Between NATO and Non-Alignment: How to Understand the "U-Turn" in Finnish Foreign Policy

This Essay appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

By Sebastian Glassner and Annalena Fuchshuber


“Parempo myöhään kuin ei milloinkaan”

— Finnish proverb (translation: “Better late than never”)

Military non-alignment has been a foreign policy tradition in Finland for more than eight decades. The country has been militarily non-aligned since the end of the Second World War, a decision that was never abandoned during and after the Cold War.[1] In the face of a profound reality shock—the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—this long-standing tradition is now being challenged by the Finnish NATO accession on April 4, 2023. However, the road to accession has not been smooth. Hungary and Turkey blocked Finnish and Swedish applications for NATO membership for several months. Despite these setbacks, Finland’s then-Prime Minister Sanna Marin reaffirmed her country’s will to join the alliance in January 2023, hoping for a quick and smooth ratification.[2] Moreover, in early March 2023, the Finnish Parliament voted overwhelmingly (in favor: 184; against: 7; abstention: 1) in favor of NATO accession in 2023.[3] The “U-turn” in Finnish foreign and security policy thus appears to have been not only sudden, but also robust enough to withstand all obstacles of the accession process. This puzzling development raises the following research questions: How did Finland’s NATO membership come about? How did the war in Ukraine act as a catalyst for this policy change? And what predictions can be made about its sustainability?

To answer these questions, neorealists might offer a third-level explanation. While they can provide reasons for the emergence of conflicts, they cannot explain the specific foreign policy of a state.[4] Although some scholars undertake this very endeavor, they fail to build a consistent theoretical argument.[5] Thus, neorealism is unwilling or unable to explain the reasons for and the suddenness of Finnish foreign policy change. By including domestic processes and conditions, neoclassical[6] and postclassical[7] realist approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) would argue that the U-turn in Finnish foreign policy was due to a change in security perceptions triggered by the Russian invasion. However, instead of elaborating on this premise, they tend to rely on liberal auxiliary variables. Schweller, for example, includes social/elite cohesion and state vulnerability as additional explanations.[8] The reason why neo- and postclassical, as well as liberal, FPA approaches avoid the study of security perceptions, including threats and dangers, lies in their non-essentialist nature.[9] Poststructuralist approaches, on the other hand, because of their anti-essentialist ontology, anti-foundationalist epistemology, and emphasis on constitutive relations, allow the study of intersubjectively-shared security perceptions, how they are affected by reality shocks, and how this representation shapes foreign policy.[10]

Subsequently, we draw on a wide range of poststructuralist discourse theories. Building on these works, we argue that the national discourse constitutes a legitimate scope of foreign policy. Discourse, however, is contingent; different discursive formations struggle for hegemony. In this process, although temporarily stable, common sense is constantly challenged. Reality shocks open a window of opportunity for the contestation of hegemonic positions and can therefore be viewed as catalysts for change. Accordingly, we conduct an analysis of the Finnish elite discourse on foreign and security policy before and after the Russian invasion to trace discursive changes. To this end, white papers, parliamentary debates, speeches, and press releases by Finnish politicians from 2016 onwards will be analyzed. Beforehand, the structure and main participants of the Finnish elite discourse are introduced. Finally, we look at changes in public opinion and discuss the elite-mass relations in Finland before summarizing the results.

Poststructuralist Discourse Theory and Foreign Policy

In view of the explanatory difficulties of neorealism after the end of the East-West conflict, constructivist and poststructuralist approaches developed in FPA in the 1990s, placing ideational factors such as norms, values, and national identities at the center of knowledge production. While positivist research designs conceive of ideas as largely constant explanatory factors (causes of action), the advantage of post-positivist research, including poststructuralist approaches, lies in conceptualizing them as contingent.[11] Poststructuralist scholars emphasize the performative aspect of language in the context of meaning generation,[12] as it is a “medium of both communication and mystification.”[13] Accordingly, a “discourse delineates the terms of intelligibility whereby a particular ‘reality’ can be known and acted upon.”[14] Consequently, the analysis of Finnish foreign policy discourse provides insight into the constitution of security perceptions and the options for action derived from them. Moreover, discourse theories in FPA assume that foreign policy action must be discursively legitimized within liberal democracies.[15]

In a poststructuralist perspective, discourse is understood as a system of meaning in which ideas about social reality are constructed.[16] Therefore, national security perceptions are also subject to this discursive negotiation. Böckenförde describes this process as follows:[i]

[D]iscourses [...] indicate what is perceived and understood as a concrete threat in a community, which means can be used to maintain security or which the community is willing to use, and which threats it accepts as unavoidable.[17]

However, discourses are contingent and meaning cannot be fully stabilized.[18] Instead, different discursive formations are constituted in and through discourse. Foucault defines discursive formations as regularities in types of utterances, concepts, or thematic choices.[19] Yet, discourses are not completely open. Discursive practices are limited by formation rules. The latter determine necessary discursive exclusions of certain terms or topics that are incompatible with a formation. Thus, “[d]iscourse analysis looks for the rules governing what can be said and what not.”[20] Discursive formations are represented by “privileged storytellers”[21] who act as relevant articulators in public and political discourse because of a particular discursive structure. This structure (constitution, institutions, political culture) determines access to political discourse.[22] Yet, these storytellers are not to be understood as actors, but as subjects produced by discourse. However, being part of a certain discursive formation storytellers are capable of strategic discursive actions.[23] Different formations struggle for interpretive hegemony by offering different argumentation chains and recommendations for action.[24] The goal is to establish a common sense that is supported by large parts of the population.[25] The arguments can be combined in a variety of ways and are thus the starting point for a wide range of recommendations for action. At the same time, however, one and the same recommendation for action can arise from different formations. We refer to the alignment of recommendations from diverse formations as a discursive alliance.[26] Methodologically, the number and importance of representatives to be assigned to a formation, as well as similar argumentation patterns in successive discourses, serve as indications of an existing hegemony. If, however, an argumentation pattern is attacked by numerous discourse participants, this testifies to the opposite.

