Experts consider President Obama’s impact on Finland

Helsinki Times
Charly Salonius-Pasternak

the election of Senator Barack Obama as president of the United States, people in Finland
are expecting change in the behaviour of the superpower. The real question,
however, is what kind of change is likely to occur and how Finland will be

It is difficult to judge how Obama will act
as president because he has such a short history in politics. Although campaign
rhetoric is often suspect, in Obama’s case his campaign speeches are one of the
few ways experts can predict how he will act as chief executive of the US.


America is Finland’s fourth largest export
market, making up over six per cent of exports. Last year America bought €4.2
billion of goods from Finland. In recent years American policy has been in
favour of free trade, but during the campaign Obama has signalled a disquieting
protectionist stance.

Obama has opposed a number of free trade
agreements and claims on his campaign website that he will “stop countries from
continuing unfair government subsidies to foreign exporters.” One risk his
election brings is that these policies may hurt Finland’s exports to America
and cost Finnish jobs.

, a researcher at the Finnish
Institute of International Affairs, is not worried about any protectionism from
Obama. He notes that Obama may seek more stringent environmental and labour
safeguards in trade treaties but “if these become part of future trade
agreements it may even potentially benefit Finland,” he says.

In contrast to Obama, defeated Senator John McCain has a long record as an
advocate for free trade. It is conceivable that if he had been elected there
would have been no questions about America’s continued openness to foreign


A major concern for Finnish foreign policy
is America’s relationship with Russia. Obama has taken a conciliatory tone and
may signal a less tense relationship with Finland’s giant neighbour. Obama has also
emphasised the need to work with Europe in dealing with Russia.

McCain has been much more hostile towards
Russia. “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a K, a G and
a B,” he said in one presidential debate. McCain admitted that America’s
missile defence shield could be used to thwart a Russian missile attack, which
is in stark contrast to the official policy which claims the shield is only to
protect against rogue states.

Finland has long pursued a conciliatory
strategy with Russia, sometimes to the ridicule of foreign observers. However,
the strategy has kept Finland free and independent and it is likely that
Obama’s attitude is more in line with Finland’s strategic interest.

“It’s hard to tell in advance, but I’d
guess that many EU countries would prefer a US president that is a) more open
to dialogue and b) recognisant that ultimately Europe has a bigger stake in the
future of Russia than the US does,” reports Salonius-Pasternak.


Protecting the environment has long been
important to Finns and therefore the policy of the world’s largest polluter is
of prime importance. Obama has generally advocated more “green” policies than
McCain, although both are much more environmentally friendly than George W. Bush.

Salonius-Pasternak sees one more added
benefit. “I think a President Obama, especially if he lays the groundwork for a
genuine change, could mean that Finnish companies could have one more market
for some of the cutting-edge alternative energy solutions created here,” he

and the use of force

One of the issues that have irked Finns in
recent years is America’s unilateral actions, especially its use of force in
Iraq. Obama has generally promised closer cooperation with other nations in
diplomatic activities and to only use force as a last resort.

Strikingly, Obama has not ruled out the use
of pre-emptive military strikes or defying world opinion. “No US president will
disavow military strikes, but that doesn’t mean multilateral approaches aren’t
preferred as I think they would be under Obama,” says Salonius-Pasternak. “As Richard Haas argued recently, Obama
sees negotiations more as a tool of diplomacy, rather than a reward.”

Regarding closer military ties with America
under a new administration, Salonius-Pasternak informs, “I don’t think the
president himself has any real impact on whether Finns or Swedes decide to join
NATO, but what the president does, that may have an impact.”

Salonius-Pasternak advises people who
desire change to be prepared to wait. “For example, for those who think
Guantanamo is important, even after it is announced that it will be closed it
will still take time to actually do it. For those who want to see the US
withdraw from Iraq, that too will happen, but at its own time. Finns are not
unique in hoping for great change, but everyone needs to be patient.”