Speech by Minister Soini at the Atlantic Council

Speech by Minister Soini at the Atlantic Council

Finland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Timo Soini’s speech at the Atlantic Council, 3 May 2017.

Original speech in Finnish

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at the Atlantic Council and my apologies for not being able to come here earlier. I value very highly the Council’s work in promoting Euro-Atlantic dialogue, research and education in the field of security policy.

Our co-operation with the United States is a question that continues to raise also dissenting opinions. Personally, I have always found that our co-operation is both necessary and important.

President Trump has completed his first 100 days in office. His performance has given rise to different evaluations. In Finland, too, there has been talk as to whether our relationship with the United States should be revised.

Today also marks 360 days since I gave my policy speech in Kouvola on our relations with the United States. How do these relations look today? In politics, there is always a reason for re-evaluation of a situation. Is the situation now different? Should we check our policy?

In Kouvola, I stated that the United States is the world’s most powerful economy and the key engine of global economic growth. Structural changes are sweeping through the U.S. – just as they are in Europe. However, the United States’ strong capacity for innovation and renewal, as well as its dynamic business and financial sector, drive the economy forward. This assessment still remains true.

I also stated that the United States, similar to other countries, promotes its own interests in its foreign policy, but often relying on the support of its allies and partners. In a world of interdependence, our key interests are, therefore, largely convergent. This has not changed either.

What is particularly remarkable is the assumption that I made then: that the United States is trying to decide whether it would be better to let the rest of the world take care of itself or to assume the role of leader. In practice, attempts at withdrawal have usually ended with the United States finally coming to the conclusion that it is ‘obliged’ to assume a stronger role or leadership. In my opinion, this is what is happening again.

It is also true today —although it may be difficult for some people to accept in the Trump era— that, regardless of what we think of the United States’ leadership, it is not possible to resolve significant international challenges without the participation and leadership of the United States.

The fact that the United States is a very important trade and investment partner for Finland has not changed in one year either. Close economic relations are the backbone of the transatlantic partnership. The EU and the United States are the world’s largest players and investors in the field of international trade. The United States is the most important export destination for the EU.

In an environment of intensifying competition, the United States and the EU can decisively influence the international rules only if they can develop a common vision. Donald Trump’s presidency has made this goal more challenging, but not impossible to achieve.

The United States plays an important role in Europe and NATO. A year ago, I said that from the United States’ perspective, NATO is the cornerstone of transatlantic security co-operation. Last month, also President Trump confirmed this. However, Europeans are now expected to invest more in NATO.

Furthermore, it is still evident that in situations in which European security deteriorates, the importance of the United States’ presence as a stabilising factor is emphasised. It is of vital importance that the United States’ commitment to Europe remains strong also in the future. In the current security situation, the United States’ strong presence in the Baltic Sea region creates stability and increases security. The stability of the Baltic Sea region is also Finland’s objective. This has not changed during the Trump presidency.

The United States’ commitment to Europe is of particular importance for Finland. From time to time, we must have the courage to say loud and clear that good relations with the United States are extremely important for Finland. The United States is central to Finland’s security interests.

The international open and rules-based system—which is vitally important for a country like Finland—largely relies on the support of the United States and its allies. This assessment is still true. However, we must recognise the fact that it is now our challenge to convince President Trump that this really is the case.

Finland and the United States have a long and solid history of defence co-operation. Particularly during the current administration, Finland’s defence co-operation with the United States has been a topic of public discussion. Long-term active co-operation with the United States with respect to both defence material and exercises is very important for Finland, for the simple reason that the United States has the most effective armed forces in the world.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have taken the relationship between Finland and the United States as one of my key priorities and, for my part, I will ensure that transatlantic relations are systematically strengthened and diversified in accordance with national interests.

Similar to any other co-operation, transatlantic co-operation is based on our national interests, of which foreign and security policy is only one of many. Finland aims to safeguard the economic and social well-being of its citizens. In order to achieve this, it is essential to strengthen our economic relations and, for example, scientific and technological co-operation with the United States.

All in all Finland’s main policy line will continue. However, this does not mean that we will always agree on everything. We stick to our principles and discuss matters frankly and openly.

