Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the Rikskonferens Seminar in Sälen on 12 January 2014

It is a great honour to attend the Sälen conference for the first time. I would like to convey my warm thanks to Folk och Försvar for its invitation. I should also confess that I have copied the conference concept for my own ‘Kultaranta talks’. On the other hand, for my version I chose a summer schedule in order to avoid a clash with this event. Traditional sporting rivalries should be set aside when engaging in foreign and security policy. 

I have come to Sälen from the east, but not from very far off. Finland’s former capital city of Turku is closer to Stockholm than Sälen. Then again, the distance from Sälen to Turku is the same as that from Sälen to Umeå or Kalmar.  

We are therefore close neighbours, and not just geographically. Perhaps this matters now more than in many decades. It is therefore important that we ponder matters together. I would like to give you my views on the kind of international political environment in which we now live. In addition, I will discuss a country which is even further to the east from Sälen, Russia. I will conclude by sharing a few thoughts on defence cooperation between Finland and Sweden.

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This year will see the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, a massive conflict which claimed millions of lives. It heralded a long-standing period of hostility and tension in Europe.

However, it also destroyed the European empires – Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. This presented many small nations, like Finland, with a ”window of opportunity”. Independence was achieved amidst the general tumult, representing a dramatic turning point in Finland’s history. It  brought great change – for the better – from Sweden’s perspective also.

I recently read Carl Bildt’s Christmas speech, ”Sveriges säkerhetspolitik”. In this speech, he spoke of a set of paradigm shifts in Sweden’s international position. This brought it home to me that we have been undergoing the same shifts. First of all, there is the fact that we were once a single nation. Our separation in 1809 was another paradigm shift, for both countries. The next watershed came with the end of the First World War.

Finally, our paths converged at the end of the Cold War, when we simultaneously joined the EU. Our traditional neutrality was now no longer an option.

What does history therefore teach us? It teaches that we are together – even when we are apart. By this, I mean that our security and wellbeing are tightly bound to events in Europe. We therefore have a vital – and joint – interest in influencing matters at European level, in a favourable direction. 

And where are we now headed? Despite the challenges involved, I feel that the last couple of decades have been a golden age for Finland and Sweden. Our neighbouring regions stabilised and became more secure, when the Baltic countries became independent and joined the European Union and NATO. We enjoyed rapid development and growth. Although, in the midst of our daily struggles, we perhaps failed fully to appreciate this period, it felt good at the time.

However, we have now entered a new age, for which it is difficult to find an apt name. But we can say that several major forces of change and development are in motion. Powerful new possibilities are emerging. These are accompanied by new – and some fairly old – concerns. There is greater uncertainty and turbulence. Both louder and quieter alarm clocks are ringing. But their message is the same: it is time to spring to our feet.  

The key issue for us is the direction taken by Europe. The European Union now faces serious questions. Its economy has been much discussed. While light is appearing at the end of the tunnel, uncertainty still predominates. We have seen North-South and East-West divides, but will we see a common vision on whose basis Europe can move forward? Might security represent a basic interest of this kind, common to all? 

We must find honest, and thereby sustainable, answers to these questions. The discussion must be open and honest. For example, what should we say about the euro: is collective responsibility a form of solidarity, or does it consist of handling issues ourselves without palming off our obligations onto others?

The world outside Europe is also in the throes of change. While there is nothing new in the growth of Asia’s economic might, tensions related to security policy in the region are also emerging. New, potentially high-risk issues have emerged on top of the former ones.

The United States is clearly taking a growing interest in Asia. It would be amazing and anomalous if it did not. However, from our point of view this means that more work will be required in order to ensure that the US remains committed to Europe. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is therefore a strategic issue for Europe. 

A strong transatlantic connection for Europe is of vital importance to Finland and Sweden. I would again like to thank Prime Minister Reinfeldt in this regard. During the recent visit by President Obama, hosted by Prime Minister Reinfeldt, all of the Nordic countries were highlighted as a single actor. I believe that Sweden’s guest also viewed matters in this way. A clearly growing trend can be seen, based on which effective groupings of countries are growing in international importance. The Nordic countries are just such a grouping. 

The great global challenges – population growth and climate change – remain. We have had only a small foretaste of the problems these phenomena will pose. For example, the world’s grain production will have to grow by 50 per cent in order to feed the nine billion people who will be living on the planet by 2050. What if grain production does not grow?  

Finland and Sweden may feel somewhat distant from these issues: slightly on the margins and therefore safe. But this is an illusion. Before long, the pressure will grow on precisely those regions which are viewed as having shouldered less of the burden than others. We must give thought to these major questions together.

We should also acknowledge that security policy – including the traditional version – has not become extinct. On the contrary, it is showing clear signs of life also in Northern Europe. Somewhat surprisingly, old questions and emphases have re-emerged. We cannot confine our focus to the new challenges. However, we should also beware of immersing ourselves in a world of threat scenarios. We should be continuously oriented towards securing and reactivating cooperation.

No matter what the circumstances, defence in its current form is something that we must attend to. No one will do this for us. And defence has become ever more expensive. Uncertainty is also growing in this regard. We do not know what kinds of technical solutions are looming on the horizon. New and surprising phenomena may be on their way.

We are therefore living in an era of multiplying threats.  Cyber security is a good example of this. Serious questions are coming to the fore, in more areas than just intelligence and information security. Will the presence of cyberweapons lower the threshold for shifting from diplomatic means towards pressuring other countries? A new dimension has now appeared somewhere between diplomacy and conflict, in which the culprits may not even be caught.

The cyber threat is accompanied by a change in the nature of and need for defence preparations. Finland has cyber security capabilities. But we also have a great deal to do at home.    

