There is never a wrong or bad time to discuss foreign policy. Especially during times like ours. Major developments are taking place, which require Finland to uphold a solid foreign policy to safeguard both our national and international interests.
I am referring to the recent upheaval we have seen afar as well as up-close. Up-close we are witnessing how military tensions in Europe can evolve rapidly. Russia’s military build-up in around Ukraine is extremely concerning and something we have not seen in Europe since the Second World War.
During the last century, the great powers of Europe divided the small, Finland including, into their spheres of interest. Echoes of this past are around as President Putin is calling for a ‘New Security Deal’ for Europe. Russia is demanding an assurance from the West that NATO would not expand. These demands are directly referring to several states in the vicinity of Russia.
The idea of Finland’s foreign and security policy is to safeguard our independence and sovereignty to make our own decisions. Spheres of interest and great power politics of the past, in which others decide over the fates of smaller states do not fit into this idea. Russia’s demands concern the very principles guaranteed by international agreements, the respect of borders and the sovereignty of states and their right to choose their alliances. These principles cannot be compromised.
Regardless of the diplomatic efforts of past weeks, tensions continue and no scenarios, even serious ones, can be ruled out at this stage. A full- or large-scale war in Ukraine would be unprecedented and completely different from what we have seen for generations. The consequences would be unpredictable and would come with a heavy price as many would lose their lives.
On a slightly positive note, the parties have had dialogue with each other. We need a solution that does not undermine the current European security order or the sovereignty of states. At best, this prevents the threat of war and brings stability to Europe. I convey my appreciation for Mr Sauli Niinistö, the President of the Republic of Finland, who has made active diplomatic efforts in different directions.
Finland is not facing direct military threats and our security is stable. Despite this, tensions in European security are reflecting in Northern Europe and we are adjusting our preparations as required. Finland takes care of its national defence in all circumstances. In addition, Finland continues to advocate for dialogue and has strengthened its international status. Our approach will last through difficult times.
Amid recent developments, it is becoming more evident how the space of international politics is narrowing. In my remarks regarding the interests of Finland’s foreign, security and defense policy, the state of international affairs is the starting point of my analysis. One could say that great power politics or geopolitics never ceased to exist. While this might be true, we require a holistic approach to our time and the demands it casts over our foreign policy.
In Finland, our foreign, security and defense policy are often seen as whole. However, I want to assess them interconnected but from individually different perspectives. Let us start from Finland’s foreign policy.
Essentially the nature of Finnish foreign policy is how we as a small state can either identify or form the conditions for international politics that are imperative for promoting values and interests vital for us. The ultimate purpose of Finland’s foreign policy is to promote the well-being of Finns and improve our global influence in the world. As such, our foreign policy is both national and international at the same time, but these are not mutually exclusive. We cannot isolate ourselves in global world nor solve common problems alone. Therefore, we need alliances and partnerships.
The promotion of human rights, rule of law and women’s and girls’ rights for example, are essential issues with our like-minded partners. They are also something Finland can offer its experience of globally. Nevertheless, foreign policy is not just about interacting with like-minded states, and we in Finland understand this very well. It has been characteristic of Finnish foreign policy to seek and build common understanding and consult different parties, despite the fact that we do not always accept practices and values that differ from ours.
Unfortunately, we are increasingly operating in an environment, where great power relations have come under crisis on many issues, making it difficult to uphold an international rules-based order. We see for example, a deterioration of arms control agreements and wider disregard for international agreements. For Finland, this is a negative tide, as a functioning rules-based international order is the primary security guarantee and threshold against crises for smaller states.
Many speak of a new Cold War, but this analogy is misleading. If we would have a traditional Cold War at our hands, it would be easy for us to draw from the past the right means to solve today’s problems. This is not the case, however. What has changed? For one, in modern great power politics no aspect of politics is overlooked, and the dynamics are in a flux. Alongside traditional military means there are multifaceted measures of exerting hybrid influence, as well as the security integration of commercial and technological issues. The bottom line is that this modern competition is not merely about military build-ups. The evolving relations between China, the United States and Russia forms the most distinctive framework of international politics for Finland both nationally and as a member of the European Union.