It is evident that the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States has introduced new uncertainty into US politics. The President’s spontaneous comments and tweets will continue to cause confusion. I myself have not joined the Twitter world and I do not actually recommend others join it either. However, time alone will tell whether politics will really change, and to what extent. I predict that the change may not be as significant as might be expected on the basis of the presidential campaign. Instead of what has been said, we should look more at deeds.

It is still early days for the administration. Nevertheless, it seems that in the United States’ National Security Council, for example, more traditional views are gaining a foothold. Concerning the budget debate in Congress, the expression ‘follow the money’ is particularly true if we want to find the final focus of US actions.

For the time being, we should hold back from drawing too many conclusions. But we must be ready and prepare our viewpoints.

The attention of the administration is mainly on domestic policy. Relations with third countries and international organisations are viewed very ‘transactionally’, that is, by assessing how they directly serve interests of the United States.

At least for the time being, the structures and principles of the international system are not given the same value as in previous administrations. Mr Trump’s addresses during his campaign communicated a rather isolationist attitude. On the other hand, he has spoken about US leadership and stated that the United States’ defence forces, in particular, must be superior. As I said earlier, one of the big questions is what will be the United States’ attitude concerning its own leadership during Trump’s presidency.

It is to be noted that the checks and balances system that is characteristic of the United States’ political system has worked well. The judiciary and Congress have worked independently and, in some matters, also against the President’s wishes.  Throughout history, the institutions of the United States’ political system and the separation of powers under the US Constitution have introduced a certain degree of continuity into politics. This institutional structure has been a key factor of the country's power and standing. It remains to be seen how the institution will wear in the future.

Concerning foreign policy, it seems that the United States is aiming for continuity, particularly in its relations with Europe, NATO and, more widely, its traditional allies. This has been emphasised in various statements.  The commitment of the United States to NATO has been stated, but European allies are expected to increase their defence spending closer to the goal of two per cent of GNP. The US administration has gained a clearer understanding of the significance of the EU.

US relations with Russia have deteriorated. This stems from ongoing investigations in the United States and the situation in Syria and Ukraine. However, both parties have wanted to maintain dialogue, as demonstrated by Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to Russia.

Building relations with China is particularly important for global development. The meeting of the presidents at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, was an obviously positive first encounter. What is notable is that President Trump has acknowledged the One China policy and is no longer accusing China of being a currency manipulator. At the meeting, the presidents also agreed on a 100-day plan for trade talks, which will address the imbalance in the economic relations. This will allow to build relations so that no one will lose face.

China is particularly needed in controlling the threat posed by North Korea. In addition to deteriorated regional stability, the United States sees North Korea’s nuclear weapon as an increasing and direct national security threat. Even though the United States has not actually ruled out any means, sanctions and other economic and political pressures are the most desirable methods from everyone’s perspective.  In this regard, the United States particularly expects activity from China.

In Afghanistan, the involvement of the United States will probably continue at least at the current level. In Iran, they want to see how the nuclear deal holds. Concerning Syria, it is still too early to assess whether the United States’ missile attack—in response to the use of chemical weapons—indicated a change in US politicy or whether it was mainly a demonstration of their readiness to act. However, suppressing ISIL will continue to be the main objective.

The United States’ attitude towards the UN is increasingly critical, which will probably have an effect on the funding of the world organisation. Peacekeeping operations will be viewed with a critical eye.

Funding to the UN’s population fund, UNFPA, will decrease, maybe even radically. Funding to many other special organisations and programmes, as well as the Climate Fund, may also decrease. This may hinder the UN’s ability to achieve its targets, placing more pressure on the EU countries, for example.

I must admit that the assessment I made a year ago of the United States’ climate policy does not hold up any more. We cannot expect the United States to provide unconditionally support for the prevention of climate change. Even though the United States’ climate policy is still a big question mark, it is evident that there will be changes. The US is considering an exit from the Paris agreement, but it is also possible that the United States will just assume a more passive role. Nevertheless, this would also be a significant change, particularly if other countries followed suit.

We must, however, keep in mind that the development of clean technologies and energy production is already such an important business also for Americans that it would be difficult to reverse the situation. What is interesting is that even a number of large American energy companies have called on President Trump to commit to the Paris Agreement. In any event, the contribution of the EU and other countries, such as China and India, will be emphasised.

