Archive and Chronology of Finnish Foreign Policy

Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the meeting of the New Foreign Policy Society of Finland in Helsinki on 8 May 2023

Ladies and gentlemen

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today. Associations such as the New Foreign Policy Society of Finland contribute to maintaining a high-quality foreign and security policy debate in our country. That is particularly important right now. The world, and Finland with it, is changing rapidly. There is plenty of information, but we need analysis. There are plenty of opinions, but only debate will lead us forward.

The date of 24 February 2022 has been described as a turning point in European security policy.  And that is exactly what it is. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine plunged Europe into an era of large-scale war. At the same time, it made Russia’s ambitions, including creating spheres of influence and a new world order more favourable to itself, increasingly visible. In that world, international law and agreements would, at the most, be given a cold instrument value – if any.

The attack quickly closed ranks in the West. The EU, NATO and our partners on all continents have been steadfast in their defence of the rules-based international order and Ukraine’s right to freedom and independence. It is already apparent, however, that the war unleashed forces that I fear could lead to a dangerous division of the world. Russia is not alone in seeking a new world order.

In these difficult times, Finland has shown its determination. We have made quick decisions, without hesitation and with unity.

I have often described Finland’s foreign and security policy as resting on four pillars: national defence, Western integration and partnerships, as functioning a relationship with Russia as possible at a given point in time, and the international system. I have also said that these pillars are not carved into stone. They change and evolve over time. If one of them weakens or collapses, the others must be strengthened.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demolished the third pillar of our model. It was also an attempt to destabilize the second and fourth pillars. But Russia failed. Since the collapse of the third pillar, the first two have been further strengthened. Defending the fourth is now at the top of our priority list.

It is clear that our relationship with Russia has changed fundamentally. Russia will remain our neighbour, but until it ends its senseless war in Ukraine, there will be no return to cooperation.

We have invested in our national defence with persistence and determination. When conscription was being driven down elsewhere in Europe, we held on to ours. When defence budgets were cut elsewhere, we made far-reaching acquisitions. Since the outbreak of the war, we have continued to strengthen our defence capabilities.

Our Western integration deepened just over a month ago with NATO membership. Russia’s demand for a sphere of influence and the invasion of Ukraine put us in a new position. A position where there was no longer room for military non-alignment. The decision to join NATO was taken jointly by the people and the decision-makers.

But NATO alone does not constitute our entire Western pillar. Its essential elements are also the EU, regional groupings, and bilateral relations. Among them, I would particularly highlight our close and ever deepening relations with the United States and the Nordic countries.

Our Nordic family is now closer and more united than ever. When, after the outbreak of the war, we swiftly took the decision to support Ukraine militarily, we did so in close dialogue with the other Nordic countries. This close dialogue continues. Last week, the Nordic countries joined forces to support Ukraine at a summit in Helsinki with President Zelenskyy.

The joint journey towards NATO membership has strengthened the ties between Finland and Sweden. Although we did not have the same pace on the final leg of the journey for reasons beyond our control, the process has further increased trust between us. With Norway, we share the position as a neighbour of Russia. I have had many valuable conversations with Prime Minister Gahr Støre about this constellation. Denmark’s accession to the EU’s common security and defence policy is an important step, whereas Iceland’s role in the north in particular is important for us as a NATO member.

Nordic security has entered into a new era. When all five Nordic countries are members of NATO, defence planning in our region will for the first time be conducted on a completely common basis. We can continue to build on the solid foundation of our current co-operation also as NATO members. A strong and stable Nordic region will benefit the entire Alliance.

At the same time, we will continue to deepen our defence cooperation with the United States. Finland, Sweden and Denmark are each negotiating a bilateral defence cooperation agreement with the United States. Norway already has one.

As world leaders gather in New York in September for the UN General Assembly High-Level Week, there will undoubtedly be tension in the air. There is a battle going on for the souls of nations.

Whether measured by the credibility of elections, civil rights or the power of the decision-makers, the global state of democracy is deteriorating. Of the world’s population, perhaps a quarter share our Western, democratic values. There are still many billions of people who may not think the same way we do.

The divisions are also deepened by growing competition through economic and technological means. Interdependence did not provide stability; instead, we see economic dependencies being used as weapons. Finland has been more vigilant than many others in ensuring that dependencies do not arise in critical sectors. Nevertheless, we too must take this phenomenon more seriously than before. At the same time, we must ensure that we keep pace with the development of new technologies.

The so-called Western world now needs to think: how do we engage in dialogue with those who see the world differently from us? How do we cooperate with others but at the same time hold tightly on to our values? How do we avoid blocks from building up and valuable, jointly built institutions from crumbling down?

We must start with dialogue and diplomacy. Finland cannot afford to opt out of the international debate. At best, we can bring our own perspectives and experience to the table.

At the end of April, I visited South Africa and Namibia, and the trip gave me a lot to think about. I intend to continue contacts with my colleagues in the leading countries of the southern part of the world, hoping to further increase mutual understanding.

We must also dare to talk about peace in Ukraine. Not over the head of Ukraine, but under its leadership. Otherwise someone else will.

I return to the value of an analytical and open debate on foreign and security policy. This debate must be held. Here at home in Finland and internationally. We must have the courage to express our own views, but also respect those who think differently.

Silence is the worst option.

Thank you.