Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassador Seminar on 21 August 2012

Photo: MFA /Timo Ikonen Photo: MFA /Timo Ikonen

(check against delivery)

I am delighted to be able to address the heads of Finland’s diplomatic missions abroad. This seminar is an important annual event in our foreign policy calendar, with us all coming together from near and far to evaluate the state of the world and Finland’s policies. With the many challenges facing Finland, this is needed now more than ever.

I have now served as President for around six months – 174 days to be exact, not that I am counting. During these months I have read through a pile of analyses that you have written, for which you have my warmest thanks. These analyses have been indispensable tools in forming an overview of the surrounding world from our Finnish perspective. By contrast, I believe that this meeting is the correct forum for me to present you with my observations. How do I view Finland’s position? What are our objectives in our neighbouring regions? How should we view the present European crisis, or promote our interests at the global level?


It is no news to anyone that Finland lives in a tumultuous world. The promising outlook of the early 2000s has faded. With cloudy skies, a riptide, and rocks ahead, we are forced to navigate in poor weather.

Solving the world’s problems has proved even more difficult than expected. A current example is the devastating conflict in Syria, for which there is no relief in sight. Global interdependence has increased and the security environment has become more complex. Climate change, population growth and migration are reshaping reality. While cyber threats could be more or less written off as science fiction a decade ago, they are very real today. I would go as far as to say that some surprises the future has in store for us will find us totally unprepared.

World politics is already multilateral. New centres of power, with China as the most prominent example, are entering the stage. These rising powers have not yet peaked, however. The borderlines of the new system are still sketchy.

At the same time, world politics has become a multilevel game. You do not have to be a Marxist to understand that the importance of the economy will continue to increase. Markets, businesses and non-governmental actors have more and more impact on our fates. It is no longer just about how many divisions you can muster; your credit rating may be much more relevant. We are also forced to rethink the use of natural resources from the perspective of scarcity. The lines between winners and losers are being redrawn. While the rise to economic success is available to more and more players, previous success is less and less a guarantee of success in the future.

The world is also plagued by a void in leadership. We have not been able to create multilateral cooperation platforms that would match the increasing challenges. The western world is in a state of turbulence, with erosion putting its economic and political position to the test. We are eating beyond our means, with no guarantees that we will earn enough tomorrow to fill the gap. Not everyone will.

Finland has a history of more than 200 years as a political and administrative entity, nearly 95 of which have been as an independent state. This era has been twofold: A story of survival and success. The form of life that has evolved here has withstood both the pressures of time and the blows of history. At the same time, Finns have managed to build a society that is viewed today as something of an example.

Finland’s survival and success has not been by chance, but has depended on the determined efforts and courage of generations. This is still true today, when our country is increasingly characterised by an ageing population as well as being accustomed to a relatively carefree way of life. Our present challenge is to ensure continued success in even more turbulent conditions. We are faced with yet another reconstruction project.

The task of Finland’s foreign and security policy is to serve these national efforts to the overall benefit of Finland and Finns. The aim is to guarantee security and welfare close to home, while promoting the same in more distant places as much as our resources allow. In terms of foreign policy, we must now work hard to create the preconditions for Finland’s international success. We must find new ways of promoting Finland, not only in terms of exports but also as an attractive investment target as well as a valuable partner.


Finnish security, prosperity and welfare stem from our neighbouring regions, which have a direct impact on our position. If you do not get along with your neighbours, you should not have great expectations for connections farther away. Our neighbouring regions also form the base for the Finnish economy: nearly half our foreign trade takes place with countries surrounding the Baltic Sea.

The Nordic countries form Finland’s nuclear family in terms of history, society and the economy. The significance of the Nordic cooperation cannot be overemphasised. In past years this dimension was perhaps slightly overlooked, although our connections in business life have become ever closer. Nordic cooperation is now going through a revival: eyes are now set on the future, with the aim of a deep and diverse Nordic partnership. The development of defence cooperation occupies a key role in this work. We should also seek to increase exploitation of the Nordic partnership at the international level. Together, the Nordic countries are strong.

In addition to the Nordic countries, our close EU partners in the North include the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Over the past 20 years they have all demonstrated their will and capacity for development. Having survived their share of crises, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have become more stable and wealthy. Through their own development they have contributed to the welfare of the entire Baltic Sea region, benefiting all countries in the region. Our increasingly deep and diverse partnership with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is something we value greatly.

