Speech by Secretary of State Peter Stenlund at the Annual Meeting of Heads of Mission

Speech by Secretary of State Peter Stenlund at the Annual Meeting of Heads of Mission on 24 August 2015. 

Dear ambassadors and colleagues!

We open the 2015 Meeting of Heads of Missions in an atmosphere of both continuity and significant changes in our foreign policy. This may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, fairly typical in connection with installation of a new government.

The President of the Republic and the new Cabinet Committee on Foreign and Security Policy held their first meeting on 3 June. The press release regarding the meeting stated that the new Government of Finland assesses Russia's actions in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the EU on the basis of the same point of departure as the previous government. Finland maintains its clear position. End of quote.

The choice of words is not coincidental. The words were chosen to minimise any speculation regarding possible changes of Finland’s position both in the east and in the west.

However, the Government Programme also contains some new tones, such as certain guidelines related to EU policies, which are important also from the perspective of foreign policy.

The programme for the Meeting of Heads of Missions will provide excellent opportunities for getting to know the new government’s ministers and their views. Please make use of the event, and feel free to also bring up issues that may have produced not just positive, but also negative reactions in your station. In this way, the Meeting of Heads of Missions may contribute to our knowledge about the state of Finland’s international position, which can then be used, for instance, to support our country image work.

Dear colleagues!

From the point of view of foreign affairs administration, the most concrete changes brought about by the new government concern development cooperation. As we know, this is due to the task of balancing the public finances of Finland. The budget cuts are so extensive that they will necessarily have an impact on Finland’s development policy. The cuts have been criticised both among the employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and by Finnish communities contributing to our development aid work; they have also been noted internationally.

From a democratic perspective, it is hard to challenge the decision. The topic was clearly visible in discussions during the elections. It is the task of the administration to take care of the implementation of democratic decisions. Our budget for next year was prepared strictly following the guidelines provided by the Government Programme.

I, however, refuse to accept the interpretation proposed publicly, implying our development cooperation this far has not been the right kind. New, independent evaluations rank Finland’s development cooperation surprisingly high, considering that we are most often operating in extremely difficult conditions. It has been estimated that many visible and excellent results have been achieved through Finland’s development cooperation. I consider it possible to discuss the necessary changes to development cooperation in an information-based and critical manner without criticising the existence of the activity itself or the work performed in the past. It is clear that the emphasis of the work will change, and it must change, due to the changes in the operational environment. It was no surprise that the new government placed an emphasis on supporting entrepreneurship and good administration in the developing countries and strengthening Finnfund; this direction was predictable.

The officials responsible for our development cooperation have been acting very professionally and lead by great personal motivation.  Finland and the foreign affairs administration have good reason to be proud of them. Due to the cuts, our capacity for planning and implementation must also be reduced; this is noted in the Government Programme. I regret to say we will lose some unique skills and know-how. From the perspective of employees, adjusting to the new budget and task descriptions will be made easier by adopting a flexible attitude and investing in new skills.  

Dear colleagues!

The future review presented by our Ministry reminded us that Finland’s place in the new world order currently seeking its form is not set in stone, but must be actively maintained. The work to improve Finland’s position has many aspects. Our position is dependent on our cooperation arrangements and our activities in the EU and numerous multilateral organisations, our relationship with the most influential states in the world and our neighbouring countries, not to mention our financial capacity and the interest our innovations attract.

Our international position is also influenced by how Finland is delivering to burden-sharing as a member of the international community and of the EU, and as a transatlantic partner.  Early this year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared a review of Finland’s security policy-related cooperation arrangements. It demonstrated how maintaining a credible national defence is dependent on functional cooperation arrangements, including bilateral cooperation, particularly with Sweden and the United States. We are facing the work to prepare the government’s report on foreign and security policy, and in connection with the preparations of the report the impacts of a possible NATO membership will be evaluated.

The government emphasises the importance of integrating military and civilian crisis management, development cooperation, humanitarian aid, and peace mediation. This is an important guideline. Responsibility does not come for free. In spite of our sparse resources, it is essential that we maintain Finland’s reputation as a country that contributes in a professional way to peacekeeping and peace mediation operations. Due to the fewer resources available for crisis management and development cooperation, we must take a strategic approach to our actions, so that our country will continue to be considered an important cooperation partner, in line with the other Nordic countries.         

