Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassadors’ Conference on 20 August 2019

Tasavallan presidentti Sauli Niinistö Suurlähettiläskokouksessa.

Esteemed Heads of Missions, dear colleagues,

Major questions of world politics are strongly present in Helsinki this week. This year, it is not only the merit of the discussions that traditionally take place in the context of this Ambassadors’ Conference. As far as my own visit exchange is concerned, the autumn season starts tomorrow when the Russian President Putin arrives in Helsinki. Yesterday we already had the opportunity to exchange opinions with the Foreign Minister of Iran here.

The interesting series of meetings continues in a few weeks’ time with an official visit to meet the Ukrainian President Zelensky. And much more is in prospect during the autumn. It is therefore an appropriate moment to consider not only the state of international relations but also the ultimate essence of Finland’s foreign and security policy.

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Four years ago, when we were taking our first steps in the cooperation with the previous government, I quoted J.W. Snellman at this same event. Those thoughts from 1863 are worth repeating again. “Only in the imagination of youth do nations sacrifice themselves for the common good of humankind,” wrote our national philosopher. And he continued: “In reality, each nation seeks its own interests, just as it should.”

As we approach the 2020s, these ideas, on the one hand, may sound badly out-dated. Making a sharp distinction between the interests of humankind and the nation is not sensible, not even possible. Of course, Snellman also noted the close connection between them in his text. Yet now that connection is closer than ever before. We have on our hands a host of wicked global problems that no single state can solve alone. And there is also a more positive side to the connection: in addition to problematic phenomena, globalisation has also spread the interest of all humankind to those who were previously beyond its reach. The pursuit of the common good, when partners can be found for this, also promotes our own cause.

But in the midst of an accelerating great-power competition and a deteriorating international order, Snellman’s state wisdom has, on the other hand, gained an entirely new topicality. “A nation should only trust in itself,” he famously emphasised. Recalling this idea is by no means a matter of narrow-minded, exclusive nationalism. Timeless realism, rather. Ultimately, we alone are responsible for our own security and well-being, no one else. Not everyone promotes the common good.

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This is a contradiction we have to live with. Forces pulling in opposite directions are simultaneously making themselves felt across the world. Those that bring nations together, and those that drive them apart. Unfortunately, the latter seem to be increasingly gaining the upper hand.

We must, of course, do everything we can to reverse this trend. “Rules-based system” and “international cooperation” – we do not emphasise these phrases in our speeches simply to demonstrate moral orthodoxy. When they function, they directly serve the interests of all humankind as well as our own interests. Defending them uncompromisingly requires not only words, but also concrete actions. Fortunately, we also have like-minded defenders of cooperation alongside us.

Our influence on the policies practised by others, even together with our partners, is limited, however. We must therefore also be prepared for an unwanted future. For one in which institutions and cooperation mechanisms are further weakened and power politics and confrontation are increasingly on the rise.

Whether circumstances are favourable for us or not, the main objective of Finland’s foreign and security policy remains the same. It is strengthening our international position and ensuring our security. This is what we are most able to influence through our own actions. Succeeding in this is the measure of our policy’s success.

The results of foreign policy should not be confused with the instruments of foreign policy. Being part of an alliance or a group of countries is not an end in itself, but a means. Initiatives, meetings and statements are not ends in themselves, but means. What is decisive is the results achieved through these instruments. Do they lead to desired change or not? Do they strengthen our international position and our security or not?

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As you well know, the global situation has become highly unstable. There are open and emerging conflicts in all directions, from Ukraine to Syria, from the Gulf to the Korean Peninsula. A new feature of the post-Cold War situation is now the increasingly open extension of great-power competition to all continents.

The definition of a great power depends on perspective. In economic terms, the United States and China are, compared with Russia, giants in a division of their own. We can only guess what the ultimate effects of the increased tension in their trade relations will be. In geopolitical terms, however, the world is not bipolar. With its military and political power, Russia has unquestionably shown itself to be the third great power. This triangle, with Washington, Beijing and Moscow at its vertices, is now making its mark on the entire international security situation.

And the tensions between the great powers are not limited to crisis areas. From the vertices of the triangle, strengthening cross-pressures are being directed at the European Union within it. These pressures are also beginning to be felt in EU Member States.

Maintaining, our international position, let alone strengthening it, within that triangle will require more and more work in the future. The triangle around us may change its shape and position surprisingly quickly. Maintaining our own room for manoeuvre will require that we monitor this dynamic with great.

To a degree, unpredictability is also increased by the fact that the great powers are not immune to internal conflicts either. The upcoming election year in the United States and the demonstrations in Moscow and Hong Kong are each in their own way making these dividing lines visible for all to see. The consequences are still unknown, but they will inevitably leave some kind of a mark on the leadership of these countries.

Direct contacts with all vertices of the triangle are invaluable to us in this situation. In these discussions, we will not be able to turn a great power away from a major strategic course it has already chosen. In other matters, however, there may be opportunities to exert influence.

