At 100 years old, Finland continues its long-standing foreign policy line: the global political situation needs more dialogue, collaboration and stability
Finland has to be more nimble than ever because the rhythm of change in the world is picking up speed. By nimble I don’t mean unscrupulous opportunism. In an unstable world it is more important than ever that Finland keep its values firmly in mind. Those values can be summarised as well-known European principles and in terms of the Nordic organisation of society: democracy, the rule of law, human rights, equality, humanism. Those are the values upon which Finland’s role as an international actor rests. One of our important aspirations in foreign policy is to be heard and influential. To be on the court, not in the locker room; at the government level as well as that of ministers and officials. We are not observers in the international political arena—we’re on the ice, wielding a hockey stick. One can play forcefully while following the rules.
Collaboration among Arctic nations is one of the priorities of our foreign policy and it is especially topical right now. Finland’s two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council commenced last spring. Arctic-related matters will shift to the top of agendas for that reason, but also because their actual influence is growing. At the same time, the potential environmental problems of the Arctic region due to global warming are of critical importance. Finland’s competence in the Arctic Council can be seen from afar, and this must be vigorously used to strengthen Finland’s international position and make Finns better known.
Opportunities for collaboration in the Arctic regarding, for example, transportation channels are of increasing interest to the world. The construction of a railway through Finland to the Arctic Ocean, which has been talked about for decades, must be realised. The Arctic Economic Council already supports the project, but the sooner the railway’s significance for the future is understood in Finland and the world, the better. As a continuation of Rail Baltic, the railway would form a connection from Central Europe to the Arctic Ocean. Besides Finland, the connection would also be beneficial to many other countries, including Estonia.
Global issues should be also viewed from a local perspective. The President of the Republic of Finland has brought up the significant environmental problems caused by black carbon with presidents Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Fighting black carbon is a good example here—through this, real advances are being made in environmental matters, the countries of the region are united, and Finland’s abilities are on show. The Arctic Council is on a different level, as it also involves the US.
Russia is a key player in the Arctic, not least due to its long coastline and the great Siberian shelf. The Arctic is and has always been an area of huge economic opportunities for Russia. At the same time, the Arctic is vulnerable and there are also grounds for tension. Currently it seems that even Russia does not want to take risks with collaboration in the Arctic and is acting constructively in the area.
The strengthening of stability in the Baltic Sea region has been the central priority of my term as foreign minister. Responding to new threats has been part of that job. The acknowledgement of hybrid influence and responding to it has been the everyday work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a long time—in communications as well as security policy. There is still reason to make this work more effective, and I have therefore established a position of hybrid ambassador within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so as to confront the phenomenon from every aspect. Collaboration with the Hybrid Centre and other ministries will be strengthened.
The Global Political Situation Needs Functioning Arms Control
The importance of arms control has increased in the tense international political situation. Finland’s aim is to strengthen the measures that increase confidence and prevent an arms race in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Finland has been active in ensuring that multilateral and bilateral arms-control agreements are adhered to and that the dialogue for improving security goes on. The collaboration of the US and Russia still has a central role in international arms control. It is important that countries have decided to talk about strategic stability.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme is a great concern. The country’s repeated nuclear and missile tests are completely reckless, and they are being carried out in conflict with UN Security Council resolutions. The risks increase all the time and the consequences could be catastrophic. North Korea’s actions are a threat to international peace and security. It is good that the US has shown readiness to strive for a political solution in this matter. At the same time, the US has announced it is prepared for military countermeasures should North Korea launch a military strike against the territory of the US or its allies. In this situation, too, only a peaceful resolution can be sustainable.
In October, president Trump harshly criticised Iran and the deal on its nuclear programme. A US withdrawal from the agreement would contribute to the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The agreement ensures that Iran’s nuclear programme remains peaceful. Finland, too, is concerned about Iran’s regional activities and its nuclear programme. Only the US has been interested in launching talks to amend the agreement. The EU must now actively collaborate with the US so as to ensure the implementation and continuation of the agreement.
It is known that Russia still possesses a significant arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia’s statements on the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons and the simulation of their use in conventional military exercises are worrisome as it seems that the role of these weapons in Russia’s military doctrine may be increasing. Finland has been actively keeping matters concerning tactical nuclear weapons and the need to pay due attention to them in nuclear disarmament on the agenda—among other things by monitoring the processes of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which is of central importance to Finland.
Recently we have been asked why Finland did not sign the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; there is a good and well-justified answer. We share the objective of the treaty without reservation—we want a world without nuclear weapons. But, as far as we understand, the treaty does not advance nuclear disarmament and does not remove a single nuclear weapon from the world. There is also a legitimate concern that the process of prohibiting nuclear weapons has a negative effect on the international environment, and especially the NPT monitoring process. Achieving specific results requires the participation of nuclear states and patience in international collaboration. Here Finland has decades of experience, and we will continue with that policy in the future.
