Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Yalta European Strategy Conference Kyiv, Ukraine, 13 September 2019

President Zelensky, President Kaljulaid, ladies and gentlemen,

It is touching to be here among happy people, free people. Mr. Sentshov, it was a huge experience for me to see you alive. I have so often taken your case up at very different tables.

It is a pleasure for me to address this distinguished audience. As the theme of this conference is ”happiness”, I will of course have to begin by pointing out that Finland is considered to be the happiest country in the world. We may not always look like that. But we have the World Happiness Report of the World Economic Forum to prove it.

Comparing countries on something as intangible as happiness can sound odd, even unserious. However, I believe that our number one position in that report has a lot to do with our success in several other rankings. We have consistently been in the top three in global indexes measuring, for instance, the rule of law, the level of education, and the lack of corruption. In 2019, Finland was also ranked as the least fragile state in the world.

It is no coincidence that these things go hand in hand: the rule of law, education, low corruption, stability — and yes, happiness.

It was not self-evident, when the journey of an independent Finland began, that we would be able to enjoy these ingredients of happiness a hundred years later. Not only did we start off as a poor, rural country. We also went through a brutal and bloody civil war only a few months after gaining independence. And yet we became a stable democracy that withstood all the challenges of the 20th century. A competitive, modern economy fully integrated into the global markets. A society prepared to pull together.

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This transformation could not have happened without the proper structures. Earlier this week in Helsinki, we celebrated the centenary of our Constitution Act. This constitution of 1919 turned Finland into a republic. A republic with strong institutions and strong fundamental rights for its citizens.

Luckily we have had an uninterrupted run with this solid form of government for a full century now. It is an invaluable foundation for the way we lead our lives today. But structures are not enough. Even the best of constitutions is not sufficient to guarantee a functioning society. It can only provide a framework. In order to fill that framework with content, the society itself, the people themselves, have to take responsibility for it.

For me, two key characteristics of the Finnish society stand out. One is trust. The other is a feeling of belonging. Maybe President Zelensky said it in other words: feeling to be present. Both of these elements require citizens to understand that they not only have rights, but also responsibilities. Other people’s rights also have to be respected, not just one’s own.

A society where people trust each other, a society people genuinely feel that they belong to, despite their differences, is also a society that is more resilient against external threats. This is at the heart of our concept of comprehensive security. For our strong national defense, military capabilities of course continue to matter. They make the threshold against a potential aggressor higher, and they make us into a more interesting partner for others. But in a world of hybrid warfare and alternative facts, other, less material assets are increasingly important, too. As I have often said, each citizen is a defender of our country — between his or her ears. What you accept, what you understand being false, is very important.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Since I have talked at length about the Finnish experience, allow me to make one thing clear: I am deeply reluctant to give unsolicited advice to anyone. Our own society is far from perfect. It, too, requires constant nurturing and improvement. But if there is an international interest in some kind of a Finnish model, this is the story I am always happy to share. At least for us, it has worked reasonably well.

Now, let me widen the perspective, from the case of Finland to larger geopolitical questions. I am sure that we will go deeper into them in the discussion that follows.

In fact, I believe that the same elements I highlighted earlier — trust and a feeling of belonging — are also vital components of a functioning international order. Even the best of institutions, even the best of treaties and agreements are not enough, if the members of the international community — all of us — are not willing to respect them. The framework has to be filled with content. It is our responsibility, as states, as global citizens.

At the moment, unfortunately, we are not fulfilling our responsibility. Precisely when a growing number of truly global challenges would urgently call for common responses, the rules-based international order is crumbling in front of our eyes. Multilateralism is overshadowed by great-power competition. Confrontation prevails over cooperation. Unpredictability and disorder are gaining the upper hand.

Amid gloomy future scenarios, the good news is that there is nothing inevitable about them. The moderator of this session, Richard Haass, will recognize this quote from his book, A World in Disarray: ”The rationale for statecraft, diplomacy and foreign policy more broadly is that […] the nature of international order, the balance between […] anarchy and society, can be changed for the better.”

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This is the business we are in: statecraft, diplomacy and foreign policy. This is what we collectively have to strive for: changing the balance for the better again. More society, less anarchy. We have to rebuild the trust that has been lost. We have to reconstruct the feeling of belonging, an understanding that the problems of the 21st century require global solutions.

I do not have any illusions about the difficulty of this task. Saving the international order will require a lot of hard work. It will be frustrating at times, and we will also suffer setbacks. But we don’t really have a better alternative. We must try.

One thing is certain: we cannot possibly succeed in this task without diplomacy, without dialogue. Joining forces with like-minded friends and partners in defending the international order makes our voice stronger. But we do not have the luxury of only engaging those with whom we already agree.

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I now look forward to continuing the discussion with you. Yesterday, while talking with President Zelensky, he made a challenge. Ukraine wants to compete with Finland for being the happiest country in the world. I welcome you to this friendly competition.