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Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassadors’ Conference on 28 August 2018 - The President of the Republic of Finland

The President of the Republic of Finland
Speeches, 8/28/2018

Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassadors’ Conference on 28 August 2018

PPhoto: Matti Porre/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland
Photo: Matti Porre/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland

Excellencies, Heads of Mission, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Ambassadors’ Conference once again starts off the autumn term of foreign affairs. The summer has not been completely quiet either. 

This time I thought I will focus on talking about power and its different forms. Recently a lot has been written about the fragmentation of power, or even its disappearance altogether, about moving into some kind of a G-Zero world. I do not personally believe that power and the use of power will disappear. The nature of power is certainly changing, and it may also become  increasingly more difficult to detect. 

From the perspective of our foreign policy, it is vital that we have as realistic and up-to-date a view as possible of the global distribution of power. That allows us to also use our own power most effectively.

* * *

A month and a half ago an unusually large amount of power was present in a single room in Helsinki, when we hosted the summit between the Presidents of the United States and Russia. Despite the short notice for the preparations, the practical arrangements of the meeting were taken care of successfully. I would once more like to thank all of those involved. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs naturally played an important role here. We can safely offer our good services in the future as well.

The meeting itself seemed to raise a lot of concerns in advance. Would the two powers agree on issues concerning Europe without consulting us Europeans? There was even talk about an outright division into spheres of influence. These risks did not materialise in Helsinki. The meeting was what it was supposed to be: an opening of channels of communication. 

Whether it is about resolving existing conflicts or avoiding new ones, the world would be a less secure place for all of us without direct communication between the United States and Russia. It is therefore important that in Helsinki the presidents addressed not only the relations between their countries, but also issue like Ukraine, Syria and nuclear weapons. As far as I understand, the talks continued on a working level last week. 

We do not yet know the final outcome, but at least it was a start. The real impact of the Helsinki meeting will only be measured in the coming months and years. The problems in the relationship between the two countries were not ironed out overnight; that much is obvious from the new sanctions and accusations on both sides. 

* * *

Direct contacts to the great powers and their leaderships are valuable capital for us, and we must look after it. Their importance is even greater now that power in world politics is becoming increasingly personified. Presidents Putin, Trump and Xi have much under their control. A personal relationship with them allows us to see nuances that are not in the public domain.

We all know that Putin has a strong hold on the reins of power in Russia. I have now had two opportunities to talk with him within a short period of time, first here in Helsinki and then in Sochi last week. My impression is that Putin wants to build a better relationship with Europe, particularly in the economic sense. However, moving ahead with Europe on one track is difficult without progress on the other. As there is unfortunately no relief in sight for the situation in Crimea and Ukraine, our common European sanctions policy stands firm. Our bilateral relationship with Russia is in as good a shape as it can be in the current circumstances. For example in environmental issues there are plenty of opportunities for cooperation. We are already doing a lot, but there is still room for new, mutually beneficial initiatives. 

The spectrum of power is much more multidimensional in the United States. In addition to the President, we also need to be familiar with the views of other parts of the administration and the Congress. The domestic conflicts are plain for everyone to see, but many trends underneath the surface are pointing in the same direction. The United States’ view of the world is changing, and it is not all about President Trump. The United States’ global influence is not going anywhere, but we should not lull ourselves into thinking that the nature of that power will stay unchanged forever. We are again witnessing the fluctuation that we have seen over the long history of the United States’ foreign policy.

The power structure of China is the least familiar to us out of these three great powers. The visibility on what happens behind the scenes in Beijing is not as good as it is in Moscow and Washington. President Xi’s dominance, now also without term limits, is nevertheless indisputable. The direction in which China is headed is in President Xi’s hands, and it has implications on us all. Once you’ve built a relationship with him, you should continue nurturing it. 

* * *

The Helsinki meeting led some to revert to the stereotypically Finnish way of worrying: what will the others think about us? I thought we had got rid of this besetting sin of ours already. During my over six years as President, I have not met a single interlocutor for whom Finland’s international position would have been unclear. If we do not question it ourselves, neither will others. 

