Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassador Seminar 25 August 2015

August is once again nearing its end and the ambassador seminar is upon us. While summer is perhaps fading, the political autumn is just beginning. Clearly, we should not forget that foreign policy is a 365-day-per-year activity, with no summer break. It is perhaps for that reason that now would be a good time to review recent events and, above all, to look ahead.

During the summer, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The hard war years were followed by the Cold War. Although this too was a conflict, it followed rules of its own and ended with a relatively stable period, which is also far behind us. So too is the optimistic period that followed – an interval of sorts that promised an eternal summer.

Eternal summer never came. At the Kultaranta talks in the early summer, I commented that the international system is now undergoing a profound transformation marked by major uncertainty and accumulating problems. That is the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Everywhere we look, textbooks on political realism are being re-opened. In Finland, such books were never quite closed. Our history saw to that. What we now see around us is less self-evident and increasingly ‘self-enigmatic’. This is an age that calls for clear, honest and self-critical thinking.

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Europe is now in the midst of its own years of danger. An arc of instability and violence stretching from Ukraine to the Middle East and North Africa lies on its fringes. At the same time, Europe is in a period of internal flux, of which the Greek debt crisis and its management is one, but not the only, sign. 

The Ukraine conflict is in its second year and shows no sign of ending. A tool – the Minsk Agreements –has been found for handling the crisis. The implementation of these agreements would clear a path, at least to ending military activities and pacifying the situation. I have been as active as I can in supporting such a process – naturally, in cooperation with our many partners. Needless to say, we will continue these efforts.

But we should also take note of the underlying nature of such conflicts, of which Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are not the only examples. These are not traditional wars in which a direct military solution is sought through armed might. Instead, fault-lines in geo- and power politics and the military means created in response lie at the heart of the matter.

Creating an impact, even if only to slow down or impede certain developments, can be a sufficient and realistic goal in conflicts. As a solution, the avoidance of an unpleasant outcome for oneself can be equally sufficient. When necessary, conflicts can be taken ‘off the shelf’ or be ‘made to measure’. Military confrontations can be tailored to fit political needs, whether large or small. In many cases, the underlying logic of conflicts is hidden from the outside world, which is transfixed by the daily sequence of events at the front. 

In this sense, a wider confrontation between the west and Russia underlies the Ukraine conflict. For the west, principles and rules are the key issue. Will Europe’s mutually agreed security principles and rules hold? Will Ukraine be permitted to determine its own future as, of course, it should? For Russia, the self-same crisis is perhaps about geopolitics and the balance of power. Of course, it is natural that we view the issue from our own starting points. But so too do the Russians. Herein may lie the basic problem.

Despite the serious nature of the Ukraine conflict, it pales beside the tragedy being enacted in the Middle East. The very structures that held the region together have given way, leading to a catastrophe. The world has witnessed horrors such as the brutal terrorism of ISIS, which seems to be systematically directed at women and children as well as men. It has also been astonishing to see how many young people born and raised in the west have departed to swell the ranks of this organisation. When, to so many, freedom is less important than vows, we can take little comfort in what follows, even here in the north.

The fight against terrorism and ISIS is a broad endeavour based on international cooperation. It is also worth remembering that ISIS is an issue on which Russia and the United States largely agree. Wider regional issues have brought these countries into closer, communicative contact.  Finland is fulfilling its responsibilities on her own part by participating in the international coalition’s training mission in Erbil.

The agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme was this year’s best news from the Middle East – not just because of the agreement itself, but also because the United States and Russia pulled together on the issue. The news would be even better if their budding dialogue on the Syrian crisis were to bloom into progress towards a solution. 

Huge-scale, rapidly growing migration is a phenomenon partly caused by the prevailing instability. Both the oppressed and those simply seeking a better life are being drawn to Europe. We are conflicted on this issue. As a civilised, humane people, we are honour-bound to help these migrants. On the other hand, we are aware that the unstable situation in the Middle East and Africa cannot be resolved by moving more and more people to Europe. We are approaching the limits of our capacity for this, even if these limits are somewhat different for different countries.

