Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö on the 150th anniversary of the birth of President J. K. Paasikivi, 27 November 2020

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“The main task of our policy, now and in the future, is naturally to secure independence and the democratic order. As of yet we have not achieved certainty in both respects.”

This is how President of the Republic of Finland J. K. Paasikivi began his lengthy diary entry of 13 September 1948, also known as the “Paasikivi Programme”.

Of course, in over 70 years the conditions have changed significantly. Our whole society, its security and welfare, now rest on a substantially more solid basis. Paasikivi had a crucially important role to play in laying those foundations – also during the post-war “years of danger”, during the final stages of which the above-mentioned diary entry was made.

However, the new years are not without danger, either. Right now, our attention is focused on defeating the coronavirus pandemic. However, even today, we should not take independence and the democratic order for granted. We must continue safeguarding both of them. In other words, our main task remains unchanged.

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History never repeats itself as such. But as we are today celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Juho Kusti Paasikivi – or rather Johan Gustaf Hellstén – the temptation to draw historical analogies is great.

It tells something about the subject of celebration. During his exceptionally long career, Paasikivi was an influential figure in numerous turning points of Finnish history, the kinds of moments we tend to rely on when seeking historical points of reference. Furthermore, Paasikivi himself was a thinker with deep knowledge of history. He was a man who understood and knew history, and readily sought lessons from the past to the present.

But it also tells something about our time. In the midst of great changes, there is again demand for a Paasikivi–like realism. It is again a topical question to consider Finland’s position in the “conjunctures” of great power politics. And indeed, when studying the phases of Paasikivi’s life from today’s perspective, one notices again and again that one can identify some familiar features. Layers of new technologies and new actors have been added, but great power politics and geography are the issues we keep on going back to. The script and the casting change, but the stage remains the same.

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Over several decades, Paasikivi also had various roles to play. From a senator during Finland’s autonomy to prime minister in the early stages of independence. From a peace negotiator in Tartu to a banker in the crisis period of the world economy. Before and during the war years, from ambassador in Stockholm and Moscow to prime minister again. And finally, he became President of the Republic of Finland for the duration of the first decade of the Cold War.

As periods changed, it was not only Paasikivi’s functions that transformed. The fundamental pillars of his policy, the partners and basic political assumptions considered as guarantors of Finland’s position, were also in a constant state of flux. What you thought you could rely on just a moment ago, suddenly no longer carried you. Again, you had to turn to a new direction to seek support.

Maliciously, some people might call this kind of readiness for change opportunism. But as long as the objective remains fixed, it is statecraft and wisdom. This is a lesson we can draw from today, too. When the environment is shifting considerably, our set of instruments must also be able to change, if our own interest so requires. We should not cling to the old just for the sake of relying on something familiar. We must bear our main task on top of our minds.

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I will still return to the two parts of the main task defined by Paasikivi. First, independence.

Right at the beginning of the new Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy, it defines the goal of Finland’s foreign and security policy quite compactly: “[…] to strengthen Finland’s international position, to secure its independence and territorial integrity, to strengthen Finland’s security and prosperity and to ensure that the society functions efficiently.”

This is the hard core of the whole report. And at the core of it lies securing Finnish independence. We can strengthen our international position only as an independent actor. Independence means the ability to bear the responsibility for our own security by ourselves. It is not the primary goal for anyone else but us.

By no means does it mean that we would prefer needing to act on our own. On the contrary, it is in our best interest to seek as extensive an international cooperation as possible. But the stronger and the more independent we are, the more attractive a partner we are to others.

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Compared to the Paasikivi era, the European Union is a completely new instrument for boosting our security and prosperity. The founding members of the European Communities signed the Treaty of Rome a few months after Paasikivi died. It was not until almost 40 years later that Finland joined the Union.

Today, and for a good reason, we underscore the importance of the EU for the Finnish foreign and security policy as well. We have handed over some of our decision-making powers to the Union. However, the assumption is that we get more in return than what we give. It is a question of influence, or at least potential influence.

In the world of tightening great power competition, on their own, even the biggest European countries are not able to achieve alone what a strong European Union could jointly achieve. For smaller countries, the added value would be even bigger. In the world politics, we are living in an era in which power is held in high respect. If we are weak, we will be trampled underfoot by others, jointly and separately.

Unfortunately, so far, the Union has failed to fulfil its potential. There are heated debates about the semantics of “strategic autonomy” or “European sovereignty”, but concrete achievements are still far away.

We should do better. For Europe as well, independence, autonomy, means the ability to bear responsibility for our security on our own. It does not mean that we would deliberately want to act without others. If realised, this kind of European independence would also strengthen Finland’s independence.

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The other half of the main task defined for Finland by Paasikivi at the time was securing our democratic system. I have often referred to the importance of the national spirit of belonging together. We are all provided support and security by our democratic system, our whole society. In return for this, we all contribute to the building and securing of that system, each in our own way.

I am, however, deeply concerned that this feeling of belonging together is beginning to break down. Do we have enough ability and will to reconcile differing views anymore? Taking care of common issues becomes increasingly difficult if we only have eyes for our own business. Or, if it is more important to underscore being right than to strive for the common goal.

I fear that the exceptional situation the pandemic keeps prolonging will make it even harder for us to encounter our fellow people. We must foster the mental proximity of our nation, particularly at a time of physical distance. The matter has a security policy dimension, too. An internally integrated society is difficult to break from the outside. With a nation already divided, it does not even require much of an effort.

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On the other hand, the democratic system reminds me of the whole world order. In Paasikivi’s thinking, it had already been clear from the times of the unfortunate League of Nations that it required a strong international organisation to guarantee the realisation of justice between states. Finland finally became the member of the UN during Paasikivi’s final year as president.

Since then we have traditionally – and justifiably – been committed to the rules-based international order and multilateral system. However, I have recently begun asking myself whether we know for certain in the future what kind of an order and system we are endorsing.

As the global balance of political power is shifting, whose rules, norms and standards is multilateralism actually based on? Does that system still remain democratic in spirit?

For some time already, Germany and France have been building an alliance for multilateralism. The next president of the United States, on the other hand, is expected to take initiatives to enhance the cooperation between democracies. From our perspective, these are good news.

However, we still need to be careful about not widening the division lines. As global challenges are looming larger, we increasingly need global solutions. We cannot successfully take care of our common issues if we do not discuss also, and especially, with those who we disagree with the most.

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I believe that, in our collective memory, we have built an image of J. K. Paasikivi as a somewhat pessimistic, even fatalistic person, as regards the fate of small nations. This was not fully the case, however. He did have faith in our own influence. Therefore, I want to end my address with two quotes, from the beginning and from the end of Paasikivi’s term as president.

When he opened Parliament for the first time as the President of the Republic of Finland in February 1947, Paasikivi said: “It requires determined efforts from all of us to win our difficulties.” Because the fact that we must always remember is that our future ultimately depends on ourselves, our own vigour and industriousness, the mental resilience and moral condition of our people.”

In his final speech as the President of the Republic in March 1956, Paasikivi continued on the same theme as follows: “No matter how external conditions and world events may affect our destinies, the future of a nation, and particularly that of a small nation, ultimately depends on its moral and mental power, on how faithful it is to itself, to its ideals, to the basic values of its life as a nation. Without such mental strengths a nation cannot stand.”

I believe so, too. I wish you a successful and inspiring anniversary seminar.