Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at Max Jakobson Memorial Lecture on 28 September 2023

Photo: Emmi Korhonen/Lehtikuva

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very pleased to deliver this Max Jakobson Lecture today. This week marks the centenary of his birth. At the time he was born, Europe was recovering from a very violent period. The Great War had just ended. A fragile peace had only been nominally restored at Versailles.

But an era of further turbulence already lay on the horizon. The Great Depression and the Second World War were just around the corner. These events would also force Finland to struggle for its existence.

Max Jakobson’s formative years took place during this period. It influenced both his outlook and his remarkable career. He was a journalist, a diplomat and an important éminence grise influencing Finnish foreign and security policy. He also left his mark on Finnish business life. For decades, he was instrumental in shaping our domestic debates. Equally importantly, he was the leading voice making those debates known to and understood by the rest of the world.

Max was a courageous and original thinker at the time when that was not always appreciated. Intellectually, he had both a good map and a compass whose needle always pointed towards the West. He was an avid European and an Atlanticist, but most importantly a patriot. He always held the cause of Finland close to his heart.

Nearly three decades ago, Max Jakobson gave a speech in Helsinki that has stood the test of time. In that speech, delivered before the annual meeting of the National Defence Course Association in May 1996, he outlined the key issues facing Europe and Finland: how to successfully develop the European project, including in defence and security; how to deal with the challenge posed by Russia; and how Finland and Sweden should position themselves vis-à-vis an enlarging NATO.

These are all issues that resonate with our world today. One of the key passages in the speech is worth quoting at length: “Russia aims to restore the Great Power status she has lost. The primary objective is to re-connect the states of the former Soviet Union under Russian leadership. Ukraine will become the neuralgic point for European security.”

Russia’s cruel war in Ukraine has confirmed this prediction. It is clear that Russia is seeking to subjugate its neighbours to its will. It is doing so through violent and illegal means. Russia is seeking to overturn the cornerstones of international law: respect for sovereignty and the inviolability of borders. And in this process, Ukraine has indeed become the most important and pressing question for European security.

One issue that might somewhat surprise Max, however, is the robust nature of Europe’s response to the Russian challenge. Not only political and economic sanctions have been imposed, but a vast amount of military aid has flowed to Ukraine. This has made all the difference on the ground. The Europeans, Finns included, stand side-by-side with Ukraine. We will continue to do so for as long as it is necessary. The very future of European security is at stake.

But more is at stake in Ukraine than European security alone. The negative side effects of Russia’s actions are being felt across the globe. The core principles of international security and law are being tested. If Russia is allowed to succeed in Ukraine, it will set a dangerous precedent for others to potentially follow. It is the task of the whole international community to ensure that this foundation remains strong even after the war.

This spring, Finland became a member of NATO. The era of military non-alignment has come to a close. But even during that period, Finland never defined itself through negation. On the contrary, we were an integral part of the European and wider Western family. With a major stake in its successes. And a positive role in making those successes happen.

As a member, we are not starting from scratch. Joining NATO is not a sea change but a natural continuation of the road we have travelled consistently for decades. This was reflected in the swift pace of the accession process: a Membership Action Plan was not required. Finland had developed the capacity for a turnkey accession to the Alliance.

That said, our membership was not automatic or preordained. It required the concerted will and a conscious decision of the Finnish people and decision-makers. And the willingness of our Allies to fully embrace our application.

This decision was possible, and indeed necessary, in light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The ability of small states to make independent, timely and bold decisions when the circumstances allow or require is another important theme in Max Jakobson’s writings.

But even now, after NATO accession, our journey is not over. Our eventual profile as a NATO member is still to be developed. And our membership is not complete without that of Sweden. It is imperative that Türkiye and Hungary swiftly ratify Sweden’s accession.

Our membership also brings new opportunities in bilateral defence co-operation. Here, the on-going negotiations on a Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States are key. The DCA will facilitate military cooperation between our countries. It will also put Finland on par with the other Nordic countries. They all, too, will soon have similar arrangements with the United States.

The collective weight of the Alliance will transform Northern European security. It will generate new capabilities and opportunities for deeper military integration. This will add to the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area. The most important contribution Finland can make is to defend its own territory at all times. But we will do so together with our Allies.

New issues and threats always loom on the horizon. Not all threats can, or should, be addressed with a bullet. A few lines of malicious computer code can be much more devastating than a fighter jet. A carefully orchestrated hybrid attack can destabilise an entire nation. In this new terrain of threats, imagination seems to be the only limit.

I have often called on different authorities to make use of their imagination when scanning the threat landscape. I renew this call today. The hard task of ensuring national security must be a constant one. This age calls for vigilance.

We should always bear in mind that Finnish foreign and security policy entails much more than hard security. No nation is an island. This applies to Finland as well.

For Finland, the Nordic family is of particular importance. Indeed, one of the few positive developments over the last two years has been the reinvigoration, even renaissance, of Nordic cooperation.

Our Nordic connections are broad and deep, with long historical roots. We share the same values and a similar outlook on security and all key issues. We are also increasingly willing and able to come together to tackle common challenges and to make good use of new economic opportunities.

I am happy to see Peter Hultqvist taking part in the panel discussion here today. His presence is a testimony to our close relations and to how intertwined Finland and Sweden are.

But we must also look well beyond our immediate neighbourhood. Our common global challenges are clear, and we have been debating them for years. Unfortunately, instead of progress on several fronts we see regression. And the time to deal with the most pressing issues is running short. All the while, our global divisions are intensifying.

We witnessed all of these trends last week at the UN General Assembly. There was a lot of agreement that the current situation is far from satisfactory. There was also a widely shared understanding that the main threats facing humanity are common to us all.

But this is where the consensus stops. We disagree about the root causes of the conflicts, about what measures are required to secure a good future for all life on this planet.

In light of the challenges we are facing, it is very easy to be a pessimist. But the alternative to action is not inaction. It is a world mired by conflicts, climate chaos and poverty. But there is still another alternative: one where problems are solved, or at least alleviated. Where divisions are not papered over but are overcome to a degree that allows for sensible forms of cooperation and coexistence.

The concluding sentence of Max Jakobson’s magnum opus Tilinpäätös reads as follows: “Historical experiences reveal how little we know about the future. We can be certain only of one thing – something will happen that no one had expected.”

It is easy to agree with these words. The events of the last few years prove his point. But at the same time, his prominent career shows how, in many ways, Max was nevertheless able to peer into the future. To identify the key issues and questions. And often point towards the right answers.

Now, the current and future generations are expected to do the same. Securing a good future is a task that requires both keen intellect and robust will. The life of Max Jakobson and his generation shows that it has been done before. And I am convinced that we will do it again. Thank you.