To direct our operations, the MFA management board has scrutinised the sections concerning foreign and security policy in the Government Programme. As a conclusion we have identified the following strategic themes:

  • The stability of adjacent areas and Finland’s international position
  • Nordic cooperation on security policy, NATO partnership and the EU as a security community
  • External economic relations, sustainable development and the common challenges faced by humankind
  • Modern and efficient foreign affairs administration.  

The strategic level priorities represent the profile of our activities well, but they are undeniably quite extensive to be used as the basis for prioritising and deprioritising resource use and deselecting work duties.

One year ago, we discussed the return of geopolitics, the harmfulness of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine from the perspective of the European security system, and how the conflict reflects in the Baltic Sea Region.  One of the conclusions was this: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must once again invest in security policy-related know-how and secure its capacity in this sector. The crisis between Russia and Ukraine has required extensive use of human resoures, not just in the Department for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the Political Department, but also in, for instance, the Legal Service, the Department for External Economic Relations, the Department for Communications, and in the embassies. I have the impression that cooperation across the department borders and between Helsinki and the embassies has worked quite well.

A year ago, Ebola and health security fast became priorities in foreign policy. This, too, required cross-departmental team work; in this case, the essential team was composed of the Department for Africa and the Middle East, the Department for Development Policy and the Political Department. Also in this case, the cross-departmental team work was a success. These situations remind us of the fact that a silo-mentality is hopelessly outdated. They also prove our ability to function commendably as an organisation even in a tight spot.

Our emphasis on arms control was a conscious decision and a prioritisation that has required significant resources. Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava's work as facilitator for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East didn't lead to a conference in Helsinki but his position provided Finland with a significant status in the global level negotiations for many years. The conference on preventing nuclear terrorism, coordinated by Ambassador Klaus Korhonen, was organised in Helsinki, with constructive contributions from the USA and Russia. We still provide high-quality services in the field of health security promotion. Finns in the IAEA framework are working in important positions in the Iran nuclear talks and in implementation of a deal. Promoting arms control is extremely important, and, with our expertise, Finland has managed to reach a role that strengthens our international position. We should continue to allocate resources to this field in the future.

Arctic cooperation is becoming an increasingly important circumpolar theme due to the approaching Arctic Council chairmanship. 

Dear colleagues!    

We tend to remind ourselves of the fact that we cannot do much about our  geographic location. With this, we are referring to the importance of a functional relationship with Russia. However, geopolitics change even if the continental plates stay calm and still. We have to experience impacts of the wars and crisis in Northern Africa and the Middle East on our security and economy. The continuing financial crisis in Greece now also has a security policy-related aspect. The reports prepared by the Finnish eyewitnesses in the network of embassies  as well as the other services provided by the embassies—in the EU countries and in the extended Mediterranean geopolitical crisis area—are of utmost importance in preparing foreign policy-related decision-making in Finland and increasing our influence—on issues varying from the different phases of the financial crisis in Greece to controlling migration flows and their causes, the reactions of different states to dramatic events and the different stages of the nuclear talks in Iran. Uncontrolled migration flows have become a foreign and security policy problem to which we must pay more attention in future. We intend to establish a new ambassador role with a focus on migration flows. During the previous term, we established the role of a Cyber Ambassador and a temporary Ebola Ambassador; these are only some examples of the strategic use of resources in the foreign affairs administration. We remove outdated roles correspondingly.

Many would like to know how well we can utilise the European External Action Service, and what is our position in it. There are currently three Finnish EAS ambassadors, who were invited to the Meeting of Heads of Missions. In addition, we have Pia Stjernvall working in Kabul as the Head of the EUPOL; we are particularly proud of her. On the other hand, our position at the headquarters has weakened, and we should absolutely aim to improve our situation. This is about Finnish influence. The Government Program reminds us that the EU is, by nature, a security community. It is only logical that Finland aims to support and develop the EEAS in order to improve the credibility and strengthen the unity of the EU.

