Law and Society Blog

Meet Our Professors: Mika Aaltola

On September 14th, SOGOLAS International Relations and European Studies Professor Mika Aaltola invited researchers to Tallinn University to discuss Tartu Peace treaty. Among the guests were the Finnish Ambassador to Estonia, Timo Kantola. In this blog post, Dan Nyberg, TLU International Relations MA student, invites us to get to know the professor closer.


”The insanity of the world is being explored here”. Those were the words Mika Aaltola, respected global scholar in international politics, author, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), Associate Professor in University of Tampere, Finland and Professor of International Relations in University of Tallinn, Estonia, said 2014. He is a well-known, honored and much used expert in media. But who he really is? This profile is based on my two interviews and discussion with Mika Aaltola conducted February 2021.

He was born 1969 in a family from small village called Kintaus, close to the city of Jyväskylä, in Central Finland. His father was Professor in the University of Jyväskylä and mother a teacher in local school. He and his sisters enjoyed their childhood and youth in Kintaus that is part of Petäjävesi. Their home was not in the village but few kilometers outside in the country-side. Therefore, the core family has always had significant role in his life. 

To understand better the role of core family in Mika´s life and generally, what inspired and motivated young people living in small villages in the countryside in the era no digital communication or connection? One has to remember that computers, mobile devices or social media played no role in Mika´s childhood and youth because they were not yet invented.

Nature has always inspired children. It's a place full of unsolved mysteries that can be answered only by studying and analyzing mechanics and laws of nature itself. Therefore, it is not a miracle that young people living in countryside found themselves curiously studying nature and the logic of its actions. Same happened to Mika and his sisters. However, Mika was not as interested in nature and animals as his sisters, but rather was inspired by discovering and connecting things together. For example he told that he searched three summers this medieval place where people were sacrificed but did not find it (later was told that it was located in their yard) but found multiple other inspiring things. There was a scary island of the horrors of the past, full of collapsed and emptied tombs of people who died to plague or were killed during era of Great Hate close to his home. The history and events of the area captivated and thrilled young Mika. At the end curiosity superseded fear.       

Maps have always inspired Mika. It is not about visual looks of location of places but how maps can be used to explain how different things are connected together. Therefore, to Mika, maps are visual tools to show and explain routes connecting different things together, to show the dots that are vital in interaction and the routes how these dots are linked together. Maps are also interesting because they reveal the critical chokepoints that are under huge international interest, like narrow straits that can be used to block entry on high seas.

1990 was the first remarkable year for Mika´sfFuture. After graduated from Petäjävesi High School he decided to continue his studies in University of Columbia, USA. The choice of study place is interesting because Mika is afraid of flying and uses all possible means available to avoid flying. Fear of lying is not a small thing, not to a person who has to fly but also to people who are flying with him. Even today he prefers to choose any other possible transportation mean available to avoid flying. Sometimes there remain no other choices. Therefore, to minimize the fear and stress of flying he has watched and analyzed every possible document related to aviation accident. By taking an academic point-of-view based on scientific facts on safety of flying and relying on his analysis, Mika has been able to decrease his fears.     

By no means did Mika go to the USA to study political science, originally he intended to focus on psychology of human behavior and he graduated from Columbia with BA on psychology. During the studies he was able put theory in practice and to use the skills he had learned in University by working as a bartender in New York. Was it the experience as a bartender that made him to elaborate his study portfolio to include studies concerning research in politics? There the spark ignited. Mika became more interested in explaining connections and currents associated with masses, than trying to find connection defining individual action.  

After BA graduation Mika continued his behavioral science studies in University of Tampere MA program. He did pass his compulsory training in Pitkäniemi Psychologist Hospital before deciding to change his major from behavioral to political science focusing on international politics. He defended his doctorate 1999, at the age of 30.

After graduating Mika´s life was driven by a certain kind of restlessness and traveler mode. He was not able to settle down and roots to Finland did cut momentarily. On his journey he was a researcher in the University of Cambridge, did a research project in India 2005, Professor at University of Minnesota, researcher and a Fellow at the John Hopkins University, and researcher at Science Po University in France before returning to Finland 2008 with five year Academia scholarship in FIIA. FIIA hired Mika as their project manager 2011 before his scholarship ended. Since 2019 he has been director of FIIA. Since 2013 he has been the Professor of International Relations in University of Tallinn. Mika told that out of all places, Cambridge University and especially its library left unforgettable memories. 
Today, Mika appreciates his work as a lecturer and inspirer at Tallinn University. It also provides him an opportunity to be freshened, ie to give the brain a rest from everyday work and to find new dimensions, paths or pathways, exchanging opinions with students and scholars from all over the world.
In a way Mika is a connection of multiple contradictions; he fears flying but it is not an obstacle to block flying if necessary. He dislikes being part of byrocratic structure, but at the same time he is a director of FIIA. He likes to be in public but does not consider it as self-evident or easy. He said, that no matter of all his performances, every public appearance is thrilling, but that he has learned to manage to overcome stress by taking part in discussion not just as an expert but also as an individual having just an opinion.   

Without a doubt Mika is once again in culmination point of future of his life. At the age of 50 he has achieved as political scientist everything that can be reached. It is not possible professionally to proceed and gain anything vertically anymore, only on horizontally. He has also found life-companion and got married.    

Sisters and their opinions have always been important to Mika. He told me that they have not lost their hope on trying to influence on his views and that their discussion are enjoyable, interesting and inspiring. One of his sisters, Elisa, is a behavioral scholar focused on studying the role morality in human decision-making process and behavior. Mika, on the other hand, is a researcher of international politics that is the part of behavioral science where moral has no place at all. 

2020 was a nightmare year to most human beings but for Mika it brought the heaviest of worries; her sister became seriously ill. As she, in her blog said, nothing is more horrifying than to fear of losing loved one. To most people Mika appears as a rational fact-based researcher, but the sister´s condition also brought out Mika´s sensitive and human side. It showed that Mika is not a super-human. Discussion revealed that work has always been important to Mika and that he has, more or less, defined himself through the work. When I asked how he is resting after a project is over, he responded that before one is closed next one is opened. It would not be a mistake if someone would describe him as a workaholic. The problem is that if the brains are not given enough time to rest and heel, it will influence, at the end, to the psyche of the person. Life is balancing. As Mika told, there is not just one right path to good life, everyone creates their own journey. The important thing is to be able to dream and make your own discoveries. But without enough rest, burning the candle from both ends, inevitable collapse will use its invisible hand sooner or later. 

Mika told me that he enjoys reading books, looking documents, outdoor activities with family, friends and dogs, live theater and good food with friends and loved-ones. He has all that is needed to relax. Hopefully his sister´s condition showed him that life is short and a lot more than just working or performance. 

Mika sees his future role as a researcher rather than an administrator. He sees himself sitting on a pier or wondering in nature, and only natural voices of nature break the silence.       



Cover photo credit: Vesa Moilanen / LEHTIKUVA