Keynote Speech by President of the Republic of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, at the FIIA Forum, Helsinki, 29 September 2021

Photo: Eeva Anudi
Kuva: Eeva Anudi

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to congratulate the Finnish Institute of International Affairs for its 60th anniversary. Finland needs an institute that is both Finnish and international.

The same demand also applies to our foreign and security policy. Finland needs a foreign and security policy that is both Finnish and international. We cannot, and do not want to, turn our backs on the world we live in, no matter how challenging the environment is.

But neither can we afford to forget our own national interests, not for one moment. More often than not, international and Finnish concerns go hand in hand, without contradictions. Yet there are also moments when we have to make difficult choices. Choices where the Finnish interests must prevail. We cannot delegate this responsibility to anyone else.

Recent experiences, from very different walks of life, speak volumes. Whether it was the pandemic or the refugee crisis, the immediate reactions to sudden international challenges have been very similar. National, not international. If others around us operate on the basis of their national interests, pure altruism from our side makes us more vulnerable.

Finland must not end up in a situation where, simultaneously, our assessment of internal and external security risks is less vigorous and our legislation less rigid than those of our peers. For good reason, we consider it self-evident that our Nordic friends are liberal democracies. We should also pay close attention to how seriously, and by what means, they address their security these days. Finland must not diverge from that path.

* * *

As many of you may know, my holistic view of Finland’s security sees it as resting on four pillars. They are, first, the national defence and security; second, the Western integration and partnerships; third, the relationship with Russia; and fourth, the international system and comprehensive security.

Unlike real pillars, none of them is fixed in stone. They change and evolve over time. Like real pillars, however, they must form a coherent whole. If one weakens and cannot be strengthened, others have to be able to carry more of the weight on them. Such an active stability policy, as I have called it, requires constant care and attention.

* * *

Let me begin with the first pillar, our national defence and security. As I have often said, a credible defence has a twofold function. On the one hand, it raises the threshold against a potential aggressor. On the other, it makes us a more lucrative partner for others, particularly when interoperability is high.

A credible defence builds on adequate military capabilities and resources. Our past and future procurements for the different domains are necessary to make sure that our national capacity stays on top of emerging challenges.

But a credible defence cannot be built on hardware alone. It also stems from the very mindset of the population: a genuine will to defend one’s own country. That will has traditionally been on a remarkably high level in Finland. That does not mean that we could take it for granted in the future. We must actively nurture that will in the coming generations.

Increasingly, that kind of a mindset is also a prerequisite for our security beyond the strictly military definition of the term. New technologies and the modern information space provide us with plenty of positive opportunities. At the same time, we need our entire population to be alert to the dangers and the risks they bring along. More than ever, our security is becoming the responsibility of each individual citizen.

* * *

Over the past years, Finland has consistently built a dense web of defence and security partnerships. Bilaterally, we work very closely with the United States, with Sweden and with Norway. Trilaterally, with the United States and Sweden on the one hand, with Sweden and Norway on the other, our statements of intent enable joint cooperation with the same key partners.

Our trilateral cooperation with Sweden and with Norway focuses on our common Northern environment. It was kicked off politically by an informal meeting I convened to Kultaranta two years ago. I have now been pleased to see that Sweden, Norway and Denmark have followed suit with a similar arrangement focusing on the region they share. Both endeavours are in line with the joint objectives of our Nordic defence cooperation, increasing our common security.

With a wider regional perspective, Finland has intensified its cooperation with France and the United Kingdom. We actively participate in the UK-driven Joint Expeditionary Force as well as in the French-led European Intervention Initiative.

As we have seen, most recently with the AUKUS announcement for the Indo-Pacific region, new kinds of multinational defence arrangements continue to proliferate. In the public discussion, new ad-hoc groups have sometimes been seen as undermining the credibility of existing alliances and unions. Sometimes one also hears veiled indications that a direct relationship with the United States is even more important than the relationship with NATO.