The development of Russia, our neighbour to the east, has in many respects been positive over the past two decades. The country has become more wealthy, more open and more connected to the international economy. This is the big picture, and the achievements are no small matter. Nevertheless, even in the eyes of the Russians themselves, Russia has not yet become everything that was perhaps hoped for. The reactions of the civil society show signs of frustration, disappointment and protest. As for us Finns, we must always take Russia for what she is. This is often easier said than done, as Russian society needs to be viewed through different lenses from those we use for Nordic society.

Russia will remain important for Finland. Our strengths lie in our relations, which are functional at all levels, and in our ability to launch initiatives and create fruitful cooperation with Russia. Our economic contacts have grown to become extremely significant. Russian growth supports the Finnish economy, while Finland is able to offer tools for the development of the Russian economy. We should not avoid voicing problems relating to rule of law, democracy or human rights in Russia. That would be in no one’s interest. This is not to say that we wish to become champions in pointing out problems – our wish is to be the best in finding solutions. As an EU country, we view Russia from our own starting points and strengths.

The relations between Finland and Russia are good, and are constantly evolving. The most notable change is the lowering of the barriers of everyday interaction and connections. When one day the exemption from visa becomes reality, this trend will only gain momentum. We are still in the process of understanding this development and making the necessary preparations. It is increasingly important for more and more of us to know and understand Russia.

We do not always recognise ourselves in the opinions voiced east of the border. Knowledge of the culture and history of our countries helps to place such opinions in context. Finland is always open to discussion. In June I had a fruitful and factual dialogue with President Putin on security policy. We know each other’s viewpoints, and they contain no surprises to either party.

The Baltic Sea and the Arctic Region are our neighbourhood. That being the case, I suppose you could say how nice it is that you cannot help geography. With more than 80% of our trade passing through the Baltic Sea, it is both an irreplaceable sea environment and an economic lifeline for us. Saving the Baltic Sea is a national objective for Finland. We have had a good start in this effort, and have been able to attract new innovative and practical actors. Active efforts towards protecting the Baltic Sea and developing the economy of the region are at the core of our foreign policy.

We have also woken up to the fact that the Arctic Region is increasing in importance. Now is the time for deeper reflection and more determined efforts. We need to be active at all levels to keep the Arctic Region free of tension and to offer our expertise in exploiting the region’s economic potential and protecting its environment. We need both a stronger Arctic Council and bilateral partnerships with our neighbours, Russia, Norway and Sweden. We must also take care of our own Arctic capabilities and resources. The development of the Arctic Region is an opportunity that we shall not let slip through our hands.


Finland is a thoroughly European country. We no longer need to keep proving this. Joining the European Union nearly 18 years ago was an irrevocable choice for Finland, and it was the right choice. Finland has made her contribution to the development of the EU. We have pushed for a tighter, stronger and more functional Union. We have not sought short-sighted gains, but sustainable results. We have stressed the importance of following common EU rules, and have also lived what we teach. This policy has been functional and in Finland’s best interest.

However, we now find ourselves in a new situation. Europe is going through what are perhaps the most difficult times since the World War II. While the current debt crisis is keeping governments busy, we are also faced with a structural crisis: we face a scenario in which it is not clear how we will be able to preserve the European standard of living and way of life. We are in the early stages of a severe adjustment phase, the consequences of which are, as yet, a mystery. One thing is certain: the international position of Europe will not be the same again.

What is more, the EU is treading water just when it is needed more than ever. It is difficult to imagine that EU countries could exert much of an influence on global politics by acting individually. We also have every reason to work towards a deeper common security and defence policy.

There are no quick or easy solutions to the European crisis – at least none that I can think of. The first requirement for a new rising is sufficient self-awareness. It would not hurt to face the facts, either. We also need to be able to restore mutual trust among the Member States. If there is no trust, we will not be looking to the future, but over our shoulders. The EU must focus all its strength on overcoming these challenges. Abandoning the euro is not a solution.

In this situation, Finland must look to her laurels. This is what the government has emphasised, too. We cannot afford to flex our muscles arrogantly, any more than we can afford to allow others to walk over us. We have kept our own house in relatively good order, and it is not unreasonable to require the same from the others. Especially when we are not pursuing our own selfish interests.

The development of the European Union needs to be sustainable from the perspective of morals and democracy. There is no way around it, institutional or otherwise. The life expectancy of a high-and-mighty union based on the transfer of liability, income and debt would not be encouraging – globally or internally. What we need is a better Europe.

