Cultural Differences in Foreign Policy: The Concept of Intervention

by Peter Lindén

As the recent case of Syria has shown, the issue of military intervention is again topical in international media. The countries surrounding the Baltic Sea understandably have different views on the idea of military intervention; some states are firm believers and promoters of democracy and liberal values while others emphasize the need to protect the institution of state sovereignty. The relationship these countries have to NATO is another obvious factor in how they approach the issue.

Following UN Resolution 1973 on May 17, 2011, a no-fly zone was established over Libya, and the United Nations Security Council called for ‘all necessary means’ to protect civilians. NATO member states Norway and Denmark were officially on board, while non-member Finland chose not to play a part. The Royal Swedish Air Force committed eight JAS 39 Gripen jets and 130 personnel to uphold the no-fly zone, being the only country neither a member of NATO nor the Arab League to participate. Russia’s official line included rhetoric on the importance of protecting civilians, but ultimately emphasized the option of a ceasefire as the quickest way to ensure security for civilians and the long-term stabilization of the country. Warsaw did not commit to participation despite pressures from fellow NATO members, and Germany’s contribution was limited to financial aid to the rebels for civilian and humanitarian purposes.

This mix of attitudes is linked to historical factors, as well as perceptions of national security interest. Russia is a firm believer in the need to prioritize state sovereignty and understandably feels uneasy about the idea of Western-led interventions and ‘democracy promotion’. The Nordic countries may feel that the troubles of Libya are a distant issue, and this time non-NATO member Finland did not feel the need to commit. This reflects Finland’s ‘balancing’ or ‘quid-pro-quo’ approach to NATO; Finland sent troops to Afghanistan and Somalia, which caused the administration to feel that a contribution to Libya was not necessary this time around and wouldn’t deteriorate the good relations the country holds with the Alliance. What was most striking about Finland’s position was a worrying lack of public debate on the issue. Sweden, on the other hand, has in recent years centered its defense policy more closely on international crisis operations, making a contribution to the Libyan intervention more logical. Germany’s stance is more difficult to explain given its position as an important European NATO member, but its lack of commitment to the operation can be linked to a general emphasis on negotiations and dialogue over aggressive military action, a view dominant in the country ever since WWII and exemplified more recently by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s opposition of the Iraq war. Poland’s position reflects that its main interests in NATO are international security guarantees in case of future, albeit highly unlikely, conflict with Russia.

Foreign policy issues and the realities of world politics in the area around the Baltic Sea revolve around a unique mixture of history, complex political allegiances, security perceptions, and emphasis on different values. Collective action issues in the region will always be entangled in these different political webs. What is clear is that the attitudes and actions of these countries will be profoundly affected by the fate of the United States and NATO, the European Union, and an increasingly confident Russia.

Peter Lindén is a board member of Crossing the Baltic and currently acts as the blog’s creative director. Additionally, he is about to complete an MSc in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests focus on international relations, political philosophy and audio-visual culture.


  1. I take the point which says that foreign policy of any country is strongly imbedded within the culture, history ect. However, one also needs to look at more prosaic reasons why countries, like Poland, decide to send or not to send troops to conflict zone. Poland actively took part in operation in Iraq and its troops are still engaged in Afghanistan. Both operations did not reflect Polish sole interest in NATO providing security guarantees. In fact, the build up to the operation Iraqi Freedom was showed that Poland was ready to oppose the dictum coming from Berlin and Paris.
    Another point I would like to make refers to the character of the campaign over Libya. One needs to remember that initially the operation sought to enforce the ‘no-fly zone’ and just later on, it turned into the ‘mission creep’, which ousted Kaddafi. How could Poland have helped if its F-16s, the only fighters, capable of taking part in the international operations, are still not operationally ready? (They will be some time this year). Though, I would not be surprised if Polish Special Forces were operating in the theatre.
    Lastly, you mentioned fiscal problems. I think this point does not refer to Poland only, but in the age of austerity, not many countries can afford to conduct a very expensive air campaign, especially if the future, uncertain benefits are way smaller than the costs incurred.


    1. Thank you for the very insightful comment! Hope you are enjoying our blog.

      1. I am indeed:)

    2. Thank you for your comment! The article was indeed meant to highlight cultural, historical and geopolitical aspects, which I think are very interesting in the sense that they vary so much within a group of countries that are so close to each other geographically. For my next piece on Baltic FP I’ll try to focus more on material capacities as well. – Peter

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