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Finland’s new president faces unexpected first test: not Russia, but Trump

"To us," said President-elect Alexander Stubb of Finland, "foreign policy is an existential question."Roni Rekomaa/Photographer: Roni Rekomaa/Bloom

Educated in the United States and deeply pro-American, Finland’s president-elect, Alexander Stubb, looked perfectly poised to lead his nation into a stronger trans-Atlantic partnership and redefine its role in the global order as a newly minted NATO member.

Instead, he will enter office next month at a time when US politics has once again thrown the durability of that relationship — and the wisdom of European nations counting on it — into question.

For weeks, the two candidates in Finland’s runoff presidential elections, which Stubb won Sunday, had played up their pro-NATO credentials and tough views on Russia. Then, former US president Donald Trump threatened that, if reelected, he would let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” against NATO allies that do not contribute sufficiently to collective defense.

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That is hardly what this small Nordic nation of 5.6 million, after decades maintaining a policy of nonalignment, wants to hear now that it holds NATO’s longest border with Russia — and as European leaders warn that the continent’s confrontation with Moscow may drag on for decades.

Trump’s comments have been a harsh reminder to many European nations that banking on the United States in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no longer as sure a bet as it seemed.

In a statement Sunday, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said, “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

In Paris on Monday, the foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Germany met and pledged to make Europe a security and defense power with a greater ability to back Ukraine and NATO.

They discussed reviving the so-called Weimar Triangle, a long-dormant regional grouping that was designed to promote cooperation between France, Germany, and Poland.

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Yet, in Helsinki, the newly elected Stubb kept his cool.

In some of his first comments since winning the election Sunday night, he chalked up Trump’s words to a difference between fiery US campaign rhetoric and the consensus-driven views of Finnish presidential campaigns.

“This is because, to us, foreign policy is an existential question,” he said at a news conference Monday.

Instead, he urged Finns to take the unsettling comments as yet another reminder that Europe, now facing its largest land war since World War II, needs to take seriously its own defense without counting on the United States, regardless of who ends up in the Oval Office.

Calling himself an “avid trans-Atlanticist” who believed US engagement in NATO was critical, Stubb said he nonetheless believed Europe needed to rely more on itself.

“The whole European security order has been upended because of Russian aggression and its attack on Ukraine,” he said. “We need to make sure that we in Europe take care of our own part in NATO. Finland is a country that will continue to do that. We are a security provider, not a security consumer.”

Finland has an extended history of war with its larger eastern neighbor — Finns coined the term “Molotov cocktail” during their 1939 Winter War with Russia. Living in Russia’s shadow, Finland has long had a conscription army and already spends on its defense more than the 2 percent of gross domestic product that NATO members pledge to spend.

Stubb, switching among fluent Finnish, Swedish, and English in his news conference, even argued that Trump was “basically right” that countries were obligated to meet spending commitments.

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A center-right politician and former prime minister, Stubb got his bachelor’s degree on a golf scholarship at Furman University in South Carolina (and can replicate a remarkable southern drawl). Originally aspiring to be a professional golfer, he later switched to international relations and became an academic.

He entered international politics in 2004, being elected to the European Parliament as a candidate for Finland’s National Coalition Party. In April 2008, Finland’s prime minister, Jyrki Katainen, appointed him foreign minister. Four months later, he was handling the country’s response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Later, as a minister of European affairs and a finance minister, Stubb was involved in the government’s approval of a new nuclear power plant built in Finland with Russia’s Rosatom atomic energy company, as well as the permission to build the Russian-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline through Finnish waters.

Stubb has since openly admitted those decisions were mistakes.

After losing out to internal leadership rivalries within his own party, Stubb swore off Finnish politics, becoming vice president of the European Investment Bank in 2017 and an academic at the European University Institute in 2020.

He attributed his return to politics to the invasion of Ukraine, which set Finland and Sweden on a course to enter NATO, redefining their roles on the world stage at a time of growing global instability.

Although Finland has a parliamentary system, its president is responsible for foreign policy and acts as commander in chief.

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“Stubb clearly has major ambitions to take a bigger role for the president of Finland in international affairs,” said Juhana Aunesluoma, a political historian at the University of Helsinki.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.