If we jump every time we see references to neutrality or Finlandisation, as unjustifiable as they may be, we easily end up only reinforcing those notions. Instead, I would like to see considerably more self-esteem and self-confidence in how we tell our story. Because the ingredients are very good. Our story is in our own control. And it is far, faw away from any grey area.

There is nothing mystical about our relationship with Russia. And others do not think so either. In fact, our direct line of communication with Russia inspires gratitude and interest in our partners. Others have also often come to us, asking for help with opening their own relationship with Russia.   

We often hear in Finland that the Government deals with our EU policy and the President takes care of Russia. This has led to a delusion in the public discussion that that is all our foreign policy is about. Yet our foreign policy actually extends to all directions, to various sectors, and to countries great and small. Bilaterlly we also engage in foreign policy with other EU countries, many Ambassadors from those countries are present here. One example is Sweden. Our foreign and security policy cooperation with Sweden is on a completely new level and deeper than ever before. That is not EU policy, it is Finland’s and Sweden’s own foreign policy. 

Our partnership network in the security and defence policy sector has also grown ever stronger in recent months. Finland’s and Sweden’s partnership with NATO is based on a solid foundation, as the summit in July clearly demonstrated, despite its many twists and turns. Our trilateral cooperation with the United States and Sweden, our bilateral cooperation with Sweden and our participation in the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force have all been backed up by new documents and signatures. 

It is also important to remember in this context that these arrangements do not take away our national sovereignty. Whether to participate or not participate in joint projects is in our own hands; there is no automatism in our defence cooperation. 

* * *

I have been calling for Europe to play a stronger role in world politics for a long time already. You do not get offered a seat at the big actors’ table, you have to earn it. Only those who can demonstrate that they already have influence can expect to get more of it. Even the largest European countries are relatively small actors on their own. Together we have more power and influence. 

Europe’s traditional strengths are its values and its economy. Those were also what we had in our sights three decades ago when Finland’s Western integration truly got under way. We built the foundations for our current position by first joining the Council of Europe and then the European Union. I can well remember the positive European spirit of those days. The power of that spirit has unfortunately waned since then. 

Finland now has an opportunity to strengthen that European spirit once more – first with the presidency of the Council of Europe from November onwards, and then with the presidency of the EU as of next summer. 

Europe’s influence in the world is still largely dependent on the strength of our value base and our economic competitiveness. However, we also need to bolster them with our own capacity to protect European citizens. NATO is still the cornerstone of security in Europe, but there are now increasingly loud calls for stronger European defence also from the larger European NATO members. The headlines vary, but the direction seems to be the same everywhere.

France, stressing European strategic autonomy, has taken the lead in this development. I look forward with great interest to my talks with President Macron later this week. They will also offer an opportunity to properly discuss France’s European Intervention Initiative, in which Finland has also expressed its interest. Despite the name, the initiative is not about any new intervention forces but more about strengthening a common strategic culture and understanding between European participants.

* * *

The need to give Europe a stronger voice also relates to the fact that there are other parties in the queue for power. Some have already overtaken Europe. The geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting, and it is imperative that we do not get crushed in the process. 

We in Finland still often fix our gaze too near. We need to see more clearly further east beyond Russia and further south beyond the Mediterranean. I have already mentioned China. The rise of China stopped being just a future scenario a long time ago, it has become a reality. With its military and economic growth, China is beginning to have both hard and soft power in ways that we perhaps still do not understand well enough. 

And it is not just China. There is a new dynamism in the whole of Asia that presents economic opportunities for us, if we act cleverly. At the same time, that dynamism is also moving the global balance of power further away from us, if we cannot respond to it. 

As several speakers mentioned here yesterday, we also need a more precise view of Africa. The rapid population growth that has already taken place, let alone the future population growth, will inevitably give the continent more influence in the next few decades. Whether this change will occur under favourable circumstances or lead to the realisation of the worst-case scenarios, the time for using our influence on that is now. Highlighting the role of women and girls is central factor here. 