The Future of the EU and Transatlantic Collaboration
The European Union has been under a lot of pressure in recent years. The eurozone crisis brought the monetary union into intensive care. Instability in Europe’s neighbouring areas poses an unprecedented external challenge to the Union. Due to the wave of refugees, several countries began to prioritise national interests while the solidarity between countries and the principle of pacta sunt servanda was forgotten. The gulf between cities and rural areas is widening. In addition, Russia is publicly challenging the founding principles of Europe’s security. At the same time, a central member of the Union—the United Kingdom—is negotiating its exit.
My political background is known. I have not spent time in the pro-Europe NGOs Eurooppalainen Suomi or Eurooppanuoret. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, it is my duty to see things as they are, and stand up for Finland’s interests. One has to be a realist about European integration. The results, not ideology, must determine Finland’s position. The future and trustworthiness of the EU in people’s eyes also depend on results. There is no common vision for the EU, and it will probably not arrive by just waiting or twiddling one’s thumbs.
Finland’s long-term objective is to strengthen the EU as a producer of security and security cooperation. The permanent structured defence cooperation underway today is an example of a sub-field in which we can achieve specific results. Finland has supported the launch of defence cooperation pursuant to the Treaty of Lisbon and we have announced that we are one of the first to participate. The objective is to strengthen defence collaboration among EU states.
That globalisation is a fact of life is undisputable, and we are influenced by factors far beyond our borders, such as population growth in Africa, conflicts in the Middle East, and the economy in China. The background to the unification of Europe is that we have more effective influence in the world together. Alone, we are rather helpless. Such logic has proved itself over the economy. The European single market is a sufficient yardstick for European companies. In trade policy we share the top spot together. The same logic must apply in foreign policy and security. Only by exercising influence together can we obtain enough influence to impact progress, which is challenging for Europe. In Europe, the Nordic countries are a great reference group for Finland.
The need for collaboration is not limited to Europe. It is also important in the context of transatlantic relations. If Europe and the US do not collaborate for the sake of Western values and international rules-based cooperation, “Made in China” tags might be attached to items other than the bottom of an espresso machine.
It seems there is never a dull day in Washington, but we should not forget our common ground—the US and Europe are tied by many bonds. It is better to stand up to the world’s challenges together than alone. Nothing depends on one man or one political trend. The US and Europe can influence the rules of the international game in a tightening competition only if they are able to create a common vision. I won’t beat around the bush—the way president Trump governs is new to us. However, in relations with the US one must rely on what we have in common rather than what is different. And there is a lot in common. We must be visible and influence Washington alone and together.
Close economic relations are the backbone of the transatlantic partnership. The EU and the US are the world’s leading actors and investors in international trade. The US is an important destination for EU exports and an essential trade and investment partner for Finland.
The US connection to Europe has special meaning for Finland. Every so often it must be said out loud that, in terms of foreign policy, good relations with the US matter to Finland. The US has a central role with regard to Finland’s security interests. An international, open and rules-based order (which is vital for a country such as Finland) is based primarily on the support of the US and its allies. Transatlantic (and other) cooperation proceeds from our national interests, while foreign and security policy is only one of many. Finland endeavours to ensure economic and social prosperity for its people. The strengthening of economic relations and, for example, collaboration with the US in the fields of science and technology, are essential for achieving this. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have made the relationship between Finland and the US one of my central priorities and stand for the strengthening of transatlantic relations and diversifying the relationship according to national and European interests.
Security as Europe’s Growing Challenge
The balance of power in the world is changing. Russia has put the international order to the test. China’s momentous rise has been going on for some time, but what place will China take or be given in the international system? It has often been the case that, when power relations change, the world is in uproar as power tries to find a new channel. Our challenges in our neighbouring region presuppose that we use Europe’s best capabilities to influence things from the outside—to stabilise and develop, but, if needed, respond to power politics with our own means. This is the question. This is the red line upon which the EU’s foreign-, security- and defence-policy capabilities are being built. Finland wants to be on top of these tasks.
One of the EU’s growing challenges is security—increasing and guaranteeing it in Europe and beyond. The tasks regarding domestic security are clear—the borders must be in order and police cooperation must function. Cross-border collaboration is needed to combat terrorism. The same is true for international security.
National defence is a national task and will remain so. However, there are benefits in working together at the European level. This is the question when developing Europe’s security and defence policy. There will be no EU army, but joint European capabilities and procurement are necessary. These are beneficial for the Finnish defence industry and defence capability, too.
We can no longer talk about developing Europe with all 28 states when one valued member is negotiating to leave the Union. Here we want to see a good solution in which the UK will remain a close partner. We have working examples from Norway to Switzerland, where membership is not a prerequisite for trade to work or for pursuing foreign policy for mutual goals. Diversity has always been Europe’s strength—it cannot all be cast in the same mould.