For several years I have been asked to provide a new policy taking Finland to NATO, with slightly disappointing results. I am afraid I will have to let you down this time, too. NATO is an extremely important partner for Finland in crisis management, defence force development and in conducting exercises. In the next few years the focus of our cooperation is likely to shift towards the latter two. The Finnish Defence Forces cannot afford to become an army that is removed from western standards and connections. We have every reason to continue and develop our cooperation with NATO. It is part of a bigger picture that also includes the security and defence policy of the EU and Nordic defence cooperation.

Currently I do not see any reasons that would make it necessary for us to join NATO. Membership would also require the support of the majority of the public, and we should not think that public opinion could be swayed merely by a declaration of intent voiced by the political leadership. It would require facts and phenomena that the majority of the public would recognise as speaking in favour of Finnish membership. It is clear that Finland reserves the opportunity to apply for membership. The decision is in our own hands, but this does not mean that we must make that decision.


In the coming years Finland will be navigating in the middle of an international system that is going through a transition. It is in our best interests to steer the development of that system so that it will be based on functional multilateralism and common rules. The international community should also be able to tackle increasingly diverse challenges that are beyond the resources of any nation state. A good example of such challenges is the regulation of the economy and the financial markets. We should not, however, be lulled into thinking that such strong institutions can be set up rapidly.

We need to be vigilant, to bear responsibility and to promote our interest around the world. We must not limit our focus to neighbouring regions or Europe. Finland must also have a new kind of readiness for seizing opportunities in world politics and the world economy. We already have the required expertise. Here, too, the situation in Syria serves as a good example, with the international community harbouring rightful concerns over the regime’s chemical weapons. We have strong competence in the detection and monitoring of such weapons. Finland has already taken action towards bringing about a meeting for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Although the setup is challenging, the objective is extremely important.

Finland is applying for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for the period 2013–2014. The UN Security Council is an excellent arena for bearing responsibility and finding solutions. You have all done great work in promoting our campaign. We now have the final sprint ahead of us. In this effort we should learn from Mr Usain Bolt and go all in. We hope for the best, but do not fear the worst. The campaign itself was a valuable effort that has strengthened Finland’s international connections.

Finland must stay close to the global centres of power. This naturally applies to the United States, which will remain as one of the most influential countries in the world. It also applies to rising powers, including China, India, Brazil and Turkey. Our combined trade with these four countries is only just a little less than 10 per cent of our total foreign trade. While the potential is great, we are not alone in our effort to seize these opportunities. Global development and increasing interdependence introduce us to new cooperation areas, to which we must be sensitive.

The cornerstones of Finland’s international standing are solid. Our values – justice, sustainable development, democracy, human rights and the rule of law – are stable and recognised. We are known as peacekeepers and mediators, and for our development cooperation efforts. Finland is a Nordic country with a functional society of highly educated and equal individuals. This gives us an excellent footing. Retaining a triple-A credit rating is a valuable feather in our cap. Other key issues determining our international position include a balanced public economy and businesses with global operations.

Only a stable and economically dynamic Finland has international relevance. This alone is not enough, but we must also know how to open up and be attractive in the right way. As a stable and well-managed society with a pinch of creative madness, could Finland not be a real magnet for investment? Could Finland not be a promised land for creative experts and us others alike, a kind of superpower of functional everyday life, a country brimming with opportunity? To be attractive, Finland also needs “blue” ideas. We must maximise the value of Finnish work, whether performed by young or old people, by natives or immigrants. We must take good care to ensure that we are headed in the right direction, and that we do not allow ourselves to become suspicious of the future or to stifle success.

It is only through welfare that Finland can take strong responsibility for the world. This is not a moral conclusion, but a real one. Everything begins with our own success. Responsibility should not only be measured through memberships, percentages or payment shares. It is often through our experiences and know-how that we can make a more sustainable contribution. Our example may hold power that we do not even realise we have. Is this something we could be better at exploiting? Could our elementary school system or our maternity clinics be put on display as flagship products that are managed and marketed efficiently? We should also not be shy to receive when we give. It is not a zero sum game either way.


Those who retreat into their shells will not succeed in the newly shaping international environment. While the size of a country is not irrelevant, it is also not the only relevant factor. The international success of Finland will increasingly be determined by her own vitality and the ability to find and offer solutions. Values and morality will matter, and hard work will be rewarded. This, I think, is precisely the kind of world President Paasikivi called for in his furious days. We have a good starting point for being involved in the building of a good neighbourhood, a strong Europe and an even better world. This is a mission that you and I share.