Another expression of the shift in the balance of power can be found in the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa. I have often referred to Turkey in my speeches here in recent years, and I must do so again. The country’s economic crisis has made it even more evident that President Erdoğan has major decisions to make. What kind of a relationship will this NATO member have with Russia? What kind of a role will Turkey, with its views on the Kurdish question, take in the attempts to end the war in Syria? How will Turkey’s increasingly complicated relationship with the EU affect migration towards Europe? These are fateful questions, and their impacts will not be only local. 

* * *

The rules-based world order built step by step after the Second World War is truly being tested at the moment. Institutions are having a difficult time. The UN Security Council’s powers are limited, as the permanent members struggle to reach agreement. A looming trade war threatens the credibility of the World Trade Organisation. Common principles agreed on in the OSCE have been violated. Membership obligations in the Council of Europe are put to the test. New international conventions and agreements are difficult to reach, and even the few exceptions to this rule have quickly run into trouble – I am referring to, for example, the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. 

For small countries functional institutions and common rules have traditionally been even more important than for big ones. However, it is very difficult for anyone to find answers to the big questions of our time without an international order. We discussed this at the Kultaranta talks in June, both among us Finns and with UN Secretary-General Guterres, who was our guest there. The power of an international order is sorely needed to control migration, for example. The Secretary-General’s pursuit of this goal, as well as his attempts to reform the entire UN system, deserve our strong support. Completely unresolved is the question of how our current institutions can be kept abreast of the rapidly progressing technological revolution. Artificial intelligence with all its implications is one example. There will surely be a lot to talk about during the UN meetings next month. Hopefully we can also accomplish some deeds.   

* * *

In Finland we were able to enjoy an exceptionally long and warm summer. But was in actually so enjoyable? For many of us, the joy of the first few days of the heatwave eventually turned sour. Is this what climate change will bring in the future? Is the power of nature going to overpower us humans? Is our infrastructure strong enough, will our crops survive, will we be able to put out the wildfires? If the heat and drought can create problems as far north as Finland, just how bad is it further south?

Climate change is a fundamental question of peace and security that reqires international cooperation and prompt action. We all need to do more. Carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced at a considerably faster rate, and we need to prepare for the irreversible changes more quickly than before. Both small and big steps are needed.  

I have personally called attention to the importance of black carbon in the Arctic. The negative environmental impacts of black carbon are instantaneous, but so would be the positive effect of reducing black carbon emissions. I am sometimes told that cutting soot emissions is not weighty enough of an issue for calling a meeting of heads of state. I disagree. Saving the Arctic environment is a goal worthy of all available power. We continue to aim for an Arctic summit during Finland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, some time early next year.  

* * *

A lot of noise has been made about mandates and power in Finland in recent weeks, on very weak grounds, in my opinion. Instead of our current constitutuonal system, some seem to long for a president stripped of, if not all, then at least half his powers. I will say not go more deeply into this, suffice it to say that that the cooperation in leading our foreign policy works extremely well with the current Government. And I have no reason to think that the same would not be true with the nexts governments.

It is precisely this continuity across electoral terms that is behind my thinking on the importance of parliamentary backing. It would be particularly harmful in foreign and security policy to make decisions that will be left for successors to implement without at least some kind of certainty that they, too, are able to stand behind them. Sudden swings back and forth do not serve our security, they weaken it. 

This parliamentary backing of our foreign policy, an admittedly very informal parliamentary backing, is something that I have tried to buoild for myself by regular meetings with the leaders of all parties in Parliament. I also intend to continue the practice with the next Parliament.

* * *

Dear ambassadors, as I said at the beginning, a realistic understanding of the world around us is vital for successful foreign policy-making. We need to be able to see the world as it is right now, not just as it was before or as we would like it to be. You and the missions you lead are invaluable in providing us with this situational awareness. 

I would, however, like to challenge you to expand your horizon even more towards the future. What will happen next? Where will new opportunities open up, where are there new threats lurking? Listen also to the weak signals in the countries in which you are stationed and send strong signals about them to the capital. Anticipating upcoming changes, even just slightly ahead of others, is where power and influence truly lies.  

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Updated 8/29/2018

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