Starting from Russia. After all, Finland’s foreign policy has traditionally been linked to Russia’s development and how Finland should live with its eastern neighbor.
Russia can be considered a recurring challenge for Finland for two main reasons. The first of these is Russia’s superpower identity, which manifests itself in its unwillingness to adapt to a regulated rules-based order. Russia is keen on making its own rules instead of adapting to the rules agreed upon together. The second reason is the imbalance in Finland’s bilateral relations with Russia, which limits Finland’s ability to influence Russia’s overall foreign policy. Most of the issues that affect the state of our relations with Russia are those over which Finland has only a limited ability to influence. In other words, Finland is the size of itself when it comes to Russia’s foreign policy, but the puzzle is how Russia is often the size itself in Finland’s foreign policy.
For Finland Russia’s proximity is a key geostrategic fact, and the war in Ukraine indicates how the challenges associated with Russia have not vanished. Russia is becoming more unpredictable, and a lack of its transparency makes it difficult to evaluate the source of Moscow’s interests. This feature of Russian foreign policy is intentional and increases risks as we can never be too certain of Russia’s intentions and means. Based on experience, Russia is not afraid to shy away from harsh ways to advance its interests.
A lasting détente in the short term or a return to multilateral cooperation with the current Russian regime seem unlikely. For us, the situation is twofold as Russia defines its interests and security in a way that raises insecurity in others. The result is that we have had to build strengthen our national resilience and military deterrence to curb Russian activity.
As a neighboring country, it is wise for Finland, not least for strategic reasons, to uphold dialogue with Russia and indicate willingness to seek solutions in appropriate ways and circumstances. Predictability in our bilateral and multilateral relations in the with Russia is in Finland’s interests. However, the assertive nature of Russia’s foreign policy is having a negative reflection on our bilateral relations too. The crisis in Ukraine instigated by Russia and its recent statements regarding Finland’s possible NATO membership stipulate how even the principles of good neighborly relations are subject to rapid changes.
On the one hand, while remaining one, Russia is also showing symptoms of a declining great power. The tightening of the current administration’s authoritarian grip, the outstretching of political opposition, the stirring up of military tensions and the economic problems foreshadow difficult times. It is also geopolitically noteworthy how many of Russia’s large neighbors have experienced uprisings over the past 15 years. However, they have been repressed violently or by armed means as Russia seeks to secure what is perceives as its sphere of interest.
The estimations of the relations between Russia and the West look gloomy and predict a cool season. Our foreign policy must be prepared for this. We are facing a long game when it comes to our Russia relations, in which we must brace ourselves for sudden changes. Above all, this will require Western unity and the ability to stand upright when we are tested. In Finland, too, we are not immune to disruption and challenges, but I am sure that our security is on a solid footing. We should not be easily startled when we provoked.
As Russia’s neighbor, it is also important for Finland that our dialogue remains functioning and that we can work together on the issues that unite us. Finland does not pose a threat to Russia under any circumstances or with any of our solutions, and we emphasize this. We make our decisions based on our own interests, giving priority to the security of Finns. We are ready for a constructive relationship. But Russia, for its part, must now make its choices about the direction in which it wants to develop both our bilateral relationship and its wider relations with the West.
China’s rise to the forefront of the great powers requires a new way of thinking also Finnish foreign policy. Compared to other great powers, interaction with a more global China is different to Finland in many ways. Finland has a long tradition of interaction with other great powers, where the pros and cons of the relationship are well known on both sides. But China has not traditionally been a focus point of Finnish foreign policy and vice-versa.