Dialogue always gives us better scope to anticipate the next movements of the great powers, while maximising our own ability to react. And, above all, an open line of communication provides an opportunity to directly express our own views, ensuring that there is no ambiguity about our own position. At the same time, situations may arise in which we can facilitate dialogue between the great powers.

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Rather than a triangle, I would much prefer to draw the image of world politics as a rectangle. One in which the European Union would be an equal global player with the other great powers. As part of a more influential union, our own position would also be strengthened. Unfortunately, however, the EU’s geopolitical and security policy weight does not, for the time being, correspond to its economic power.

Let me be clear: I strongly support the strengthening of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, even at the risk that it would reduce the powers of the President of the Republic. Both as Presidency and as a regular member, we need to strive for a common European voice and joint European deeds.

In the future, we must also ensure that the UK remains a close part of the European security system, even after its departure from the EU. This will require creative solutions, particularly if a no-deal departure really lies ahead. I myself have started to ponder whether Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty could somehow be extended to cover the UK even after it has left the EU behind. After all, the aid and assistance obligation is a commitment between Member States, not union policy.

At the moment, however, we cannot build our own security on something that does not yet exist. Alongside EU membership, our Western cooperation is therefore based on a broad spectrum of complementary contacts, ranging from the NATO partnership to multilateral and bilateral arrangements, both with the United States and European countries. At this summer’s Kultaranta Talks, I believe this was called a “tapestry” (kudelma in Finnish). Regardless of the label attached to it, the way in which we have built this array of contacts constantly receives very positive feedback in the international arena. Strengthening our international position, this too.

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As I have already said, open questions attached to the great-power triangle are overshadowing all parts of the world. Our own neighbourhood is no exception to this. The great powers now seem to be paying even more attention to the Arctic region than the Baltic Sea.

Alongside climate change, concern about Arctic security was another reason for our efforts to organise a summit of Arctic countries earlier this year. Our readiness to host the summit was a means of our foreign policy, not an end in itself. Although it has not yet been possible to convene the meeting, due to great-power tensions, the necessity for it has not disappeared.

A number of difficulties are associated with bringing together all eight Arctic countries. It is a lot easier to bring together smaller groups of like-minded Nordic countries around the situation of the Northern regions. It is well known that cooperation between Finland and Sweden has intensified at an astonishing rate in recent years. Alongside this, it will certainly also be useful to open new links with our common neighbour, Norway. I have called together a joint, informal meeting with Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian prime ministers as well as defence and interior ministers to for the beginning of September. The aim is to have, for the first time with this set-up, an unofficial exchange of views on security policy.

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Cooperation with the new Government has started without problems during the summer. No changes are expected to the main features of our foreign and security policy line. Of course, some new areas of emphasis always arise with changes of government. Two clear priorities stand out from this government programme, Africa and climate change. Both are very important themes. You have already had a thorough discussion of both topics here in the context of yesterday’s ministerial speeches. I shall therefore confine myself to briefly addressing each of them, expressly from the point of view of results.

With Africa and development policy now firmly on the Government’s agenda, I would like to draw attention to, alongside their instruments, also to their effectiveness. I myself would support a strengthening of a common European approach also in this area. The current EU Presidency provides Finland with an opportunity for this.

As an objective, better coherence of national action is, of course, a good starting point, but it is even more important to ensure that EU Member States and the actors they fund do not engage even in conflicting policies unknown to each other. By combining their development and Africa policy forces better, European countries would certainly be able to achieve more results already with the resources they currently use. At the same time, the EU’s foreign policy influence and standing would increase on a continent that is becoming increasingly important.

With regard to climate change, the Government’s ambitious goals have been praised worldwide. I join in this praise: these goals are indeed worth presenting internationally. Very soon, however, questions about concrete deeds will begin to be asked. The first occasion will come at the end of September when I attend the Climate Action Summit, convened by Secretary General Guterres, in connection with the UN General Assembly Week.

In climate policy, the power of the example is strong. We cannot demand more from others until we have demonstrated that we can do it ourselves. Goals alone are not enough. Evidence of achieving them must also be obtained.

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Your Excellencies, geopolitical tensions and pressures on the international treaty system have already led some to speak gloomily about the end of diplomacy. I strongly disagree with that. As circumstances become more difficult, the demand for skilled diplomacy only increases.

To you as professionals in this field, it is no news that skilled diplomacy is being carried out both in public and out of sight. There is a time and place for both approaches. There are situations where raising one’s profile and visibility are important. There are also situations where it is wiser to present one’s views in silence behind the scenes.

This does not mean avoiding difficult issues, but focusing on the results that are essential to us. If our international position and our security – or, for example, the human rights situation elsewhere -– are improved by us criticising others publicly, then it is certainly worth doing so. Usually, however, we tend to achieve more by acting otherwise.

The more difficult the circumstances become, the more valuable Finnish diplomacy becomes for Finland. It is a task of which you can be proud. I wish you every strength in your important work.