Team Finland cooperation to promote Finland’s economic interests internationally has been named as one of the most important measures in the government’s key project to improve employment and competitiveness. This year, too, a separate Team Finland day will be organised in connection with the Meeting of Heads of Missions.

Team Finland has improved the cooperation between different actors in the target market, and this has mostly been accomplished under your leadership, ambassadors. I thank you for that.

It is an uncomfortable fact that the resources available have been reduced. What we have gained from improved cooperation has been lost due to cuts both in our administration and in the bodies under the Ministry of Employment and the Economy.

During the preparations for key projects, I have noticed that some think there could be new resources for promoting economic interests if only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to change the priorities of the embassies’ work.  It is likely there are still some, limited, possibilities, although these kinds of changes have already been made. The most significant new resource is moving the focal points of development cooperation towards trade and development. This may mean significant changes to our Africa-related policies.

A fatal fact still remains: The state of Finland promotes its international economic interests with far fewer resources than other comparable countries that are highly dependent on exports. This is extremely serious, as our well-being is more and more often created by export successes around Asia, Africa and the Americas, along with the European basis. The efficient use of the existing resources suffers from complicated administrative solutions—Team Finland has not reduced the amount of administrative work.

Dear friends,

The promotion of commercial interests often requires patience. Finland has been leading the membership negotiations for Kazakhstan joining the WTO for some 20 years, last under Ambassador Vesa Himanen. This summer, membership was finally granted, thanks to sheer perseverance. I could not help but wonder how an achievement of this importance could be reported using indicators, such as those required by the National Audit Office of Finland. I’m afraid the indicated inefficiency would have required us to withdraw from our position years ago. 

I absolutely want to improve the efficiency of our work and live in the current time, taking our own initiative and following the government’s guidelines. In addition to the productivity programme of the previous parliamentary term, the Government Programme introduced some new cuts to the operational budget. After the founding of the Government Administrative Unit, we receive important services produced elsewhere, and the MOFA budget has been cut correspondingly. After these reforms, our operational budget is quite stripped-down—any cuts will have to be directly targeted at HR expenses or the finances of our embassies.

Three of our embassies will be closed this year: Ljubljana, Bratislava and Luxembourg. The political will states that no more embassies should be closed. This requires determination in improving the efficiency of the operations and reducing the number of full-time equivalents; next year, more than 60 person-years will be cut, along with some reductions from those recruited in the host countries. Through the TAMA project, we will once more look for opportunities for rationalisation and utilising digitalisation. We should, however, bear in mind that the low-hanging fruit  have already been picked and eaten a long time ago. Provided that the TAMA project is a success and the person-year cuts are implemented while keeping security costs and other expenses under control, it may be possible for us to create enough maneuvering space to be able to respond to the Government Programme guideline: The resources of the Foreign Service of Finland will be primarily allocated to countries whose political and economic significance for Finland is increasing.

Dear colleagues!

Upon our commission, the Clingendael institute has prepared a report on diplomacy in the digital age.  According to the report, foreign affairs administrations have no choice: they will need a digital strategy to survive. In the report, it is moderately assessed that the significance of traditional diplomacy is not decreasing, but as the online and offline worlds become more and more intertwined, digitalisation will have an increasing impact on all diplomatic fields. We already have a significant online presence, providing, for instance, consular services. Hybrid warfare methods, including online propaganda, have an impact on our operational conditions. The report contains the paradoxical and noteworthy statement that the abundance of online information only emphasises the importance of traditional diplomacy, including the analysis and verification of information, and performing this work under heavy pressure. Digitalisation improves efficiency, but it also requires more capacity of analysis.  Otherwise, I would still like to encourage you to make use of social media; in the hands of a wise diplomat, it is a tool like no other.  We are facing new, determined steps in the implementation of digital diplomacy.

Dear colleagues!

Since the last Meeting of Heads of Missions, some of our colleagues have left us. They are:

Garth Castrén, Antti Karppinen, Esko Lipponen, Henry Söderholm and Tom Söderman, as well as former Secretary of State Matti Tuovinen.

We will honour their memory and their life’s work with a moment of silence.

Thank you!