Although Finland’s relations with China are rather unproblematic so far, it is possible that our China policy will also have to be re-evaluated in the future. We are aware that China’s global reach it is stretching, and it is increasingly taking a strong stance on decisions and policies of other states. We are dealing more often with a China, that is guarding closely its interests outside its own borders and traditional geopolitical sphere. The Nordic countries are not outsiders in these calculations. We recognize the challenges and problems that China’s global interests uphold.
It is also distinctive how Beijing’s approach emphasizes economic power rather than the mere use of traditional military force. Partly because of this, China’s outward-looking panda policy may resemble that of a gentle great power. However, a centralized state system, violations of human rights, and an increasingly determined effort to influence other states convey a different image of China. For these reasons, and because of China’s cultural as well as geographical distance from Finland, our China’s analysis is often black and white, where Beijing is seen either a challenge or an opportunity.
The principles of our foreign policy do not seek to isolate anyone from the international arena. China can be a potential partner and a challenge for us at the same time. We will not hesitate to call out China’s human rights abuses, unfair trade practices or its increasing military pressure in the South China Sea. We are not blue-eyed. For us, it remains vital to identify China’s approach regarding Finland. We must carefully analyze and understand what interests drive China’s policy on Finland and the disadvantages and benefits they include.
A more common EU’s China policy is important to Finland. China’s efforts to negotiate directly with individual member states instead of the EU undermine the opportunities of smaller member states to develop a more equal relationship with Beijing. A common EU strategy on China would therefore strengthen the position of all 27 member states. Another significant factor in our relationship with China is the ever-growing competition between the United States and China. The fact that China is considered a systemic rival in the United States has far-reaching implications for Finland too. In the future we may find ourselves in situations, where we must make choices on issues that interconnect great power rivalry and our national interests. This calls for careful preparation so that we do not have to compromise our own interests.
The United States is a priority partner for both Finland and Europe in security, economy and, more broadly, in foreign policy. The United States’ commitment to European security has brought stability in the continent and continues to do so. Its presence in Europe has balanced Russia’s efforts to expand its influence. Finland has also benefited from the balance generated by the United States.
The United States is currently reassessing its global role. The most visible form of this is the prioritisation of its national interests. At the same time, the internal turmoil in the United States has not gone unnoticed by anyone. When abrupt views and international divisions materialize in a two-party system, they ultimately reflect in the entire political system. Not to mention foreign policy. During Donald Trump’s presidency, mistrust and suspicions on both sides of the Atlantic increased. These sentiments have waned with the election of President Biden, but the force for change within the United States is still on the move.
The outside conclusion has been that United States is now communicating the primacy of its national interests more directly, and a stronger articulation of this seems to be somewhat permanent. However, I do not believe in a complete withdrawal of the United States from the international arena. It must be remembered that the United States is a key architect of our current world order. The Unites States remains as the only superpower in the world, both economically and militarily. More importantly, its interests are built on a functioning alliance and partnership based foreign policy.
In Washington, great power competition is seen as the greatest challenge to its national interests regardless of the incumbent administration. In recent years, the United States’ attention in Europe has remained high, mainly due to the actions of Russia. However, its long-term attention is not focused solely on Europe or Russia, but rather on China.
At the same time, Europe remains an important partner for the United States, regardless of the circumstances. The United States cannot afford nor want to question the firmness of its alliance based foreign policy. Thus, we have little reason to doubt its commitment to European wellbeing. Europe is the closest ally of the United States no matter who its systemic main rival is. Right now, China is rapidly posing the greatest challenge to the United States and this trend will intensify. For us, the conclusion is that the allocation of United States’ resources between China and Russia are likely to see an imbalance. In this respect, a withdrawal of the United States from Europe is partly true. What this means for Europe, is that we be prepared to take greater responsibility for alleviating instability in our neighborhood, increasing defense spending and deterring Russia.
For Finland, the United States will remain an important partner, regardless of administrations and their priorities. The long-established bilateral defense cooperation has been an essential content for Finnish-US relations. I am therefore pleased that the HX fighter procurement has reached the final stages. The acquisition of 64 F-35 fighter jets will improve our national defense capability and create the conditions for further deepening of our bilateral defense cooperation with the United States.