Survey results can indicate the extent to which political elites cover public discourse. This analytical separation of discourse arenas (elite and public) allows for a nuanced study of different discursive dynamics. We speak of elite-mass congruence when elite discourse mirrors public discourse. In societies where elite discourse differs significantly from public discourse, we attest an elite-mass split.[27] It may even be the case that contestant formations in elite discourse are hegemonic in public discourse. In this case, no clear legitimation of foreign policy is possible, which leads to foreign policy paralysis. An example of this is Italy’s Berlusconi II cabinet (2001-2005). A government coalition of outspoken Eurosceptic parties (palazzo) was opposed by a still strongly pro-European public (piazza).[28] This mismatch prevented the government from changing Italy’s traditional EU-friendly policies. The government was paralyzed and forced to maintain continuity.[29]

Reality shocks or crises can have a catalytic effect when incorporated into discourse. Inherent in the theoretical approach is an anti-foundational ontology, which, however, does not completely reject the existence of a material reality.[30] Following the Essex School, we assume that material reality exists but is only given meaning through discourse.[31] Consequently, it is only through their entry into discourse that reality shocks can exert their influence.[32] The invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops is a clear and serious violation of Article 2 IV of the UN Charter and, due to Finland’s geographical proximity as a direct neighbor of the aggressor, a reality shock.

Discourses are—as mentioned above—contingent. Hence, even if a pattern of argumentation can be stabilized, it may change at any time.[33] Discursive change encompasses the emergence of new discursive formations as well as changes in discursive hegemonies and alliances. Behavioral change, in turn, refers to changes in foreign policy decisions and actions.[34] Reality shocks develop their catalytic effect especially when they cannot be integrated into hegemonic common sense, leading to dislocations.[35] Taking discourse and behavior into account, different types of change emerge, which Figure 1 presents.

Figure 1: Foreign Policy Change

Figure 1: Foreign Policy Change

Source: Authors[36]

With the application for NATO membership, Finnish foreign policy shows a clear change in behavior after the Russian invasion. We will examine whether and when a change in discourse can be discerned as well. This will help clarify the type of change: simultaneous, preparatory, catch-up, or trial. Only when a change in foreign policy behavior is accompanied or preceded by a change in discourse (simultaneous and catch-up) is it legitimized and thus sustainable.

Method and Finnish Discourse Structure

To answer the research questions, a dual comparison is conducted: First, the Finnish elite discourse and foreign policy behavior in the period before (t0) and after (t1) the Russian invasion (key date: February 24, 2022) are compared. The approach is inductive, aiming at the disclosure of different formations in Finnish elite discourse on foreign policy. The analysis pays attention especially to security perceptions as well as recommendations for action and how they might have changed after the reality shock. Second, the political discourse is contrasted with the public discourse to examine elite-mass relations. Public opinion surveys, which focus on NATO membership, serve as an analytical tool to capture public discourse. Although the focus on surveys does not allow for the identification of discursive formations, recommendations for action can be uncovered and compared with those of the elite discourse.

A brief description of the Finnish discourse structure is necessary to identify relevant discourse participants and arenas. The Finnish constitution, which came into force on March 1, 2000, marks the transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system of government, which is still characterized by a strong head of state.[37] The president, who is directly elected by the people for a six-year term, has extensive powers in foreign policy decision-making, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, as a non-partisan constant in the political system, enjoys a comparatively strong influence on public opinion. Nevertheless, the new constitution has shifted power away from the head of state. Regarding foreign policy, this means that decisions are now to be made jointly with the Council of State.[38] Consequently, both the president and the members of the government, especially the prime minister, can be considered privileged storytellers in the Finnish foreign policy discourse. Parliament also has a strong role to play, especially due to the lack of constitutional jurisdiction.[39] The Eduskunta[ii] must approve international treaties, including the application for NATO membership, and is, as in other representative democracies, the place where political will and consensus are formed.[40] The composition of the Eduskunta during the 2019-2023 legislative period, and thus the leading political parties in Finland, can be identified in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Parliament Composition in Finland

Figure 2: Parliament Composition in Finland

Source: Authors[iii]

It should also be noted that, compared to other European democracies, the Finnish electoral system is closer to the grassroots, and therefore MPs depend more strongly on the will of the voters.[41] In contrast, direct-democratic elements, such as the consultative referendum enshrined in Article 53 of the Constitution, play a rather secondary role.[42] However, at the end of the Cold War, a shift from the Kekkonian top-down[iv] to a bottom-up model took place, in the course of which the opinion of the Finnish public gained considerable influence on foreign policy decision-making.

