When Finland’s government announced in June that it would host Monday’s summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the nation’s minister of defense, Jussi Niinisto, began to have what he calls “mixed feelings” about his country’s position in these talks.
He knew that a dialogue between the U.S. and Russian Presidents could help “release tensions” between their countries and, in the process, burnish Finland’s standing as a bridge between Russia and the West. But the talks also risk giving Finland a “bad name, a bad reputation,” Niinisto says — especially if Trump and Putin start making deals over the heads of Europe’s smaller nations.
Such deals have a particularly nasty resonance in Finland. “We have this history, the history of a small country in between great powers,” the minister, who was a military historian before he went into politics, told TIME a few days before Trump and Putin arrived in Helsinki. And regardless of what emerges from the summit on Monday, the format of the talks reminded Niinisto of another two-man summit in the north of Europe.
On a July day in 1807, the French Emperor Napoleon and the Russian Czar Alexander I, who were then the world’s most powerful leaders, met on a raft in the middle of a river that flowed between their dominions. They had long admired each other as the leading strongmen of their age, and after hours of conversation over dinner they agreed on the outlines of a secret deal to carve up Europe between them. Finland, which had previously been a part of Sweden, wound up as a possession of the Czar.
“So we don’t want to see such deals anymore,” Niinisto says. “We are very worried about the great power politics coming back. What we want is an international rules-based order.”
However abstract that phrase may seem — “the international rules-based order” — it signifies something very concrete to Europe’s smaller nations: a seat at the table. Through institutions like the U.N., NATO and the European Union, they have been able to push back against the whims of larger countries by invoking the rules and the collective power of the clubs they all belong to.
It doesn’t always work. Russia sidestepped international law when it seized parts of Ukraine in 2014. The U.S. did much the same when it occupied Iraq about a decade earlier. But the institutions have survived as venues for global decision-making. “And we have always been leaning on the rules-based world, with multinational institutions,” says Janne Kuusela, who heads the defense planning department under Minister Niinisto. “For a small country in this geopolitical location, that is the basis for our survival, and in that sense we are worried when these foundations are challenged.”
Beyond Trump’s recent wrangling with NATO and the E.U, one of the cracks in these foundations has been the shift toward bilateral deals as the favored means of conducting foreign policy, rather than multilateral consensus. Trump and Putin are both fans of that approach. They have both sought to strike deals with individual European leaders rather than working with the E.U. as a whole, and they have both resisted global institutions that they see as constraining their actions.
The one-on-one approach is gaining in popularity. According to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, majorities in many European countries support it. Across the ten countries surveyed, respondents tended to want their leaders to ignore the objections of allies when pursuing their national interests.
The difference, of course, is that Trump’s power to keep his promises is a lot more limited than that of Putin. On the question of lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia, Trump would need the approval of Congress, and though he can decide to pull U.S. troops or military hardware back away Russia’s border, a move like that could simply prompt other NATO allies to reinforce those same positions.
But the symbolism of Monday’s summit is still enough to make the Finns a little nervous. The border they share with Russia runs for about 1300 kilometers (800 miles), a fault line that moved several times in the 20th century as the great powers fought and then settled their conflicts over Finland’s head. “We hope that history does not come back,” says Niinisto.
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