I was born and raised in country with a 1340 km border with Russia. That is 200 km more than the distance from the Southern tip of England to the Northern most point of Scotland.
Our relationship has never been easy. We were an ”autonomous” part of the Russian empire from 1809 to 1917. Following independence we fought a bloody civil war with infiltration from Soviet Bolsheviks.
Things settled for a couple of decades before Russia attacked us in 1939 in what became known as the Winter War. We fought back, survived as an independent nation and ended up with a difficult peace settlement in 1944.
During the Cold War we had to compromise our values in order to guarantee our security. It was all about survival next to a grand aggressor. Free speech was limited. Foreign policy debates were taboo. The Soviets meddled with our internal affairs.
Why do I tell you this? Because I want to illustrate that soft power can sometimes be hard. It feels odd to say this in the middle of a horrific war where Russia has once again attacked one of its neighbours, Ukraine, but it’s how Finland has survived.
Machiavelli used to say something the effect that the survival of small states is all about timing. I guess he was right, but it is also about using power in a smart way. That is exactly what Finland has done over the centuries.
Soft power is really about the ability to co-opt, rather than coerce, using persuasion rather than force. Finland has been good at that. The basis of it all has been an impeccable education system and functioning governance. Sure, other things such as foreign relations, culture, values, products and communication matters, but it all starts with a solid base.
We are pretty much top 5 in the world on most of the measures that matter: education, governance, transparency, quality of life, freedom of the press, transparency, equality, and quality of life. To top it off, year after year, we seem to be the happiest country in the world…don’t let facial expressions fool you.
Contrast this with Russia, which ranks nowhere near the top in any of these measures. Except one of course: military expenditure, in other words hard power. It should thus come as no surprise that the border between Finland and Russia has one of the highest differences in GDP per capita, and especially the gap between rich and poor.
Having raved about soft power you might think that Finland has neglected the hard side of things. Worry not, you can’t do that with a long border next to an unpredictable neighbour. We still have one of the biggest military forces in Europe to go with an annual 2% defense budget.
In order to be able to project soft power, you have to have some of the harder stuff to back it up.