Based on the Finnish discourse structure, we selected the following sources for analysis: two Finnish government white papers on foreign and security policy (PMO 2016, MFA 2020) as well as speeches by President Sauli Niniistö, then-Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, and then-Prime Minister Marin. In addition, a total of five parliamentary debates related to foreign policy and NATO were analyzed: two before the invasion and three after.[v] Subsequently, additional survey data from November 2017 to April 2022 were collected and merged to contrast elite and public discourse.

Pragmatic-Western Alliance: Optional NATO Accession

The inductive analysis of the Finnish foreign policy discourse before the Russian invasion identifies four different formations in the Finnish elite discourse on foreign policy: Pragmatic, Western, Nordic and Non-Aligned. Within the Pragmatic formation both government representatives and parliamentarians emphasize a rapidly changing security climate: “[w]e are experiencing a significant period of transition;”[43] “the security environment in Finland [has] become more unstable.”[44] This requires Finland’s “ability to prepare for, respond to, and in some cases adapt to change”[45] in order to ensure the maximum of national security and interests.[46] Russia’s neighboring role is interpreted as that of an economic partner with autocratic power aspirations, albeit the latter primarily against other states.[47] Yet, in the context of Russia’s increasing assertion of interests through military means, Finnish military non-alignment is fundamentally called into question:

If security in our neighboring regions or elsewhere in Europe were threatened, Finland, […] could not exclude itself. Finland’s objective, as a militarily non-aligned country, is of course to stay out of conflicts, but the question is: what if that does not work?[48]

Consequently, the legitimate framework of foreign policy behavior includes strengthening one’s own defense capabilities, maintaining bilateral relations with Russia, and international cooperation as a means of achieving one’s goals. NATO accession also becomes the object of an autonomous cost-benefit analysis and thus a plausible option for protecting national security.[49] Subsequently, in his New Year’s speech, President Niniistö states as follows: “Finland’s room for maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide.”[50] In addition to Niinistö, the two white papers, as well as the speeches of Prime Ministers Sipilä and Marin,[51] can be attributed to the Pragmatic formation. In parliament, the list of pragmatic storytellers includes a large number of deputies from the SDP, KOK, KESK, KD and parts of the PS.

Within the Western formation, arguments focus on Western values and institutions, especially the EU and NATO, which are understood to promote security. Exemplarily, Sipilä states: “Finland promotes international stability, peace, democracy, human rights, the rule of law and equality;”[52] his successor Marin adds: “The European Union is the main frame of reference, channel, and security community in Finland’s foreign relations.”[53] Finland’s Nordic neighbors are seen as part of the overarching European or Western cooperation: “Arctic issues form part of our EU policy;”[54] “[t]he Nordic countries are Finland’s closest neighbors and partners in international organizations.”[55] Russia is understood as an economic partner and even more as a threat to European security and values (see also Pragmatic formation).[56] The latter refers to a broad understanding of security that includes not only territorial integrity but also areas such as social justice, climate change or health care. The Western formation offers specific value-oriented recommendations for action, such as support for EU sanctions against Russia and candidacy for the UN Human Rights Committee. However, there are also recommendations that resemble those of the Pragmatic formation: deepening cooperation with the EU and NATO, including joining the defense alliance, and combating other security threats.[57] Representatives of the Western argumentation, similar to the Pragmatic one, are the executive leadership around Niinistö, Sipilä, and Marin, together with the two white papers, as well as numerous parliamentarians, especially representatives of the Greens (VIHR), and parts of the SDP and KOK. It can also be noted that the same discourse participants often resort to arguments from both the Pragmatic and Western formations, thus combining them. This already indicates an existing discourse alliance between the two formations.

The Nordic formation emphasizes Finland’s self-image as a peacemaker and bridge-builder.[58] Security is understood here in two senses: as peaceful coexistence of states by upholding international law and, in a broader sense, as social justice and protection of the Arctic region. Russia is seen as a mere neighbor, Sweden as the closest partner. Consequently, it is recommended to deepen (foreign policy) cooperation in the North, especially with Sweden, to find “ecologically sustainable solutions for the sensitive Arctic region”[59] and to take a mediating position in case of tensions between the European Union and Russia. NATO membership is not discussed. The Nordic argumentation pattern can be found in the government reports,[60] in Sipilä’s speech, and in the parliamentary debates, especially among members of RKP and occasionally among representatives of KOK and KESK.

The Neutral formation, or its reformulated Non-Aligned variant since EU accession, is represented mainly by the Left Alliance (VAS) and parts of the right-wing populist Finns (PS). It regards international relations as a conflict of interests between the great powers into which Finland, as a small country in a geostrategically important position, should not be dragged. International organizations are seen as instruments of influence: NATO, for example, as a pawn of the United States, whose presence in Northern Europe represents a security risk:

The main goal is to save Finland from military conflict. The report’s description of the political environment highlights the context in which the competition among the great powers is taking place. Russia, the United States and China always pursue their own interests. In several paragraphs, the report states that NATO’s increased presence in many regions is helping to stabilize the situation. One might as well say that it creates instability.[61]

Accordingly, foreign policy makers are advised not to pursue the deepening of European integration, especially with regard to the European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), to limit Nordic cooperation to non-military matters, and instead to invest in a strong independent national defense.62 Moreover, it is argued that despite EU sanctions against Russia, “cooperation on energy and other issues [with Finland’s neighbor] will continue to improve.”[63] In general, foreign policy restraint was the highest maxim, and NATO accession was to be strictly rejected.

