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The Finnish Model: To Improve Europe’s Militaries, Look North

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  • The Finnish Model: To Improve Europe’s Militaries, Look North

    When Mikael Granlund was called up for service in Finland’s military seven years ago, he could have tried to get an exemption. For an elite ice hockey player such as Granlund, who now plays for the National Hockey League team Minnesota Wild, a year in the armed forces can bring serious athletic setbacks. But Granlund didn’t try to be exempted.

    “For a Finn, it’s an honor to do military service,” the 25-year-old Granlund said this month. “It’s just something you do if you want your country to stay independent.” What about athletes? “Professional athletes do it, too,” Granlund added. “It’s just something you want to do.”

    Granlund is not alone. Each year, several of Finland’s top athletes join the Finnish Defence Forces as conscripts. So do music stars, who could similarly try to be exempted. Though the FDF—like most armed forces—exempts would-be conscripts only for health-related reasons, in many countries young men fake illnesses in order to avoid service. And young star athletes and artists would, one might think, have a good reason to avoid the draft, as their careers could suffer irreparably from a year away from the limelight. (Next year’s cohort of conscripts will include one of the country’s biggest pop stars, Robin, who will enter the navy.)

    Indeed, as Granlund’s and Robin’s enlistments show, the FDF has managed a feat that other armed forces could learn from: it has made itself an attractive destination for conscripts and professional troops alike. This helps explain why the armed forces routinely have more applicants than openings for noncommissioned officer positions. According to a May Eurobarometer poll, 95 percent of Finns trust their army, a higher rate than anywhere else in the European Union. (In Germany, 66 percent trust the army; across the EU, the average is 75 percent.)

    Granlund and many other Finns may consider conscription a patriotic duty, but militaries cannot count on citizens’ love 87 percent of the country’s citizens support President Vladimir Putin’s handling of foreign affairs, only around 37 percent of its young men perform military service, which in theory is mandatory for everyone.