this context, this chapter has two goals. The first is to show how such east-west understandings have developed and how since the end of the Cold War Finnish foreign policy has been driven primarily by westernising narratives of Finnish identity. A central argument here is that in the context of the geopolitical changes of the end of the Cold War, previous understandings of Finland as a nation between East and West no longer made much sense. Finland was therefore faced with a need to tell new stories that would better locate Finland in the new Europe. In this context, westernising discourses have been the most successful in coping with the problem of systemic change and dealing with the issue of how to orient Finland to the new situation.

The second aim, however, is to assess whether in the context of the “war on terror” the utility and relevance of westernising discourses is in fact now being undermined. As argued elsewhere in this volume, there are reasons to believe that a new geopolitical transition is underway and

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