Considering the results of the analysis, a discourse alliance between the Pragmatic and Western formation can be identified for t0, which establishes interpretive hegemony. Therefore, Russia is increasingly perceived as a dangerous aggressor and security threat, and consequently the option of NATO membership is emphasized. The hegemonic position of the alliance is evidenced by the number of its representatives, as well as the consistent rearticulation in subsequent discourses. The two contestant formations (Nordic and Non-Aligned) fail to challenge the hegemonic common sense, as shown in Figure 3. In particular, the Non-Aligned formation is only supported by parties on the political fringes. Jokela also declares the shift away from the discourse of non-alignment in Finland at an earlier stage, referring to the process of formation and deepening of the CSDP.[64]

Figure 3: Discursive Hegemony in t0

Figure 3: Discursive Hegemony in t0

Source: Authors

The Pragmatic-Western alliance made NATO membership a legitimate foreign policy option in Finnish elite discourse even before the Russian invasion. However, this option was not implemented. Nevertheless, Finland’s foreign policy behavior testified to an increasing shift away from military non-alignment. Since EU accession, at the latest, a Europeanization and general westward orientation of Finnish foreign policy has become apparent, which in terms of foreign policy is reflected in a comprehensive commitment to the CSDP.[65] This is also reflected in the Treaty of Lisbon, including the mutual assistance clause (Art. 42.7 TEU) and multilateral defense cooperation (e.g. Dutch-German-Finnish Battleground). With regard to NATO, Finland has participated since 1994 as a peace partner and since 2014 under the Enhanced Opportunity Program, in various partnership programs that strengthen the interoperability of the armed forces. Yet, there was no application for membership until the start of the Ukrainian war; national defense relied solely on the 280,000 conscripts as well as a large reserve army.[66] Despite the outlined constant limitation of the Finnish non-alignment policy, its core, the “non-membership in a military alliance,”[67] was thus retained. For t0, we can thus conclude that the expanded legitimate scope of action in elite discourse was not used and remained empty (preparatory change).

An Even Stronger Alliance: Necessary NATO Accession

After the Russian invasion, the vague argument of a changing security climate is replaced by a concrete security threat within the Pragmatic formation. Then-Prime Minister Marin spoke in this regard of “fundamental changes [that] have taken place in our security environment” and unambiguously links them to the invasion of Russian troops, which she described as a “war of aggression.”[68] The reinterpretation of Russia as a partner and rival as an active threat requires corresponding adjustments in Finnish security policy to protect national integrity and interests:[69]

Considering our geographical position, the three biggest security challenges for Finland are Russia, Russia, and Russia. The continental plates of foreign and security policy are shifting, and it has become clear that other countries will not provide military support to a country that is not a member of NATO […] Mr. President, the time has come for us to join NATO.[70]

In many cases, the role of NATO as “the only community [...] that can give us [Finland] real security guarantees based on Article 5”[71] is emphasized, which equates joining the defense alliance with the supreme maxim of national security and consequently gives it a prominent position compared to the other recommendations for action. The representatives of the formation are again the government,[72] as well as representatives of the SDP, PS, KOK, KESK, and KD.

In the Western formation, Finland’s orientation towards the West is considered a historical decision and thus the supposed non-alignment is questioned: “Finland chose a side almost 50 years ago when it joined the EEC Treaty and confirmed this decision in 1995 when it joined the European Union. Finland belongs to the West.”[73] The West is thereby equated with the positively-connoted concepts of human rights, freedom, and international law, whereas the Russian invasion is regarded as a war of aggression[74] and the cities of Bucha and Mariupol are referred to as sites of death. With reference to the “killing of civilians, torture, and the destruction of future prospects”[75] in Ukraine, together with the negative side effects in the global south, the war is interpreted as an attack on human and international law. In addition, Russia is seen as a brutal aggressor and danger to European values and security.[76] In this context, the territorial component of the term security temporarily gains precedence over other interpretations:

Regardless of the milestones of recent history, it has become abundantly clear by now that our neighbor Russia is willing to use brutal military power on a large scale to pursue its own illusory goals and cares little about treaty-based cooperation or even human dignity. The hardest hit at the moment are the Ukrainians, who are bravely defending their country. And they are not only defending Ukraine, but they are also defending all of Europe.[77]

The normative attachment to human rights, multilateralism, and the Western community of values is combined with the substantial commitment to joint sanctions against Russia and the demand for NATO accession.[78] Thus, Häkkänen argues: “Finland, like other Western democracies, should apply for full membership in NATO.”[79] Representatives of the discursive formation are the government, as well as small parts of the SDP, KOK and KESK and the Greens (VIHR).

A shift can be observed within the Nordic formation: the peace and bridge-builder arguments are no longer articulated. In turn, the Nordic states are reconceptualized as a community of common destiny in the face of the Russian threat in their immediate neighborhood. This is vividly illustrated by Niinistö, who quotes the Swedish proverb “Finland’s cause is ours” and adds that “[n]ow Finland can equally well say that Sweden’s cause is ours.”[80] Moreover, the importance of the Arctic region and the Baltics for Finnish security is emphasized, as well as NATO’s presence as a stabilization tool for the entire North.[81] As a recommendation for action, besides the strengthening of the Nordic defense cooperation NORDEFCO, it is particularly demanded “that Finland and Sweden can jointly and as soon as possible take the decision to become members of NATO.”[82] In addition to Niinistö, Haavisto and the RKP, parts of the Center Party, joined this discursive formation.

