President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s speech at the Annual Ambassadors’ Meeting at Finlandia Hall on 27 August 2013

(check against delivery)

Distinguished Ambassadors, once again we are at the end of August, and gathered together to marvel at what is happening in the world during this wild passage in time. On this occasion we are here in the Finlandia Hall, whose marble walls 38 years ago witnessed one of the glorious moments in Finnish foreign policy, the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I know that there are still some among you who were involved in making that particular miracle happen. And, many more among you who should make the future miracles happen. I have every confidence in you.

Now that the summer holiday season is over, it is only human and gratifying to reminisce over summers gone by – those sweet sunshine days of Finland’s past successes. But this will not bring food to our table. We must take on the work and the challenges that now seem to pile up before us, from both right and left – if such an apolitical figure of speech is permissible.

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As we naturally all want to cling to summer as long as possible, I will begin my speech by referring to the Kultaranta discussions held in June. I invited to Kultaranta about a hundred foreign policy decision-makers, experts and enthusiasts. The task was to reflect upon Finnish foreign policy – freely, openly, and with the hope that we would put aside our official roles. I even relieved the Ministry for Foreign Affairs officials who were participating in the discussions from their responsibility for that one day. And we can now agree to reinstate that release for the next three quarters of an hour or so.

We may not have come away from Kultaranta with any revolutionary reappraisals or insights. But I believe the main goal was attained, that is, the goal of bringing different opinions – and factions – into direct dialogue with one another. Trying to convince someone who disagrees with you is very different from preaching to the choir. Here, repetition and familiar phrases are not enough. And we need really deep thought to come up with convincing answers, because many of the old standard answers, and even the questions themselves, are beginning to show their age.

As expected, certain acronyms resulted in intense debate – acronyms we seem to see eternally as EU and NATO. This is by no means a coincidence, since in our national thinking those two pals are largely considered part of the same entity. For some, they represent a continuum of mistakes, of which so far only one has been made. For others, they are steps towards salvation, of which so far only one has been taken. The common factor is that Finland’s current status in relation to both has not been regarded as totally natural. We are either too far away, or too close.

I would not dare to claim that these basic positions would have changed at Kultaranta. But the talks did introduce new nuances.

First of all, the EU’s role has changed. Only very few would deny the positive impact of EU membership. But fewer and fewer of us see it as an answer to all the challenges we are about to face. And this is no wonder. No amount of EU integration could remove our debts and begin supporting us – or others. Everyone must make these choices for themselves and bear the responsibilities. And should they be willing to hand over the responsibility, then they must relinquish the power. That is not the future for Finland.

In Europe, questions are increasingly asked about all the areas for which the Union should enact directives. Are all these actually beneficial – or are some also harmful? The EU will probably never revert to being just a free trade area, but we are also beginning to see the practical limits of the benefits to be gained from closer integration. There are no easy answers even to where we are now, let alone where we should go from here.

Finns are critical of the EU in some respects but view it with common sense and restraint. It is not in Finland’s national interest to support just any integration development, but disintegration is not a good idea either. We know that and we acknowledge that. Europe is in a transition, seeking a place to be and a place to go. In this transition, we need to be committed but realistic.

I am of the opinion that we were able to explode a few ingrained conceptions about NATO. One of these is the notion that NATO membership would be a replacement for a strong national defence, the idea being that if we don’t have enough money or willpower on our own, we can just join an alliance and have someone else worry about it. However, national security cannot be based on hitching a free ride. That will not seem such a good idea when the chips are down. We must continue to maintain our own defence, whether we belong to an alliance or not.

Dissatisfaction with our current NATO policy – consisting of close cooperation with NATO and the potential of applying for membership at some point – often appears in two different ways. Viewing this as sitting on a fence, one way is to think we should be quick about jumping over the fence, while the other is to think we should not have climbed it in the first place – or at least there was no point to it.

I happen to think that being on top of the fence is quite a good place to be. Our present position serves our interests well at this point in time, taken overall. We have freedom to take action, we have choices available, and we have room to observe and to operate. We are not pulled one way or the other. And as one of my distinguished predecessors warned, nothing must be done “in timeless time”, at an abstract level, without a sense of the situation and the moment. Finland decides on her position and her direction herself, in accordance with her interests and acknowledging the context that history may place us in at any given time.

This policy we follow is much more than just sitting around. Our NATO co-operation is versatile, and also directly serves the development of our own defence capacity. Participation in Iceland’s air surveillance carried out by NATO, to be launched next year, is an example of this.

And NATO is not the only channel. Our co-operation-based security package includes the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU, as well as Nordic Defence Co-operation, which this year is under Finnish chairmanship. I further hope that new steps will be taken this year in the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Far from having reason to underestimate this process, we must support its development and participate in any way possible. Closer Weimar Triangle co-operation would also be an interesting opportunity from our point of view.

Cyber security is now a more pressing issue, with the related concerns becoming deeper and more extensive. This is a problem associated with both traditional and economic safety. But we have also become aware that it concerns data protection of ordinary citizens. Surely now, in the face of the current data security threats, nobody can afford to sleep on regardless. This includes us. To tackle these problems we need to strengthen our cyber security, not only nationally, but through international co-operation.