In my view, the broad variety of partnerships is a positive development. We will not automatically participate in all new initiatives that emerge. But those that serve our interests, will help us further improve our interoperability with chosen partners. And they are complementary reinforcements to the two essential components of the second pillar of our security: our EU membership and our close partnership with NATO.

As both institutions are now in the process of formulating their future approaches to security and defence – the European Union with its Strategic Compass, NATO with its Strategic Concept – we are entering a pivotal year. As an EU member, Finland will work actively on the inside: how do we shape the union into a more powerful global actor, one that better safeguards our interests in the midst of the great-power competition? As a NATO partner, Finland will keep a close eye on the development from the outside: how does the future Alliance look at its partnerships, and will the door for membership stay open?

* * *

Finland’s relationship with Russia is longstanding and multifaceted. Over time, this relationship has experienced fluctuations, to put it mildly. But what has persisted for decades, is a shared commitment to seek working relations between neighbours. In the process, maintaining a functioning relationship with Russia – as functioning a relationship as possible at a given point in time – has become an important pillar supporting our own security.

Of course, this relationship has never operated in a vacuum. It is part and parcel of a wider European, and even a global setting. And unfortunately, we can now detect many worrisome trends here.

The relationship between the European Union and Russia has effectively withered away. The search for partnership has been replaced with growing suspicion and mutual recrimination. We have genuine differences – that should not be denied. For example, we will not accept the illegal annexation of Crimea, nor will we condone the continued recourse to a set of destabilising activities on the part of Russia.

Having said that, I urge everyone to look at the bigger picture. We are missing out on opportunities to handle common threats and challenges in Europe. The tradition of cooperative security is in danger of being lost. We run the risk of sleepwalking into an even bigger conflict than we have today.

A related cause for concern is the growing militarisation in Northern Europe. It goes without saying that we all must take good care of our own security. That is the duty of every state. At the same time, I do not believe that stable security or predictable relations between Russia and the West can, or should, be based on the force of armaments alone.

We also need dialogue with Russia. That is in no contradiction to firmness. Speaking from the Finnish experience, I can ensure you that both elements can fit in the same equation. Our relationship with Russia is based on an active, straightforward dialogue.

The same must be possible on a European level. In this respect, I note with particular regret how cooperation within the OSCE is effectively frozen.

* * *

The final pillar, the international system and comprehensive security, is common to the whole humanity. The most visible embodiment of this international community is the United Nations.

At the UN General Assembly last week, as usual, we heard many beautiful words in the statements of the heads of state and government. On a positive note, I conclude that we all want peace and security, stability and prosperity, and effective responses to common threats and challenges.

But words are not enough. They must urgently be turned into effective and common deeds. The problem is that even though we seem to share an analysis of a world increasingly in peril, there is no agreement concerning the way forward. Instead, we see a world divided into competing, possibly even conflicting blocs. As a result, we may use the same terms but mean entirely different things.

There is no denying that the world is in dire need of dialogue. But not any dialogue will do. Instead of the current dialogue of the deaf, we need one that genuinely reaches across the dividing lines. One that is mindful of our differences, but one that aims to build trust and seeks to find our common denominators.

This is where Finland wants to strengthen the international system and our common security. We remain committed to offering our good offices to facilitate processes that enhance global strategic stability. We also want to rekindle the Helsinki Spirit.

An important legacy of the original Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, held here in Helsinki in 1975, was the spirit of that meeting. The willingness of competitors and adversaries to sit at the same table, despite their disagreements. Such a spirit is in high demand today, on the global level.

We urgently need to respond to fundamental questions of war and peace, climate change and biodiversity loss, pandemics and the challenges of new technologies. We can only succeed in that together. It is a question of our common human responsibilities. What kind of a world will we leave to future generations?

Above all, these are not some distant global issues, somehow detached from our national interests. They are at the heart of our own security. And therefore, they reside at the very centre of Finland’s foreign and security policy.