Few changes can be observed in the argumentation pattern of the NonAligned formation. The latter sees NATO membership as the result of American influence as well as an unnecessary provocation of Russia and criticizes the government’s information report as a “roadmap to NATO.”[83] However, the fear of provoking Russia already implies a possible threat emanating from the neighbor and suggests a policy of appeasement. Furthermore, joining NATO is equated with accepting nuclear armament, and Finnish politics is condemned as hostile to humanity and peace.[84] The small number of discourse participants—now only the representatives of the Left Alliance—as well as the many counterarguments illustrate the difficulty of embedding the new security environment in the Non-Aligned chain of reasoning and exercising interpretive power.

In conclusion, the former Pragmatic-Western alliance is joined by the Nordic formation, which further strengthen its hegemonic position. Russia is portrayed as an imminent security threat and NATO accession as an imperative next step. The strong discourse alliance interprets a Finnish NATO membership no longer as a mere policy option, but as a necessity. In contrast, the Non-Aligned formation continues to lose significance.

Figure 4: Discursive Hegemony in t1

Figure 4: Discursive Hegemony in t1

Source: Authors

Although the existing discourse hegemony was strengthened and the recommendation for action intensified, a legitimized option of NATO accession already existed within the elite discourse before the Russian invasion. Therefore, it remains an open question why the Finnish government did not decide to join NATO earlier, only starting its joint NATO application process with Sweden three months after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.[85]

Elite-Mass Split

A closer look at the evolution of Finnish public opinion on NATO membership provides a solution to this puzzle, as illustrated in Figure 5. The polling data on NATO accession for t0 shows a consistently weak group of supporters (≤30%) facing more than half of their compatriots who oppose an application for membership. Although a weak, declining trend in this opposition emerged, the clearly critical attitude of Finns toward membership in the defense alliance (30% in favor, 43% against, 27% neutral) remained in January 2022.

Figure 5: Public Opinion on NATO accession

Figure 5: Public Opinion on NATO accession

Source: Authors[86]

Since the hegemonic recommendation for action in t0 within elite discourse is not echoed amongst the public, the Finnish government could not opt for NATO membership. Prior to the Russian invasion, the Finnish public discourse seems to increasingly support Nordic and Non-Aligned formation. President Niinistö summed up this elite-mass split as early as 2012, indicating that a change of thinking had happened only within the political elite and that, consequently, a change in behavior was not feasible:

[NATO] Membership would also require the support of the majority of the public, and we should not think that public opinion could be swayed merely by a declaration of intent voiced by the political leadership.[87]

After the Russian invasion, the Helsingin Sanomat survey showed a turnaround in public opinion: Approval rates for NATO accession jumped to48% and then rose rapidly, while opposition dropped sharply and steadily. By the end of March, 61% were already in favor of membership, and shortly after numbers grew to 73%. A frequency analysis of the term "NATO" within two parliamentary debates of each period (t0: PR 143/2020 and PR 146/2021 and t1: PR 41/2022 and PR 177/2022) shows an exponential increase (t0 = 125; t1 = 1.192), indicating an intensified salience of the topic. Consequently, a reassessment within the Finnish public was triggered that eventually led to an alignment of the latter with the elite discourse. The elite-mass split was thereby abolished.


In summary, the war in Ukraine did not herald a new era in Finnish foreign policy discourse. Instead, a significant shift in public discourse occurred that made Finnish NATO membership possible. The three initial research questions are examined in detail below:

How was the application for NATO membership possible?

The option for NATO accession within the elite discourse was already given before the war in Ukraine. A Pragmatic-Western alliance exercised interpretative power in the foreign policy discourse. Yet, this room for maneuver remained empty since the vast majority of the Finnish public followed the argumentation of contestant formations. Consequently, NATO accession was legitimately unfeasible. It was only after the outbreak of the war that public opinion began to align itself with the intensified recommendation for action articulated by the strengthened discourse alliance (including the Nordic formation) so that an application for NATO membership together with Sweden became possible.

What was the catalytic effect of the reality shock on the change in behavior?

On the one hand, the outbreak of the war in Ukraine led to a sharp increase in the salience of the issue of national security. A debate that had been going on for a long time, especially within an informed public and elite, spread to the population as a whole. We argue that this activated the Finnish public and set in motion a (re)evaluation of public discourse, which took place in the context of existing lines of argumentation. While three of the formations (Pragmatic, Western, Nordic) formed a strong alliance, interpreted the reality shock in the same way and weaved it into their chains of argumentation, the Non-Aligned formation neither succeeded in interpreting the events on its own, nor did it manage to consistently link the reality shock with its core argument: military non-alignment. Hence, the public maintained the hegemonic positions of the past (Non-Aligned) until, in times of high salience, a discursive catch-up with the constantly evolving elite discourse set in.

Can the change in foreign policy be characterized as sustainable?