Failure to deal with this problem will have serious consequences in Europe. For example, we could question whether the Schengen system can really withstand any amount of pressure? Freedom of movement cannot mean the same as movement without any control. I think that unless Europe finds joint solutions to this challenge which are sustainable in terms of public and national opinion, national responses will come more to the fore as the crisis wears on.

We should be clear on one issue – ignoring the facts is not the answer. We need an open discussion and a clear and credible, effective policy which has the support of the majority of the people. We need to decide on the direction in which we want to take this issue. Should we help people here or abroad? Of course, many will prefer to say ‘both’. However, I think that we cannot avoid choosing a focus and acting decisively in accordance with it. 

We will be better able to respond to the immigration challenge if we keep our heads and take a moderate approach. In addition, we cannot avoid making distinctions: some immigration is legal and some is illegal. Work-based immigration is a fact – no economy which means to grow can close this off. There are those in need of international protection and those who seek such protection based on financial motives.

An asylum system is in place for asylum seekers. It must deliver – if it does not, it must be adjusted. With respect to those with refugee status, a policy decision must be made on the quota each country will take. Unfortunately, among those heading for Europe there are some who have mischief in mind. We cannot deny this just because some refuse to acknowledge it.

You must also extend your gaze elsewhere, since we cannot confine our attention to events at home. We need a clearer view of the direction ideas are taking in Europe and the world around it. What are the latest developments with respect to nationalism in Europe? What about Asia, if the picture is unclear closer to home? In Europe, we can achieve much based on tolerance, but what of elsewhere? Hard-nosed self-interest and ruthlessness are often sugar-coated. Words cost nothing. Diplomats must therefore be ready to ask, “What’s really going on?” to quote Saarikoski.

Although the problems in the eurozone and the Greek debt crisis are beyond the President’s remit, we have learned a few lessons from them. No monetary or other system can work as planned if its underlying rules are broken. In Greece’s case we can once again see that if we do not manage our affairs, our creditors will do so for us.   

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In May 1863, our national philosopher J. W. Snellman wrote his famous article, ”War or Peace for Finland”, in which he states the following: “Only in the imagination of the young do nations sacrifice themselves for the common good. In reality, each nation acts in its own interests, just as it should.” In the same text, Snellman enlightened his readers with a line that has been passed down the generations: “A nation should only trust in itself.”

As we know, Snellman’s article has long formed part of the intellectual legacy on which our foreign policy is based. Paasikivi read it, as did Kekkonen. However, I would not interpret Snellman’s underlying message as favouring an isolationist stance such as neutrality, much less nationalistic chauvinism. Snellman’s enduring idea was that, in our own calculations, we need to take full account of the deepest principles of international politics. We need to be critical of our own position, weighing up our options several moves ahead. Failure to do so and acting on the basis of appearances or emotions paves the way, at worst, to what Snellman called the “fate of the frivolous.” 

Looking at our current position, it is clear that, in pursuit of our national security, we need continual evaluation and practical steps. After all, as I stated at the beginning of this speech, we probably face a long period of uncertainty and risk. Despite our global obligations, we are unconditionally and primarily responsible for our own country and its future.

It is also realism to recognise that geopolitics and its iron hard principles are intrinsic to every key development.  They have gone nowhere, and Russia is not their sole representative. Even if great power interests are often covered by the fig leaf of propaganda, the naked truth is the same as ever. The realm of great power politics remains largely undemocratic. In this realm great powers can afford to make great mistakes, while smaller states can perhaps not even afford small ones.

I view Finland’s security as a holistic entity, resting on several pillars. These pillars are national defence and security, western integration, relations with Russia, and the international system, particularly its structure, rule-based nature and manageability. These pillars are ever-changing – they are weakened or strengthened by events. They also continually interact. The more pillars on which we rest, the stronger they are from our viewpoint, and the better the balance between them the stronger a position Finland is in.

