In a multipolar world with weak institutions, and where the alternative can be chaos and war, Finlandisation is better than its reputation.

The United States may still be first among the great powers, but unipolarity is well past its sell-by date. The emergence of strong regional powers in world politics, with their adjacent spheres of interest, suggests that Finlandisation – that is, making the best out of political and strategic dependence – will increasingly become the preferred policy for the smaller neighbours of those regional powers. Unlike bipolarity or unipolarity, today’s multipolarity means that today’s opponent can be tomorrow’s ally vis-à-vis a third, more powerful state.1 Rivalry, therefore, tends to be less intense, all else being equal. A certain mutual ‘politeness’, specifically in relation to each other’s neighbourhoods, is to be expected. There may even emerge a tacit understanding among the great powers: you will not interfere in my sphere of influence, and I will not interfere in yours.

The Russia–Georgia War of 2008 demonstrated that local interests and power balances define conflicts. In retrospect, the precedent set that summer, with no US intervention in Georgia other than some half-hearted diplomacy, combined with the near-simultaneous meltdown of the financial sector – in the broader context, of course, of the continuing, long-term rise of China – was a marker for the end of American unipolarity. Worldwide Western democracy-promotion, in the form of the European Union’s ‘normative power’ and US neoconservatism, had accompanied US unipolarity, encouraged by victory in the Cold War. By this point, however, it was more or less outdated,2 as would be seen in the foreign-policy restraint of President Barack Obama’s two terms in office.

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Hans Mouritzen is a senior research fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) in Copenhagen.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April–May 2017

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