As the analysis shows, the U-turn in Finnish foreign policy is a catch-up change in terms of elite discourse and a simultaneous change in terms of public discourse. However, the Finns (PS) emerged from the April 2023 parliamentary elections as the second place and strengthened their force. It was only after the Russian invasion that they joined the calls for Finland to join NATO. A relapse into old patterns of argumentation (the Non-Aligned formation) after the salience of the issue has waned cannot be ruled out, which makes them a potential challenger to the existing hegemony. The same can be said for the Finnish public. Yet, a large part of the Finnish population continues to support NATO accession, and the hegemonic consensus in elite discourse is likely to persist even in the event of stronger opposition from the Left Alliance (VAS) and the Finns (PS). In terms of foreign policy, Finland’s U-turn, which had long been prepared in elite discourse, has “finally” been completed and shows a high degree of sustainability.

Thus, this paper disproves the notion of an overnight 180-degree change in Finnish foreign policy, as the statement of former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb concludes: “Certainly I’ve been an advocate of Finnish NATO membership for the better part of 30 years—probably one to say that better late than never.”[88]

[i] All non-English direct quotations have been translated by the authors.

[ii] Name of the Finnish Parliament.

[iii] Based on Ministry of Justice, “Parliamentary Elections 2019. Results by party and by joint list,” 23, September 2020, List of abbreviations: SDP = The Finnish Social Democratic Party; PS = The Finns Party; KOK = National Coalition Party; KESK = Centre Party of Finland; VIHR = Green League; VAS = The Left Alliance; RKP = Swedish People’s Party in Finland; KD = Christian Democrats in Finland. (+) for government party; (-) for opposition party.

[iv] Urho Kekkonen successfully used his strong constitutional position as Finnish president (1956- 1981), as well as mechanisms of media censorship, to exercise “top-down” his neutrality policy toward the Soviet Union. See Tuomas Forsberg and Matti Pesu, “The role of public opinion in Finland’s Foreign and Security Policy,” in National Security, Public Opinion and Regime Asymmetry, eds. Tun-Jen Cheng and Wei-Chin Lee (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2017): 147–174, 154-159.

[v] The documents were translated with AI. This process has implications for a micro analysis of the discourse, as linguistic images, for example, are lost. A macro analysis for the identification of argumentation patterns, on the other hand, is feasible.

[1] Matti Pesu, Tuomas Iso-Markku, and Juha Jokela, “Finnish foreign policy during EU membership: Unlocking the EU’s security potential,” Finnish Foreign Policy Paper (FIIA), no. 6 (2020): 1-34, 12-14.

[2] Wilhelmine Preussen, “NATO membership for Ukraine would have prevented war, says Finland’s PM,” Politico, January 17, 2023,

[3] Essi Lehto, “Finnish parliament passes NATO bill with large majority,” Reuters, March 1, 2023, https://

[4] Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979), 121.

[5] Grant Dawson and Nicholas R. Smith, “Mearsheimer, Realism, and the Ukraine War,” Analyse & Kritik 44, no. 2 (2022): 175-200, 181.

[6] Randall L. Schweller, “Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing,” International Security 29, no. 2 (2004): 159-201; see also Steven E. Lobell, Norrin M. Ripsman, and Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[7] Stephen G. Brooks, “Duelling Realisms,” International Organization 51, no. 3 (1997): 445–477; see also Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (New York: Cornell University Press, 1987).

[8] Schweller, 169.

[9] David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 1-2.

[10] Jacob Torfing, “Discourse Theory: Achievements, Arguments and Challenges,” in Discourse Theory in European Politics. Identity, Policy and Government, eds. Jacob Torfing and David Howarth (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004): 1–32, 13.

[11] Bernhard Stahl and Sebastian Harnisch, „Nationale Identitäten und Außenpolitiken: Erkenntnisse, Desiderate und neue Wege in der Diskursforschung,“ in Vergleichende Außenpolitikforschung und nationale Identitäten. Die Europäische Union im Kosovo-Konflikt 1996-2008, eds. Bernhard Stahl and Sebastian Harnisch (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2009): 31-58, 32-33.

[12] Michael J. Shapiro, The Politics of Representation: Writing Practices in Biography, Photography, and Policy Analysis (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 11.

[13] R.J.B. Walker, “Culture, Discourse, Insecurity,” Alternatives 11, no. 4 (1986): 485-504, 495.

[14] Roxanne L. Doty, Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 6.

[15] Bernhard Stahl, „Taumeln im Mehr der Möglichkeiten: Die deutsche Außenpolitik und Libyen,“ Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik 5, no. 4 (2012): 575–603, 578.

[16] Henrik Larsen, “Discourse of state identity and post-Lisbon national foreign policy. The case of Denmark,” Cooperation and Conflict 49, no. 3 (2014): 368-385, 369-370.

[17] Stephan Böckenförde, „Die Entwicklung des Sicherheitsverständnisses in Deutschland,“ in Deutsche Sicherheitspolitik, eds. Stephan Böckenförde and Sven B. Gareis (Opladen: Barbara Budrich 2014): 12–52, 15.

[18] Falk Ostermann, Security, Defense Discourse and Identity in NATO and Europe. How France Changed Foreign Policy (London: Routledge 2019), 13.

[19] Michel Foucault, Archäologie des Wissens (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981), 58.

[20] Ole Waever, “Identity, communities and foreign policy: discourse analysis as foreign policy theory,” in European Integration and National Identity. The challenge of the Nordic states, eds. Lene Hansen and Ole Waever (London: Routledge, 2002): 20-49, 29.