For some, the eurozone has been the key to deepening partnership within the EU. I don’t believe in that, because the significant deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union would presuppose structures and policies inherent to a federal state for the establishment of which there are no political preconditions or economic basis. I believe that the most reasonable course is to make sure that the EU is preserved on an integral foundation and develops cooperation in a manner that unites all the member states. Keeping the foundations in order is a principle that applies everywhere. European values are also foundations. They form the basis upon which a better Europe should be built. They should be united in a compelling story that people can believe in. The story has to emanate from the needs of the people, not from institutions. Otherwise, Europe’s democratic road would become very bumpy indeed.
Germany’s Role in Europe is Still Important
Germany remains important for Europe and continues to be a significant international force. In recent decades, Germany has been an obvious partner for Finland. However, from Germany’s perspective, Finland is not an equally obvious choice. It has repeatedly needed to secure its place as an interesting partner with trustworthy politics.
In this Finland-centric discussion it is good to recognise and acknowledge Germany’s role and growing importance for Helsinki’s foreign and security policy. In recent years, Germany has been Finland’s most important trading partner and most significant investor and investment destination. Germany and Finland are collaborating closely in the fields of security and defence. We have much in common in vital central EU matters such as integration, foreign, security and defence policy, and the internal market, as well as in trade and economic policy. Brexit means that Germany will be in need of new partners. I think Finland would be a welcome partner for Germany in several areas. Finland must now take the initiative on the issues that are most important to us. It is in Finland’s interest that Germany’s next government supports the security of the Baltic Sea region, back Finland’s solutions on security policy in NATO, and continue to bind Russia to the international rule of law. It is clear that supporting sanctions against Russia and actively monitoring the situation in Ukraine are of central importance.
Germany’s foreign and security policy is traditionally consistent. Commitment to the EU and supporting treaty-based international order and law will presumably remain part of it. This is in Finland’s interest. Germany’s coalition talks have turned out to be as difficult as everybody predicted. We can only hope the country that in many ways leads Europe will have a capable government that can operate in multidimensional roles.
Germany is largely in the same boat as Finland over matters related to refugees and immigration. Germany continues the line adopted in recent months to toughen up and double-check refugee and immigration policy, emphasising everybody’s responsibilities in accepting refugees. The main question is how to attract skilled labour to Europe and how to keep illegal immigration in check.
Finland and Estonia share the same values and face the same challenges in Europe and the rest of the world. In addition to the Nordic countries, Finland also belongs to the family of the Baltic Sea region. Finland and Estonia have close bilateral collaboration in many areas, and deepening this is in the best interests of both our small countries. We are also bound by the European Union, on whose structures our bilateral collaboration rests in many ways. It is important to bear this in mind.
Estonia holds the EU presidency at a time when the Union faces several challenges. Estonia has had a successful presidency and has been able to raise topics important to the country. Finland shares those priorities. “Digital Europe” and the transfer of information and data across borders are the future of Europe—this is our fifth freedom. In this respect, Finland and Estonia are already in the forefront, developing X-Road cooperation. There is great potential in both countries to be together at the helm of progress.
Technology and digitalisation move society forward, as we know. Estonia is a great example of this. Technology has also changed politics decisively. There is a lot of good in this: through the internet, freedom of speech has spread to the far reaches of Africa and Asia. This has also enabled economic development and increased transparency, making it a marvellous tool in the fight against corruption. In this wide debate, artificial intelligence will play an increasing role.
The outgoing year has already been a memorable one for Finland. It is an honour to be the Minister for Foreign Affairs on our centenary. We have celebrated our independence and Finnish spirit together. The 100th anniversary of the Republic of Finland has been celebrated throughout the year and we have been looking back on the highlights of our independence and national history. But we have not forgotten that we have had to pay a heavy price for our independence, and protected it in two wars against the vast Soviet Union. The experience of the Winter War and the Continuation War is an important part of the story of Finland’s independence. Nevertheless, we are looking to the future with an open mind.
Finland and Estonia are connected by an almost 1,000-year-old mutual Finno-Ugric bond of language and culture. There have always been contacts and joint projects on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. The turns of history have formed us into somewhat different societies, but the experience of connectedness between our nations is tangible. There is great empathy between our countries and we share an understanding about the turns of and choices in our history. It is no coincidence that our countries celebrate the centenary of their independence only 11 weeks apart. Independence is a thing of great value.
Our gorgeous Nordic nature, our country and its citizens, our important neighbours, and our language and culture remain the principal factors in our story now and in the future. History is open every day; we have to make sure that our story for the next hundred years will turn out to be just as glorious from the future’s perspective.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.