Opening remarks by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Arctic Security Roundtable in Helsinki, 7 May 2019

Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs Teija Tiilikainen (L), President Sauli Niinistö and Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger. Photo: Michael Kuhlmann/MSC


After my very many visits to Munich, I have a great honor to welcome the Munich Security Conference to Finland. In Munich I have attended two of the seven Arctic discussions. I myself participated in that discussion both last year and this year.

There was a huge difference between these two experiences. Last year, the conversation was all about climate change, the impact of global warming on the Arctic. This year, it was above all the atmosphere in the Bayerischer Hof meeting room that was heated. Around that table, we were able to feel how the increased confrontation and rivalry in international relations has also reached the Arctic shores.

When people express their worries about the current state of the world, they quite often set their hopes on the power of dialogue. Yes, dialogue is indeed an invaluable tool to reduce tension, to manage risks and to rebuild trust. Yet all too often, we just talk about dialogue instead of engaging in it. Dialogue is difficult to have unless you actually meet your counterparts.

I firmly believe that Arctic issues deserve to be discussed at the level of heads of state and government. Face to face, in dialogue. This was the rationale behind the Finnish initiative to convene a first-ever Arctic Summit during our chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which ends today. When we sounded out reactions to this idea last year, we received promising signals from all parties. But then, tensions originating far away from the Arctic intervened with our plans.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Pompeo talked about the age of strategic engagement in the Arctic. To me his words underline the need for an Arctic Dialogue Forum on the highest level. That is: a possible Summit.

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The main Arctic concern for me continues to be climate change. On the one hand, here in the North, we are among the first ones to feel the heat. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. The IPCC report shows that the Arctic is one of the most vulnerable systems on our planet.

On the other hand, what happens in the Arctic has direct consequences for the rest of the world. The melting of the Arctic sea ice accelerates climate change on the global scale. As I often say: If we lose the Arctic, we lose the globe.

We have to break this vicious circle. The good news is that we know what needs to be done. In fact, the two main parts of the global solution are very simple. First, we have to rapidly reduce new CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Second, we have to remove old CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.

Beyond CO2, however, there are also other factors contributing to climate change. One of them is black carbon, which is particularly relevant for the fate of the Arctic sea ice. When black carbon falls on the white ice, it immediately accelerates the melting. Yet reducing black carbon emissions has an equally immediate, positive impact.

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As you well know, for the past two years Finland has been chairing the Arctic Council. During our chairmanship, we did our utmost to achieve pragmatic results to benefit the entire Arctic region. And the results have indeed been good in all four priority areas – environmental protection, connectivity, meteorology and education.

Our chairmanship concludes today, with the foreign ministers of all the eight council members meeting in Rovaniemi. A joint statement was signed, but regrettably, the ministers were unable to agree upon a declaration. And apparently the main stumbling block, where language acceptable for all could not be found, was in the field of climate change.

That is not to say that the ministerial meeting was in vain. On the contrary, bringing all eight of them around the same table underlines the importance of the Arctic Council. Throughout its existence, the Arctic Council has been a forum for constructive dialogue. This spirit is by no means self-evident in the current international situation.

That we have been able to maintain it in the Arctic Council during the past few years is a remarkable achievement. It is also a good objective for the future. Tensions outside the Arctic region must not be allowed to spill over into the Arctic Council.

But if we want to be more ambitious, we should aim to do more than simply protect the work of the Arctic Council from external controversies. We could also use it as a positive example for others, as a model for reducing tensions elsewhere. As Arctic nations we know that small, practical steps in mutually beneficial areas can help in building trust, even when major disagreements in other areas persist.

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Of course the Arctic region itself is not immune to tensions, either. It is clear to all of us that there are growing strategic and economic interests in the Arctic. As the natural and political climates are changing, many actors see new opportunities in this region. As the field gets more crowded, risks of confrontation increase. Primarily, I mean confrontation with the delicate natural balance of the Arctic environment. Unfortunately, we cannot exclude the possibility of confrontation in the power-policy sense, either.

Questions of hard security have remained outside the agenda of the Arctic Council. That has been intentional, and it is part of the secret to its success. However, simply excluding these issues from the Arctic Council’s agenda will not make them go away. Therefore, our offer to host an Arctic Summit in Finland still stands. There is a difference between the Council and a summit. And we might be able to use that difference.

Together, the Arctic states have to find another way to responsibly address these issues. Once again, dialogue is key. Reducing tensions, managing risks, rebuilding trust. That can only work if we talk to each other.

The Arctic Security Roundtables of the Munich Security Conference provide one important framework for this dialogue. I hope you a have a fruitful and constructive afternoon. And I look forward to hearing more from the ideas you develop here today.