[21] Jennifer Milliken, “The Study of Discourse in International Relations: A Critique of Research and Methods,” European Journal of International Relations 5, no. 2 (1999): 225–254, 236.

[22] Laura-Theresa Krüger and Bernhard Stahl, “The French foreign policy U-turn in the Arab Spring – the case of Tunisia,” Mediterranean Politics 23, no. 2 (2018): 197-222, 200.

[23] Martin Nonhoff and Frank A. Stengel, “Poststrukturalistische Diskurstheorie und Außenpolitikanalyse. Wie lässt sich Deutschlands wankelmütige Außenpolitik zwischen Afghanistan und Irak verstehen?“ in Diskursforschung in den internationalen Beziehungen, eds. Eva Herschinger and Judith Renner (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2014): 29–74, 53.

[24] Martin Nonhoff, “Politische Diskursanalyse als Hegemonieanalyse,“ in Diskurs – radikale Demoratie – Hegemonie. Zum politischen Denken von Ernesto Laclau und Chantal Mouffe, ed. Martin Nonhoff (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2007): 173-193, 178.

[25] Lene Hansen, “Discourse analysis, post-structuralism, and foreign policy,” in Foreign Policy. Theories. Actors, Cases, eds. Steve Smith, Amelia Hadfield, and Tim Dunne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016): 95-110, 102-103.

[26] Krüger and Stahl, 17.

[27] Stahl and Harnisch, 44.

[28] Nicolò Conti, Francesco Marangoni, and Luca Verzichelli, “Euroscepticism in Italy from the Onset of the Crisis: Tired of Europe?” South European Society and Politics (2020): 1-26, 3-6.

[29] Osvaldo Croci, “The second Berlusconi government and Italian foreign policy,” The International Spectator 37, no. 2 (2002): 89-101, 100.

[30] Eva Herschinger and Judith Renner, „Einleitung: Diskursforschung in den Internationalen Beziehungen,“ in Diskursforschung in den internationalen Beziehungen, eds. Eva Herschinger and Judith Renner (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2014): 9-35, 14-15.

[31] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985), 108.

[32] Jörg Nadoll, „Forschungsdesign - Nationale Identität und Diskursanalyse,“ in Europäische Außenpolitik und nationale Identität. Vergleichende Diskurs- und Verhaltensstudien zu Dänemark, Deutschland, Frankreich, Griechenland, Italien und den Niederlanden, eds. Britta Joerißen, Bernard Stahl, and Hanns W. Maull (Münster: LIT, 2003): 167-188, 179.

[33] Lene Hansen, Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War (London: Routledge, 2006), 21.

[34] Stahl and Harnisch, 47.

[35] Dirk Nabers, “Crisis as dislocation in global politics,” Politics 37, no. 4 (2017): 418-431, 425.

[36] Based on Stahl and Harnisch, 47.

[37] Christian Förster, Josef Schmid, and Nicolas Trick, „Finnland,“ in Die nordischen Länder: Politik in Dänemark, Finnland, Norwegen und Schweden, eds. Christian Förster, Josef Schmid, and Nicolas Trick (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2014): 69–111, 73.

[38] Burkhard Auffermann, „Das politische System Finnlands,“ in Die politischen Systeme Westeuropas, ed. Wolfgang Ismayr (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2004): 187–223, 191-192; see also Finnish Constitution Art. 128 and Art. 93.

[39] Förster et al., 78.

[40] Auffermann, 195; see also Finnish Constitution Art. 94.

[41] Auffermann, 206-207.

[42] Förster et al., 73.

[43] Juha Sipilä, “Announcement on changes in Finnish foreign and security policy environment and in the European Union environment,” May 31, 2017, en/-/10616/paaministeri-juhasipilan-ilmoitus-eduskunnalle-ulko-jaturvallisuuspoliittisen-seka-eu-toimintaympariston-muutoksista.

[44] Mika Niikko, PR 143/2020, “Plenary Debate on the Government Report on Foreign and Security Policy,” November 11, 2020, PR_143+2020+5.aspx, 111.

[45] Pekka Haavisto, PR 143/2020, 4.

[46] PMO [Prime Minister’s Office], “Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy,” September 2016, +en.pdf/ b33c3703-29f4-4cce-a910-b05e32b676b9, 17.

[47] MFA [Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland], “Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy,” November 2020, VN_2020_32.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 21-22, 32.

[48] Ilkka Kanerva, PR 146/2021, “Plenary debate on the Government’s defense report,” December 7, 2021,, 2.

[49] Jukka Kopra, PR 146/2021, 6; see also MFA, 25-36 and PMO, 17-24.

[50] Sauli Niinistö, “New Year’s speech,” January 1, 2022, speeches/president-of-the-republic-of-finland-sauli-niinistos-new-years-speech-on-1-january-2022/.

[51] Sanna Marin, “Speech by the Finnish Prime Minister at the annual meeting of Heads of Mission in Helsinki,” August 24, 2021,

[52] Sipilä, “Announcement on changes.”

[53] Sanna Marin, PR143/2020, 30.

[54] Sipilä, “Announcement on changes.”

[55] Ilkka Kanerva, PR 143/2020, 12.

[56] Atte Harjanne, PR 146/2021, 8; see also Ben Zyskowicz, PR 146/2021, 26.

[57] Andres Norrback, PR 146/2021, 11.

[58] Mikko Savola, PR 143/2020, 14; see also Veijo Niemi, 146/2021, 30.

