The Finnish Model for National Defense by Lionel Oh (A'21)

by tuftsigl
Jun 21

On the side trip to Helsinki as part of this year’s ALLIES Joint Research Project in Estonia, some of us visited the National Museum of Finland. The history of the country laid bare in front of us for our perusal, we learned about the geopolitical circumstances that played into some of Finland's major decisions - aligning itself with Nazi Germany towards the end of WWII, maintaining a strong standing military, refusing to join NATO etc. Finland has always felt a distinct lack of assurance by others with regard to its own security, and much of its approach to defense and foreign policy today is guided by a hard and realistic approach of self-reliance.

This Finnish model for national defense, surprisingly, stands in stark contrast to the approach Estonia has taken. Despite numerous similarities - the Russian bear at its border, relative isolationism due to distance from the rest of Europe, a small population, shared Swedish colonial heritage - Estonia has instead chosen to place its bets on NATO to ensure its survival. Several factors, most significantly a much smaller economy and a lack of societal experience and confidence towards victory in a war against Russia, also inform its decision not to build up its military to be capable of dealing with major geostrategic threats. These are understandable limitations and cannot be discounted.

Both approaches are both valid and shaped by cultural contexts and historical experiences. But coming from Singapore, another small state that has adopted a defense strategy that is more similar to the Finnish model than to Estonia's, I can't help but ask the question - What happens to Estonia if one day, NATO is no longer relevant, capable, credible, or willing?

The answer that BG Martin Herem gave was poignant. "We would not be able to survive," he tells us. BG Herem is currently the Chief of Staff of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) and has been tipped to head the military as Chief of Defense Forces come the end of this year. Speaking to us at the EDF headquarters, he explained to us how dependence on NATO formed the backbone of the country's defense strategy, and that simply meant that Estonia had every interest in supporting the alliance to the fullest possible extent. He revealed concerns that the alliance was slowly falling into a strategy defined more by reaction than foresight, and worried that NATO actions might be losing credibility amidst greater Russian aggression.

Interestingly, he also spoke about how he felt Estonia had created a cyber bubble for itself - and with little offensive cyber capability and a NATO cybersecurity strategy framework that leaves more to be desired, he was concerned that the bubble might eventually burst. An intriguing perspective, considering that it always made sense for a small country like Estonia to choose a singular, relatively inexpensive niche to focus its expertise on, in a bid to stay relevant and value-add to the international community. It's certainly a thought worth bearing in mind, as I continue to explore the ways to translate deterrence into the cyberspace.

We're currently heading to Tartu in the southern part of Estonia. We're scheduled to visit the Estonian National Defense College - stay tuned!