Speech by Minister Soini: Finland and the Tightening Competition in Global Politics

Speech by Foreign Minister Timo Soini 'Finland and the Tightening Competition in Global Politics', 7 March 2019.

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I have been the Minister for Foreign Affairs for almost four years now. It may be a long time in a person's life, but in foreign policy it’s nearly an eternity. These are unpredictable times in world politics. A world lead by a united West no longer exists. Competition is tightening. These changes are discussed in a report of the Finnish Institute for International Affairs published today.

The rise of China is the most visible indication of the shift in the competitive environment. Over the past decade, China has become one of the global superpowers. It is closing the gap with the United States, thus far the biggest economy in the world, and has taken determined steps such as the Silk Road projects to gain wider influence.  What is striking about all this is that more than 70 countries have joined the Belt and Road project, China’s key foreign policy initiative.

At the same time, Russia is trying to hold on to its superpower identity. Russia’s economy provides no competitive edge so the country turns to building its military competence and activity instead to enhance competitiveness.

But the change does not emanate exclusively from China or Russia; it stems equally from the West. Europe has been unable to reinvent itself, and it has been unable to renew the international institutions that are important for us. If nothing changes, someone else will take the driver’s seat.

The United States seems to think that not all the old agreements and arrangements – or new ones, for that matter – serve their interests.  It has often taken action on its own; sometimes for justifiable reasons, sometimes not. The United States has withdrawn from the Iran deal and the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty. It is pulling its troops from Syria and is threatening to engage in trade war with China and to impose levies on its traditional allies.

Some of these actions conflict with European interests and policies.  All friendships involve conflicts. But this will get worse if the United States decides to adopt a longer term policy of being a non-signatory in multilateral treaties and relying more heavily on bilateral affairs.

Such actions increase the unpredictability of the international system, which, in turn, erodes trust. This is a difficult situation for Europe, and especially for a small country like Finland. If the United States and Europe are unable to engage in constructive cooperation, China and Russia will seize the opportunity. China is able to challenge the West. The importance of cooperation between the EU and NATO should be appreciated better before it is too late.

The purpose of diplomacy is to identify opportunities, not to wallow in despair. For Europe, the present situation offers a unique opportunity.  The European Union will now have the chance to lead the way in introducing a rule-based, multilateral system. Finland is naturally part of this process. Either we have the ability to claim our place, or we don’t.

When I started as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I had five key objectives: to promote stability of the Baltic Sea region, to deepen cooperation with Sweden, to make progress with mediation and Arctic policy, and to strengthen transatlantic cooperation. Even if my opinion may be slightly biased, I would say we have made good progress, despite many challenges.

Stability of the Baltic Sea Region is Finland’s first priority. Since the occupation of Crimea, Russia has given us reasons for concern and for active monitoring. Russia has increased its military presence in Finland’s neighbouring areas, not to mention its active presence in the Middle East. Tensions are rising, and hybrid threats are a reality – even in Finland. Developments in Russia remain unpredictable. Finland will continue to engage in dialogue with Russia, for reasons of practical necessity if nothing else.

At the same time, however, Finland has successfully brought its partners together in the framework of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which was set up in Helsinki two years ago. This will promote cooperation between EU and NATO, which will also be increasingly important going forward.

Finland’s most important partnerships are local, with Sweden being probably our best friend. Our two countries are now in a closer bilateral dialogue than before. It is vitally important that we take joint action with Sweden in promoting stability in the Baltic Sea Region and the freedom of navigation.

But we are also engaged in discussions in larger forums: We work together in the framework of the NATO 29+2 cooperation and EU’s common security and defence policy. We strive for close cooperation as part of EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation.

Together with Sweden, we have strengthened our relationship with the United States. We have signed a trilateral letter of intent on deeper defence cooperation. This cooperation is needed to ensure security and stability in the Baltic Sea Region and throughout Europe.

The key condition for security and stability is peace. Finland plays an active role as a mediator, and we have a good reputation as a bridge builder. We are particularly well-known for supporting young people, women and religious leaders in peace mediation.  Finland contributes to the development of mediation institutions in the UN and the EU.

The least costly conflict is one that never breaks out. In conflict prevention, priority should be given to efforts to defend human rights and to promote good governance and the rule of law. This work must continue.

In recent years, during its Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, Finland has successfully promoted the Arctic policy. I am particularly pleased with the active participation of all parties involved in the spirit of cooperation. Despite the tensions in world politics, cooperation has been fruitful.

When founded, the Arctic Council was something of a regional science diplomacy club. Now, it has become a trust-building forum, much more important than its size would suggest.  Even though military activity has increased in the Arctic region, it is important that it remains are area of peace, stability and cooperation.

The Arctic Council has, for its part, upheld Transatlantic relations. Now, they are characterised by deep mistrust. The situation does not serve anyone’s interest.

I cannot emphasise enough that partnership in these relationships does not necessarily entail abstention from criticism.  By turning its back on its traditional partners and on a multilateral, rule-based system, the United States is not acting constructively. In this system, mutual trust is a key requirement.

Unpremeditated comments and demands made to partners with no warning do not build trust. Trust is built with promises and concrete actions. In an era of increasingly close interdependence, it is more important than ever for partners to deliver on their words. 

The current world order demands more courage of Europe than it has before. There are many balls in the air, and in order to catch them all, we must recognise that no individual state alone can solve the current problems. The EU member states must be able to pull together.

The United Kingdom is preparing for exit, and in the spring Europeans will go to the polls. The EU-critical movement is expected to emerge as the winner in the European Parliament elections. And it will happen, no matter what people wish for. At the same time, EU citizens expect a great deal of their Union, and rightfully so. Voters are worried about uncontrolled migration. They want job stability, wealth, and security.

The EU must go back to the basics. The crumbling of the value base is eroding unity. Adherence to the principles of human dignity, democracy and the rule of law is the only way to build a better Europe.   

European cooperation needs to focus on what the people need rather than on the institutions. Otherwise it’s going to be a rocky road for European democracy. More than anything else, the future of the EU depends on the results of policy measures taken, as does the trust of the voters.

In an interdependent world, the EU should boldly look for new partners. Building a stronger multilateral, rule-based system requires cooperation in various networks and across continents: in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Africa is Europe’s next-door neighbour. For me, our relationship with Africa boils down to choosing between people and goods. If there are no jobs and no future prospects in Africa, of course young people will leave, some of them for Europe. Migration must be brought under control. There are no quick fixes. Problems must be addressed at source. Well-targeted development cooperation, for example, is an effective tool.

But above all we must guarantee African countries fair treatment in the world market and promote their integration in the global economy. Integration within Africa should not be forgotten either. It is in the interest of Europe to support the free movement of goods and people between African countries.  Cooperation with Africa must continue.

Continuous change requires Finland to engage in active foreign policy.  This is what we have done so far, and we can’t waver in the future. We must prepare in advance for a wide range of situations to allow us to respond quickly but with consideration.

The purpose of the report published today is to support foreign policy decision-making. Researchers can bring new developments to the decision-makers’ attention, put existing but fragmented information into a more structured format, and make proposals for future operational policies.

Surveys and studies can foster foreign policy discussion and raise public debate.  All this supports our preparedness to react quickly to changing situations.

I warmly recommend that other people besides Foreign Ministry officials read this report. Foreign policy is not something that should be left to professional diplomats or bureaucrats sitting at meetings in Brussels. Everyone can contribute, whether by voting, making purchase decisions or by acting responsibly when abroad.

I would like to thank the authors of this report. Your work is important!

I would also like to wish everyone a warm welcome to this event.


Speeches held by Ministers and the top leadership of the Ministry.