[59] Eva Biaudet, PR 143/2020, 22.

[60] PMO, 21-22.

[61] Markus Mustajärvi, PR 143/2020, 19.

[62] Ilkka Kanerva, PR 143/2020, 6-8; see also Mikko Savola, PR 143/2020, 8-9.

[63] Harry Harmiko, PR 146/2021, 14.

[64] Juha Jokela, Europeanization and Foreign Policy. State identity in Finland and Britain (London: Routledge, 2011).

[65] The Finnish Defense Forces, “Nordic Defence Cooperation,” 2023, international-activities/nordic-defence-cooperation.

[66] Minna Ålander and Michael Paul, „Finnland und Schweden rücken näher an die NATO. Auswirkungen der russischen Kriegspolitik im Hohen Norden,“ SIRIUS – Zeitschrift Für Strategische Analysen 6, no. 2 (2022): 201–209.

[67] Saila Heinikoski, “Comparison of Finnish Defence and Foreign Policy Approaches: Discourses on Security Policy Stances and the Demilitarisation of the Åland Islands,” Journal of Autonomy and Security Studies 4, no. 1 (2020): 8–30, 10.

[68] Sanna Marin, “Speech at Parliament’s plenary session,” May 16, 2022, https://valtioneuvosto. fi/en/-/10616/speech-delivered-by-prime-minister-sanna-marin-at-parliament-s-plenary-session-on16-may-2022.

[69] Timo Heinonen, PR 177/2022, “Plenary Debate on the Government Proposal to Parliament on the Approval and Entry into Force of the North Atlantic Treaty and the Agreement on the Status of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, National Representatives and International Staff of the Organization,” February 28, 2023, PR_177+2022+3.aspx, 3-4.

[70] Timo Heinonen, PR 41/2022, “Plenary Debate on the Government Report on Changes in the Security Environment,” April 20, 2022, PR_41+2022+4.aspx, 48.

[71] Anu Vehviläinen, PR 42/2022, 42.

[72] Sauli Niinistö, “President Niinistö after the NATO decision,” May 15, 2022, https://www.presidentti. fi /en/news/president-niinisto-after-the-nato-decision-a-new-era-is-opening-the-result-will-be-a-protectedfinland-that-is-part-of-a-stable-strong-and-responsible-nordic-region/; see also Sauli Niinistö and Sanna Marin, “Joint statement by the President of the Republic and Prime Minister of Finland on Finland’s NATO membership,” May 12, 2022,

[73] Harry Harkimo, PR 41/2022, 28.

[74] Antti Lindtman, PR 41/2022, 6; see also Ville Valkonen PR 177/2022, 7.

[75] Antti Lindtman, PR 41/2022, 6.

[76] Matti Vanhanen, “Nato parliamentary session. Address by the speaker of the parliament of Finland,” May 20, 2022,, 2-3.

[77] Atte Harjanne, PR 41/2022, 16.

[78] Antti Lindtman, PR 103/2022, “Current Plenary Debate on the Foreign and Security Policy Situation,” October 4, 2022,, 9.

[79] Antti Häkkänen, PR 41/2022, 12.

[80] Niinstö and Marin.

[81] Katri Kulmuni, PR 103/2022, 10.

[82] Joonas Könttä, PR 41/2022, 188.

[83] Johannes Yrittiaho, PR 41/2022, 117.

[84] Johannes Yrittiaho, PR 177/2022, 2-3.

[85] Vesa Kanniainen, “Gallup Democracy in Exercising the NATO Membership Option: The Cases of Finland and Sweden,” CESinfo Working Paper, no. 9876 (2022).

[86] Based on Jarmo Huhtanen, “Nato-jäsenyyden vastustus putosi ennätyksellisen alas. Helsingin Sanomat,” January 17, 2022,; see also Jarmo Huhtanen, “Nato-jäsenyyttä kannattaa 48 prosenttia suomalaisista, vastustajien määrä painui noin neljäsosaan. Helsingin Sanomat,” March 4, 2022, /politiikka/art-2000008659067.html; Jarmo Huhtanen, “Naton kannatus nousi 61 prosenttiin. Helsingin Sanomat,” March 30, 2022, https://; Jarmo Huhtanen, “Nato-kannatus nousi ennätykselliseen 73 prosenttiin. Helsingin Sanomat,” May 11, 2022, html; Elina Kervinen, “Suomalaisilta yhä selvä ei Nato-jäsenyydelle. Helsingin Sanomat,” December 15, 2019,; Teemu Muhonen, “Nato-jäsenyyden kannatus kasvaa: 65 prosenttia haluaa Suomen liittyvän. Helsingin Sanomat,” April 28, 2022, https://www. 2000008778872.html; Tuomas Niskakangas, “HS-gallup: Suomalaiset tyrmäävät Nato-jäsenyyden – mutta onko Suomi jo tiiviimmin Naton kyljessä kuin kansa tajuaakaan? Helsingin Sanomat,” November 5, 2017,

[87] Sauli Niinistö, “Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassador Seminar on 21 August 2012,” August 21, 2012, speech-by-president-of-the-republic-sauli-niinisto-at-the-ambassador-seminar-on-21-august-2012/.

[88] Alexander Stubb, “Finland’s NATO accession bid ‘better late than never’: former PM Alexander Stubb,” DW, May 12, 2022,