And what about the progress made in the human rights, rule of law and freedom of speech that we so cherish? During the 1990s, we took it for granted that these would spread ever further afield. This is not how things turned out. Authoritarian countries are building alternatives which are achieving results, particularly in terms of economic development. We are being obliged to rethink, more critically, how best to promote our values. Hitting the Repeat or Volume button will not be enough: a fact which we have been unable to ignore.   

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When I referred to the joint paradigm shifts experienced by Finland and Sweden, I left one watershed unmentioned. This concerned Finland and happened in 1944, 70 years ago. Then, Finland managed to preserve its independence and the Nordic social system. At the same time our country rebuilt its relationships with the East on a new basis. If the Red Army had not been brought to a standstill in Karelia and the River Tornio had become the new border between the Soviet Union and the West, would this have marked another turning point in Sweden’s security policy?

In the aftermath of the Cold War it was believed that Russia would return to somewhere it had never been – Western democracy. The realisation that this journey is more winding and longer than thought, if not unending, has been greeted with sore disappointment in some quarters. 

We can scarcely understand how the 1990s felt to Russians. For us, it meant the rise of integration and a brave new world. But to many Russians they were years of crisis and humiliation. While the country was liberated and transformed, it also became less stable. These difficult years left a deep impression on the minds of many Russians.

Russia has aimed to overcome its own crisis of transition and return to the international stage as a powerful player. It should be no surprise that Russia has resumed its traditional strong state policy. Natural resources and their favourable price trends have provided the economic basis for this transition.

Russia has partially succeeded in achieving these aims. There has been a substantial rise in the living standards of its people. In addition, the Internet and travel have given Russians incalculably broader connections with the outside world than during the Soviet era. The only invasion of Finland since 1944 has been the influx of Russian tourists. 

Russia has also strengthened its role internationally. Syria is an illustration of this. The aim of creating a Eurasian Union speaks volumes about Russia’s aims. 

Russia is modernising its armed forces: something which has been a long-term objective. We must pay close attention to this transformation, while taking a broad perspective. What are the true capabilities of Russia’s armed forces? And what about the efficiency of its arms industry? We must also bear Russia’s size in mind. Its borderline is almost 61,000 kilometres long. Russia’s furthest point from Sälen is around 9,000 kilometres east from here.

Both the country’s domestic policy and its actions abroad have raised concerns and some justified criticism in Europe. A focus on conservative values in Russia – and perhaps movement in the opposite direction in the West – has begun to open up a clearer mental gulf between the two regions. This has been exacerbated by the nature of Russia’s foreign policy. Concerns about this are justified.

However, the future remains open. Russia too faces strong pressure to change and a major need for reform. For Russia, Europe remains the key partner, and perhaps the one with the most potential. However, we cannot regard the current state of cooperation as satisfactory. We need to return to a path with Russia along which mutual security and trust are built. In this regard, it would be important to take concrete steps, even small ones. Northern Europe has the structures for achieving this: the Council of Baltic Sea States (the CBSS), the Northern Dimension, Barents Cooperation and Arctic Cooperation.     

* * *

Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of Finland and Sweden’s EU membership. During these years, we have been “in the same boat – almost” as the final book by Krister Wahlbäck, who passed away last year, puts it. We have had a mutual interest in promoting a more effective EU and will continue to do so. One aim is a stronger EU security policy.

An active NATO partnership is important to both Finland and Sweden. We also have good reason to engage in close cooperation in developing our partnership with NATO. For Finland this forms part of our cooperative security. Although membership of NATO remains a possible solution, we have no plans to seek membership. Finland must ensure that a credible defence for the entire country is in place. Compulsory military service will remain at the core of Finland’s defence system  

In recent years we have also built defence cooperation in the Nordic region. Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) has made rapid ground. Sweden’s and Finland’s joint participation in exercises related to Iceland’s air surveillance in the spring is one hallmark of this. We have also laid down the broad lines along which NORDEFCO will develop over the next few years. Among other aims, the objective is closer cooperation over air and maritime surveillance, smoother cooperation during exercises and better rapid reaction capabilities within the framework of the EU and NATO. Nordic cooperation often brings added value to crisis management operations. The most recent example of this is our contribution to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. 

There are also limits to Nordic defence cooperation. NORDEFCO is too large a framework for some issues, and too small for others. Some members are not part of the EU, while we are not part of NATO. NORDEFCO requires a flexible and creative approach. But we must also be honest in acknowledging that the divergent basic defence solutions employed by the Nordic countries set limits on cooperation.

These issues leave room for the development of bilateral defence cooperation between Finland and Sweden. There are also other reasons for such cooperation. Hard economic realities will continue to loom large in the future. We need to be open-minded about whether it would be more rational to act alone or together. So far, the results have been good, whether for cooperation over naval and air force training and exercises, or in actions taken to improve situational awareness.

I believe that we would be justified in joining forces to consider and plan the further strengthening of our cooperation. For example, a range of possibilities lie in closer cooperation on defence materiel and capabilities. A major issue relates to how we can better coordinate our defence materiel purchases in either country. Closer cooperation would require that Sweden and Finland take account of one another at the earliest possible stage.  

Defence industry cooperation deserves a separate mention. Closer cooperation in this sense would improve our security of supplies, which is of major significance to non-aligned countries such as Finland and Sweden.

In my view, we therefore have the room and the opportunity to take a step forward in our mutual defence cooperation. However, there is no call or need to leap in any direction.

Even if we are not on the same line on every single issue, Finland and Sweden are certainly on the same page in terms of our international policy. This is the view taken of us elsewhere. It is also how we should see ourselves. Thank you!