When the Cold War ended all of these pillars began to strengthen, improving our national security. When other European countries began their major disarmament in the 90s, none other but we Finns bought the discarded weapons. We strengthened our defence. Our rapid integration with the west culminated in EU membership. We began to develop our partnership with NATO. In addition, our relations with Russia developed positively, no longer weighed down by the baggage of our relations with the Soviet Union. The entire international system seemed to be shifting towards a rule-based, multilateral future.  

However, events have now taken a new, probably longer-lasting, turn. Our defence capabilities are being deprived of resources just when there is a need for new capabilities. Despite the fact that relations between Finland and Russia remain good, the broader crisis is also impacting on them. After all, we are participants in EU policies and sanctions. Multilateralism and respect for international justice have diminished within the international system.

So where do we go from here? I see no alternative to reinforcing the pillars that we can and trying to maintain all of them as well as possible. It would not be in our interests to rest on only one pillar, no matter how attractive it seems.

We need to strengthen and modernise our defences. The same is true of our internal security and intelligence capabilities. We cannot leave them to languish in a bygone era. Defence is about intent and actions. Our key line of defence always lies between the ears of Finns. Each and every Finn is a defender of his or her country.

We have to be responsible enough to prepare for unpleasant eventualities, even those not so likely. This is just a matter of fact when we try to ensure security. However, there is a difference between responsible preparation and fighting phantom wars in trench lines. This is a distinction that we need to bear in mind.

Our western cooperation is broadening, particularly in the development of our defence cooperation with Sweden and within the framework of our partnership with NATO. We are also maintaining our communication channels with Russia at all levels and engaging in cooperation wherever possible and useful. At the level of the international system, we must boldly defend international justice and a multilateral order. Through active diplomacy we must continuously seek room to maneuver, find the progressive role to play. The project to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East has been a good example of this. We cannot just sit on the sidelines and bemoan the fact that we have dwindling resources. Instead, we must learn to make wiser and better directed use of what we have.  

Now and again we hear ideas based on which Finland will assume partial responsibility for the defence of the Baltic states. However, I have had to be fairly clear on this issue, for the simple reason that Finland is in no position to provide others with the kind of military guarantees as it is not covered by such guarantees herself. We are no superpower with “bullets and shells” galore to hand out to others. We have a longer eastern border than all of the NATO countries put together. If a country of around five million is supposed to manage its own defence in such circumstances, this is more than enough of an obligation.

This theme is directly linked to the EU’s obligations of mutual assistance. Some view such obligations as not worth the paper they are printed on. Some also believe that they oblige Finland to help defend other countries, such as the Baltic nations, if necessary. While this is all very interesting, it is a little odd to note that the same people seem to hold both opinions at once. There is clearly no point in exaggerating the EU’s mutual assistance obligations. But this does not mean that we should not seek to strengthen them. 

In addition to national and regional concerns, we are being confronted with challenges – such as climate change – which supersede all others. While giving primacy to resolving issues that affect us in particular, we also need to participate in finding solutions to problems that affect everyone. Snellman was of the same opinion. When he wrote that each nation pursues only its own interests, he followed this with the words: “But fulfilling such aims depends on how well they interlock with the interests of humankind in general.” 

We must therefore build Finland’s security and success on a holistic basis, rather than solely in a piecemeal manner. That is why such a task belongs to our entire foreign policy administration, regardless of the sector in question. All have their own tasks, but the same objective.

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Despite the nature of the economic and – to some extent – security challenges we face, we can overcome them. History allows us no rest, but sets new slopes before us, which we must climb. Previous generations have done the work necessary to raise themselves, and we aim to do no worse.  

You, our ambassadors and holders of senior office, bear a particular responsibility in this respect. You are called upon to represent and pursue our interests internationally and, when required, to defend them based on your best judgement and instincts. This is a challenging task, particularly when difficult issues rain down upon you without warning. I would like to thank you for your efforts so far. I also wish you a lovely early autumn, whatever the weather is like in the countries in which you are posted.