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

Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Alexander Stubb at Hertie School in Berlin on 8 May 2024

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“Comprehensive Security in the 21st century” – the Finnish model

Life in the good old days was clear-cut. I mean, war was war and peace was peace. Right?

War was, by definition, a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country. And peace was the opposite – a period in which there was no war or a war had just ended. Simple, really.

Today things are not that simple. The line between war and peace has been blurred. The things that were supposed to bring us together – like trade, energy, information, currency or technology – can also be used as instruments of war. Otherwise known as the weaponisation of everything.

Hybrid attacks are commonplace in peacetime, and they rarely come with a declaration of war. Traditional war is also complex and multifaceted. Conventional warfare still exists – as we can see in both Europe and the Middle East – but the instruments and methods go beyond shells and trenches.

In the same vein, security used to be all about foreign and defence policy – troops, tanks, guns, ammo, and the rest of it. Not so anymore. Security, both external and internal, is not the exclusive competence of the military and the police.

And please note, that I am not trying to dispute Max Weber’s definition that the state is the only source that can use force legitimately. I am just saying that comprehensive security is more than the use of force.

This speech is the second in a trilogy of speeches dealing with foreign, security and defence policy. I delivered the first one – mainly focused on defence – in Brussels a month ago. There I stressed the importance of looking at defence comprehensively – national, NATO and the EU.

Today I will be talking about security, or more precisely “Comprehensive security in the 21st Century”. And I will do so through three points:

1. The current security environment

2. Comprehensive security as a concept

3. Comprehensive security in practice

My aim is to explain how we have dealt with comprehensive security in Finland. My thesis is simple: comprehensive security is the most effective way to respond to security threats in the aftermath of the post-Cold War era. And let me be blunt – for Europe, those threats come mainly from Russia. I do not believe in scaremongering, but you have to be prepared in order to avoid the worst.

And before I begin, I would like to express my gratitude for allowing me to speak here at the Hertie School. I have fond memories of the cooperation we had when I was Director and Professor at the Florence School of Transnational Governance of the EUI. I love public policy schools, because they combine the best of theory and practice. You are a model for all of us. I would also like to pay homage to the former President of the Hertie School, Henrik Enderlein.

1. The current security environment

The post-Cold War era is over. It ended with Russia’s full-blown attack on Ukraine in February 2022. The international institutions and rules that were created in the aftermath of the Second World War have not only been challenged, but are under threat.

We are seeing an increase in armed conflict, both local and regional, as is the case in the war between Israel and Hamas. At the same time, it is clear that most of the ongoing conflicts – including those we see in Africa – are linked, in one way or another, to a shift in the order, balance and dynamics of global power. Big power competition is back.

We live in an “Age of Unpeace”, as Mark Leonard eloquently put it in his book a couple of years back. Or an “Age of Revolution” as Fareed Zakaria so well explains in his latest book. This “World of Disorder”, as I call it in my upcoming book, is characterised by global unrest, strategic competition and technological disruption.

History did not end with the Cold War. All 200 nation states of the world did not embrace democracy, market economy or globalisation. As a matter of fact, democracy has been in decline, the state is back in business, and regionalisation seems to have become the trend over the past decade or so.

Energiewende and Zeitenwende have become international vernacular. Interdependence has become swear word. Energy dependence is considered naive. Technology dependence is seen as dangerous. The international system lacks trust. The closer the value chain is to home, the better. Or at least that is how the story goes.

At the same time, our societies are more interdependent than ever before – externally and internally. The vital functions of society rely on communication networks, energy, data flows and access to space-based systems like GNSS. The need for secure 5G and 6G networks cannot be stressed enough. There are threats against all of our critical infrastructures: the physical, the digital and the social.

Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in our lives, in ways we cannot even fathom. (I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a cyborg. I am completely dependent on technology). The world of the future will revolve around data flows, artificial intelligence and other emerging and disruptive technologies. With opportunity comes threat. 

State and non-state actors are challenging, influencing or coercing others across a range of domains from diplomacy to military, from economy to information. Most of the time the actions remain under the threshold of an open conflict. The actions are not peaceful, but cannot be declared as acts of war.

Autocracies will struggle to control AI, but they are effective at causing mayhem in democracies. One of the core pillars of liberal democracy – free speech and media freedom – makes us an easy target for outside influencing. We have to be vigilant and make sure that our societies are resilient in the face of disinformation. 

So, given that the security environment is volatile and the instruments at disposal are more diverse than before, we need to look at security much more broadly. This is where my second point comes in, comprehensive security as a concept.

2. Comprehensive security as a concept

The starting point for comprehensive security is an understanding that internal and external security, civil and military, public and private, peace and war – are all intertwined. They go hand in hand.

This means that you cannot look at security only from the perspective of hard, soft or smart power, you have to look at it holistically. You have to understand your own vulnerabilities, which often are located in between different actors and their responsibilities. In Finland, we have sought to do this for decades by using the concept of comprehensive security.

We have built our comprehensive security on six interlinked pillars: societal resilience, military and defence capabilities, security of supply, economic security, democracy and values and international cooperation.

First, societal resilience begins with the idea of shared responsibility. It is built on a strong sense of social justice and equality. Everyone has a stake in the system. This is naturally easier said than done, but a solid educational system combined with media literacy and common sense is a good starting point.

Second, strong military capabilities are based on a universal conscription for men, and voluntary for women. I did my military service right before the end of the Cold War. My son is about to finish his 12-month service. Military service is as much about defence capabilities as it is about shared experience and societal glue. Over 80 percent of Finns are willing to defend their country. 