As global warming is expected to happen faster in the Arctic regions than elsewhere, Finland will face the change in the United States’ policy concretely during our presidency of the Arctic Council. It is not sensible for Finland to find itself on a collision course with the United States, but we are not going to give up our own goals and commitments either. What is essential for Finland is that all Arctic countries participate in discussing Arctic issues. This is particularly important now that the United States holds the presidency of the Arctic Council, with Finland preparing to assume the presidency this month for the next two years. Arctic co-operation with the United States now requires particular agility from us.

Considerable uncertainty is also associated with the United States’ trade and economic policy.

Ultimately, a lot depends on the United States’ future attitude towards the World Trade Organisation and questions such as the resolution of disputes by the WTO. The United States now seems to be focusing on bilateral agreements, ‘deals’. A transition from multilateral to bilateral trade agreements could hinder the ability of companies to export goods and services to different markets and, thus, slow down economic growth as a whole. Finland’s growth has picked up in this term of government, and we must do everything we can to ensure that this positive development continues.

The latest turn for the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, is that the United States would be ready to discuss updating the agreement. This is good news and shows that the United States is facing facts.

The idea of the Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) mentioned in connection with the tax reform has also caused a lot of concern outside the United States.  According to the latest news, it will not be included in the tax reform. In other respects, too, the tax reform will be a challenging task, as was the case with the failed repeal of the health insurance system, Obamacare.

But there is still an opportunity to influence US-policies. The role of the EU and its Member States, particularly the big countries, is extremely important in this. Bilateral lobbying is going on also. It is important that, in addition to politicians and public officials, researchers and representatives from business life also participate in this work, and people such as you, distinguished audience, who possess a deep knowledge of the United States and its significance for us.

Our messages must be clear. They must sound reasonable also to American listeners. I will now share some thoughts concerning this.

First of all, in my opinion, it is reasonable that Europe should bear greater responsibility for its own security and stability in its neighbourhood. This is what Finland is also doing for its part. If we used the same calculation method as NATO to determine our defence expenditure, it would already amount to approximately 1.7 per cent of GNP. And the upcoming major material procurements will increase it way over two per cent.

Our long-term participation in international crisis management—operations of the UN and NATO and the US-led anti-ISIL coalition—currently with approximately one hundred soldiers, is a significant contribution to stability. Thus, we are by no means a free-rider but a provider of security, particularly in the Baltic Sea region, but also more widely.

We expect the United States to continue supporting Finland’s closer partnership co-operation with NATO.  In addition to crisis management and military co-operation, our political dialogue with NATO has developed. The most important co-operation forum is the Enhanced Opportunities Partnership position and the co-operation between Finland, Sweden and NATO (so-called 28+2).

It is important to convince the new administration that political co-operation in foreign and security affairs between the United States and the EU is beneficial for the US and that closer defence co-operation with the EU is in the interests of the United States. At the same time, it is important to develop the EU’s defence co-operation in collaboration with NATO. The Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats established in Finland is one of the most significant new openings in this respect. The work of the centre support co-operation between the EU and NATO. The United States has actively participated in the preparations for the establishment of the centre, and it was one of the first countries to sign the memorandum to set up the centre.

Economic stability and growth opportunities constitute a basis also for  Finland’s security. In this respect, too, the United States is an important partner for Finland. In 2016, the United States was Finland’s third largest export destination with a share of 7.6 per cent, and it is a very important export market also from the value chain perspective. Finnish investments in the United States amount to approximately 13 billion USD, providing employment for approximately 29,000 Americans.

The positive development of political and economic relations between the United States and the EU is beneficial and important for both parties. Approximately 15 million people on both sides of the Atlantic are employed by transatlantic trade. The investments made in the United States by companies based in the EU are eight times greater in value than their investments in China and India together. The fact that the TTIP, transatlantic trade and investment partnership, has not been fully rejected, is positive news.

Uncertainty about the direction of US politics continues. In the current situation, it is even more important than before for Finland to have a clear vision of our objectives and priorities. We base them on respect for human rights, democracy, equality and international law, as well as strengthening the rules-based international system.

It is in Finland’s interests that the United States sees the European Union as an essential and useful partner whose views and needs are important and taken into account.

We want to build co-operation with the United States that benefits both parties. We work for this goal every day.