Archive and Chronology of Finnish Foreign Policy

Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Körber Foundation Event “International Dialogue Revisited: The Spirit of Helsinki in an Age of Great-Power Competition”, 22 November 2021

President Steinmeier, dear Frank-Walter, Dr. Paulsen, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to begin by congratulating the Körber Foundation for the 60th anniversary of the Bergedorf Round Table format. President Steinmeier already mentioned your slogan of “talking to each other, not about one another”. I, too, find that impressive. That principle has stood the test of time.

In fact, genuine international dialogue has become even more valuable in this day and age. At the risk of sounding melodramatic: our common future is at stake. We are faced with an increasing amount of truly common challenges. Wicked problems that not even the strongest ones of us can solve alone.

Safeguarding peace and security. Ensuring the sustainability and welfare of our planet. These are, in my view, our most urgent human responsibilities. We can only shoulder these responsibilities by working together.

The demand for common solutions is on the rise. And yet, at the same time, we have severe problems on the supply side. Our ability to carry our responsibility for future generations is seriously hampered by the growing tensions in the world.

Let me be clear: I do not expect these tensions to disappear any time soon. On the contrary, dividing lines between great powers may well only become stronger in the coming months and years. That will have its unfortunate impacts on all of us. It will require firmness and resilience from all of us.

But if we want to prevent these disagreements from spiralling out of control, there is no alternative to dialogue. At the end of the day, we cannot have sustainable security without at least a certain degree of trust. And trust is extremely difficult to build if we do not talk to each other. Discussions among the like-minded are not enough. Dialogue is particularly important with those with whom we agree the least.

This is the essence of my initiative for reviving the Helsinki Spirit. Trying to locate common denominators, however small they may be at first. Building trust.

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The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and its Summit in Helsinki in 1975, was one of the turning points in the history of the Cold War and détente. But its significance is not only historical.

I believe there are three separate legacies from that same source, the original CSCE, that can help us safeguard peace and security in the future. In Europe, in other regions, and globally. I call these legacies the letter, the model, and the spirit of Helsinki. My main focus is on the spirit, but let me say a few words about the two others, too.

First, the letter. With that I mean the text of the Helsinki Final Act. With its ten principles guiding relations between states, that document continues to be the only available foundation for cooperative security in Europe, for a European security order.

To name a few examples of those ten commitments: refraining from the threat or use of force, inviolability of frontiers, territorial integrity of states, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Although these principles have been breached, they are not broken. We must be unwavering in defending them. As the guardian of the letter of Helsinki, the OSCE is in a difficult, but crucially important position.

With the 50th anniversary of the Final Act approaching in 2025, we must use that moment for more than just remembering the past. We need to take responsibility for the future of our continent. Finland stands ready to do its part. Therefore, at the end of last week, together with the Finnish government, we formally decided to put Finland forward as a candidate for the OSCE Chairmanship in 2025.

Second, the model. We in the OSCE area often only see the problems the organization is currently struggling with. But in some other regions, the perspective is different. In their eyes, the achievements and the potential of the model outweigh the challenges.

Over the years, there has been a consistent interest in the CSCE model from across the world, from the Korean Peninsula to the Gulf area. Could something similar, a structure of different baskets and a set of confidence-building measures, be emulated in a different time and in a different region? I believe it could.

If others see the Helsinki model as conducive to cooperative security and stability in their regions, we must support that. Finland has often facilitated these kinds of discussions. Finnish activities on this front continue, mainly behind the scenes, in so-called Track 2 discussions between experts. And if these conversations are fruitful, at some point they may also rise to a higher political level.

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As important as the letter is for Europe, and as much promise as the model can hold for other regions, it is the spirit of Helsinki that I want to emphasize as a global necessity. The Helsinki Spirit is more than documents and agreed principles. The Helsinki Spirit is more than institutions and structures.

The Helsinki Spirit is a mindset. And more than that: it is a working method to overcome divisions and mistrust. It is a willingness to engage in genuine dialogue, even with adversaries and competitors. It is a desire to seek common denominators, even in the midst of fierce disagreements. It is a determination to build trust, even when divisions between blocs run deep.

If it was possible to generate that kind of a mindset in the middle of the Cold War, it cannot be impossible today. Right now, we do not need another summit somewhere in the distant future. The task is much more urgent. We need to work on the Helsinki Spirit right here and now.

Because the dangers are also here and now. Peace in Europe is not assured. Finding a solution to our common threats and challenges is not guaranteed. When I look around, I see a world in great peril.

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The Helsinki Spirit approach is not geographically limited. In the past months, I have engaged my colleagues from across the world on this general thinking – from Washington to Beijing, from Moscow to Berlin. I haven’t yet heard anyone say “no” to the need for more Helsinki Spirit in today’s world. Quite on the contrary: the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Those conversations have been a good start. Now is the time to turn a somewhat abstract idea into something more concrete. I believe that one area where there is a particular need for the Helsinki Spirit is the intersection of traditional arms control and new technologies.

During the Cold War, arms control negotiations served a double purpose. Their direct results, the concrete arms limitations and the confidence-building measures, made the world safer. But arms control also had an indirect effect. The trust created between the negotiators in their special field flowed into the general relationship between the superpowers. It created a virtuous cycle.

Now we face a dual challenge. First, precisely those arms control agreements reached during the Cold War are rapidly disappearing. This leads to the old dangers, of conventional and nuclear weapons alike, re-emerging. But second, while we urgently need to revive the old mechanisms, the rapid technological development is making those mechanisms increasingly irrelevant.

With President Steinmeier, we have discussed the importance of trust several times in the past. Earlier today, we had a chance to dive deeper into the potential of the Helsinki Spirit in general, and to themes of arms control and new technologies in particular. First between the two of us, then in a broader conversation drawing from insights delivered by a few experts from Finland and Germany. I am certain that we can work together on these issues in the months ahead.

In another partnership, we are looking at ways to combine the Helsinki Spirit approach with the Our Common Agenda process at the United Nations. I had a promising conversation with Secretary General Guterres on this at the UN General Assembly in New York in September, and our teams have continued developing the cooperation since. Also here, the focus is on peace and security, arms control and emerging technologies, conflict prevention and building trust. As the UN plans to develop a new agenda for peace, I sincerely believe that we can use the Helsinki Spirit to reduce strategic risks on the global level.

The arms control field is now much more complex than it was in the 1970s. New technologies from artificial intelligence to drones are changing the picture completely. Their proliferation is far more difficult to control, their use far more difficult to reliably trace. With a growing number of actors and a far less predictable landscape, building trust becomes even more difficult. Yet build it we must.

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There are many tensions that draw deep lines between nations and peoples. Despite that, we have our common human responsibilities. Safeguarding peace and security. Ensuring the sustainability and welfare of our planet. Are we willing to accept this responsibility?