For the third pillar, security of supply, we have a National Emergency Supply Agency which is in charge of coordinating and managing critical production and stocks (food), services (fuel), and infrastructure (data) in case of serious incidents and emergencies. This is very much a public–private endeavour. I will deal with it in more detail below.

Our fourth pillar is economic security. It is equally important and encompasses various aspects from avoiding economic dependencies on external actors and countering economic coercion. It basically means that you make sure that critical industries (telecom) and materials (rare minerals) are not exposed in crisis situations. De-risking should not, however, mean decoupling from the world.

Fifth, we should also keep in mind that an important part of comprehensive security is our capacity to defend and uphold democratic institutions. A separation of powers and a strong system of checks and balances are a good starting point. But in today’s world, where election results are contested and disinformation challenges democratic discourse, we must be vigilant in upholding free and responsible speech as well as media freedom.

Finally, international cooperation is a crucial pillar of the concept of comprehensive security. For us the natural “go to” place is the EU. And that is why I am particularly happy that my predecessor, President Sauli Niinistö, has been tasked by the Commission to present recommendations for the EU’s civilian and defence preparedness. Finland’s Preparedness Union initiative is also progressing in Brussels.

So, when we hear the head of German domestic intelligence, Thomas Haldenwang, say that “…the risk of state-controlled acts of sabotage (has) significantly increased” and that, more specifically, Russia seems rather comfortable carrying out those operations on European soil, it is high time to beef up our comprehensive security mechanisms. And we need to do this together.

3. Comprehensive security in practice

In the final part of my speech, I will give you three examples of how we deal with comprehensive security in Finland: the National Emergency Supply Agency (NESA), the National Defence courses and the civil defence shelters.

First, the National Emergency Supply Agency, which I mentioned above, is a centerpiece of our security of supply. It is tasked with integrating the objectives and interests of both society and the business community. You fight a war on the frontlines. You win it by keeping your society running.

Historically, the focus was on material preparedness: stockpiles of oil, ammunition, medicine, food, masks and so on. In the 2000s, material preparedness was supplemented with an equally important component: operational continuity management. The goal is to ensure continuity of the vital functions of society.

In the public sector, ministries have statutory duties in overseeing their sectors. The participation of private sector operators in security of supply work, however, is mostly voluntary. The voluntary participation of the private sector has always been characteristic of Finland’s efforts to ensure security of supply. It is complemented by contracts (e.g. stockpile requirements and ensuring communications systems) and regulation (e.g. for telecom and finance sector).

This public–private partnership is built upon experiences gained during the Second World War and the models of operation established shortly after the war. It is based on mutual trust and willingness of companies to join the common cause. The companies also stand to benefit: they get to form or join networks, learn about the threat environment and exchange best practices in business continuity planning. The system – as the rest of the comprehensive model – is being kept operational and up to date by constant exercising.

The second example of our comprehensive security approach are our National defence courses. Four times a year, a couple of dozen of people from various backgrounds are brought together by these courses. Political party representatives, civil servants, business CEOs, journalists, civil society representatives, etc. The courses have been run for over 60 years.

This spring, it was time for course number 248. For three weeks, the participants took a deep dive into the Finnish comprehensive security system, ranging from foreign and security policy to economy and infrastructure, from security of supply to decision-making in crisis situations.

And they made lasting networks across all sectors of government and society. Upon graduation, everyone has a deeper understanding of the structures and processes underpinning the security of the Finnish society. People gain new perspectives to security policy and some might even have changed their views.

The system works. I have so many friends that come out of these courses with a sense of excitement and pride – and lifelong friendships. They are a bonding experience that helps make comprehensive security a common cause in Finland.

The third example I want to raise today is civil protection in times of crises. A very concrete illustration of Finland’s preparedness is our civil defence shelters. (Literally, since they are usually made out of concrete.) There are more than 50,000 civil defence shelters in Finland. They have space for a total of 4.8 million people. Let that number sink in and compare it to the whole Finnish population of 5.6 million.

In normal times, these shelters are mostly used as sports halls, metro stations and parking space. In residential buildings, they are often used as storage space. But in emergency conditions, civil defence shelters provide protection for the population, particularly against a military threat. They protect against the effects of explosions, collapse of buildings, blasts, radiation and so on.

Building and sustaining civil defence shelters hasn’t really been a popular theme in Europe since the Second World War. They are not cheap. Yet Finland has kept the building of shelters as a legal obligation across the country. We’d rather keep using them as sports halls and metro stations, but we must be prepared for the worst. The unthinkable is no longer unthinkable.


Allow me to conclude by quoting Lieutenant General Mikko Heiskanen, who is Deputy Chief of Staff, Armaments and Logistics. In an interview for the Financial Times this week, he noted that “We need to be prepared for a long-term crisis…We have activated some of those (agreements), we have checked all of our agreements, we have tested procurement not just for ammunition but for other materials. We are testing our strategic partners’ plans and readiness.”

In that same Financial Times story a senior diplomat from a fellow NATO member state said that “Finland is the gold standard. They didn’t let their guard down in the 1990s and 2000s, and now most of us can only stand and admire what they have. Their ability to mobilise people and business in a crisis is genuinely impressive”. Though we are flattered by these kind words, it is important to note that we never really had a choice. 

This is what comprehensive security is all about. You have to be prepared. I call it the Finnish way. It takes years to build up the capacity, and I am glad we have. Our duty is to defend liberal democracy, open society and freedom. That means that we have to start taking comprehensive security in the 21st century more seriously. And this we cannot do alone, we have to do it together.

Thank you, danke schön.

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