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The third theme I kept a keen eye on at Kultaranta was human rights. The relationship between human rights and national interests in foreign policy seems to be a permanent issue, here in Finland too. This is a theme on which it is easy to take a highly visible and voluble position. It is also easy to achieve results, if hearing the sound of one’s own voice can be considered as such, and one settles for that. But the challenge becomes much more difficult when you need to think about and promote not just human rights but other interest too, and with satisfactory outcomes all round.

Setting human rights against national interests is a false dichotomy. Human rights are of vital importance to us – to humans. If people do not matter, what does? Promoting human rights is certainly in our interests, even internationally. The appropriate question would be: what is the relationship between human rights and our other national interests?

Finland cannot be a country that promotes her own interests while blithely disregarding human rights issues. But Finland also cannot be a country that advocates human rights while blithely disregarding her own national interests. Finland can only be a country that takes care of all her interests, both human rights and otherwise, in international contexts – as intelligently and effectively as possible. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: what is the best way to pursue this course of action in any given scenario? That is the answer we must seek.

This is another task where we would need a clear perception of the prevailing circumstances. We are no longer living in the ’90s, when we might expect others sooner or later to adopt our values, or at least something resembling them. The problem is not so much that our message on human rights and democracy is not heard; it is that in many countries that message is simply not considered appropriate. Pressing the volume or repeat button in this situation won’t help.

We live in an age where several authoritarian countries consider their systems better, both in principle and in practice. Our history shows differently, but theirs frequently does not. Often this is based on awareness that major changes bring major risks. These sometimes materialise. When we look at the tragic events in Syria and Egypt, this way of thinking is easy to understand. The shocking situation in Syria in particular, including the suspected use of chemical weapons, means the entire international community is confronted by an enormous challenge.

No matter how convinced we are of the worth of our values, we must avoid smugness and self-aggrandisement. With that attitude, our efforts to yield influence will be worth nothing. We in the Nordic countries were probably given a lesson on this last autumn, when several UN elections were held. It would be good to remember what happens to those who exalt themselves or place themselves above others.

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On Wednesday next week I will attend a joint working dinner attended by the Nordic heads of state and President of the United States Barack Obama. We can feel nothing but satisfaction over the U.S. President’s visiting the Nordic countries, and as close as our neighbour Sweden. We can also be satisfied that this offers us an opportunity to participate in a fundamental debate. All this will serve to tell us something, both about us – the Nordic countries – and about how we are perceived in the United States.

Our discussion with President Obama will cover a wide range of foreign policy issues, including economy, energy and climate. We will ask questions together and seek answers to them together – common answers, too. The meeting will enhance the partnership between the Nordic countries and the United States. Consequently, it will also promote the good and extensive relations between Finland and the U.S. Nor can getting to know each other better do any harm.

The global influence wielded by the United States needs no explanation. For Finland, the United States represents a strong and important partner, in foreign and security policy, and economy, as in culture and education. Our ties go far back, with multiple layers that include extensive immigration from Finland to the U.S., and Finland’s conscientious payment of its debts. And the United States has also invested in Finland – including the present-day Finland. One example is the large innovation centre opened last winter in connection with the U.S. Embassy. We are ready to develop this partnership further.

The U.S. economy is growing, not rapidly, but clearly. The shale gas boom strengthens this outlook by creating new growth and enhancing industrial dynamism. This has meaning for the economic pulse of Finland. In exports, the U.S. is Finland’s fourth largest trading partner after the troika of Sweden, Russia and Germany. Our exports to the U.S. increased by approximately 23 per cent last year. In investments, we have not fared so well. The Finnish investment stock in the United States is almost tenfold compared to investment in Finland by the U.S. Economic relations between our countries nevertheless contain significant potential. The free trade and investment partnership between the EU and the United States would also open up totally new opportunities.

Next month I will also visit Russia. For me personally, this is the first trip east of Moscow, to Nyagan and Salehard for some “Siberian lessons”. The focus is now on the economy and Arctic issues. I had already met President Putin during the summer, for the first time here in familiar surroundings. The relations between Finland and Russia remain friendly and close – and also full of work!

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Finland, approaching the first centenary of its independence, has once again entered a window of opportunity. Our principal challenges are now economic and social. Our foreign and security policy supports our response to those challenges by ensuring our national security and our influence in the international community. Overcoming the challenge calls for strong leadership, but also a strong spirit of shared destiny, a spirit that bears responsibility for itself, for its fellows and for Finland as a whole.

Dear friends, finally, I want to express my warmest thanks for all the help and support you have provided me over the past months. I have made closer acquaintance with a growing number of you in connection with visits and other events. And the names of those I haven’t met, I know from the margins of reports. Perhaps a small managerial comment might not be out of place here, when I say that I am most familiar with those who write the most often and who make the most striking comments.

Some of you have operated, or will be operating, in countries where conditions are far from stable and safe. This creates special challenges in your work. For all of you, but especially those in more hazardous locations, I wish you strength, good luck and success in your endeavours. You have, across the world, the privilege, but also the “privileged responsibility”, of representing and serving Finland.
Thank you!