In the current security situation, close defense cooperation between the two countries is welcomed. Its importance is highlighted especially at a time when tensions in European security have increased and the dangers at Ukraine’s borders are mounting. The United States is one of Finland’s most important and closest defence and security partners. We consider the US commitment to European security, including Finland’s proximity, as increasing stability. We must ask ourselves, what would a transatlantic security look like without the United States?
Looking ahead, in Finland we need to understand better how a potential new set of US foreign and security policy priorities impact our bilateral relationship. In practice, this requires new approaches to developing our relationship with the United States. We need to prepare ourselves for circumstances where great power rivalry has a diverse influence on our trade and energy policy as well as technological solutions. This way, Finland can also ensure that we will not face the rising challenges by ourselves. Finland is at the forefront of, among other things, the development of an international legal framework for cyber security and protection against hybrid influence as well as new and emerging technologies.
We are well placed to be an interesting partner in many areas – an interesting partner is someone who is listened to by great powers.
As I have described, Finnish foreign policy operates in the midst of changing coordinates. Challenging times demand leadership and solutions on a national and international level.
The most important global channel of influence for Finland is undoubtedly the European Union. EU membership provides Finland with opportunities that we could only have dreamed of in the past. For me personally, Finland’s EU membership is not just one international commitment alongside others, but Finland’s most important community and alliance of values and an anchor of economy and security. We must therefore understand how a weak EU would ultimately reduce Finland’s influence. At the same time, the EU’s global influence, either weak or strong, directly resonates with Finland’s international position.
Right now should be a European moment of strength due to the growing external pressures we face. But the stage of international politics is moving towards Asia and away from Europe. Still, the unrest in Europe’s neighborhood continues and Russia’s power politics are undermining European security. Without sufficient economic, diplomatic and military capabilities, the relative deterioration of Europe’s global influence is an inevitable development. However, Europe is not and should not look like a supporting actor amid all. Unfortunately, it has looked very much like one in recent years. We have not been a significant enough actor at the tables where discussions on Ukraine, Syria or more broadly, the interaction between the great powers is taking place.
Within the EU, these trends are recognized, but the best ways to reverse are yet to emerge. The best solution is to make better use of Europe’s potential. The EU is a global economic power, but it must also have a say in security and defense policy. For the EU to be a stronger global power, it must invest in these dimensions. Europe must not lose sight on how to pit against hard against itself.
European defense cooperation must be developed without prejudice. Progress in this field will take time and demands patience, but our ambition should remain high. The will of member states to do this is called for. In the long run, the overall development is unsustainable if the EU is not capable enough to influence security matters that are central to Europe. Thus, the EU must have the capacity to act when needed. We should recognize the far-reaching benefits of a more coordinated and integrated EU defence and security policy. In the EU, we must prepare for the growing need to be a more independent actor in our own neighborhood in the future. An improved EU cooperation on defence and security would bring added value for this scenario.
The direction of transatlantic defence and security cooperation should also be raised. The United States will remain a critical actor in European security, and we cannot afford to weaken this link by ourselves. The events in Ukraine are a showcase of this. A concrete path for the EU to strengthen this link is through closer cooperation with NATO. Combating hybrid threats is currently one of the key areas for EU-NATO cooperation. However, it is not ruled out that at some point we may have a merging of EU and NATO responsibilities. I would welcome this far-reaching, but at the same time very natural direction of transatlantic defence and security.
However, as mentioned before, the US strategic priorities are changing. This means that the EU must also be able to carry out, if necessary, demanding crisis management operations independently especially in its unstable neighborhood. The issue has come up in the EU recently, and High Representative Josep Borrell has suggested, that a new force of 5,000 troops be set up for the EU to train together and be ready for a rapid deployment. The tone is correct, but I think the goal should be at least ten times that if we are serious about the EU’s credibility. In 1998 in the Saint-Malo Declaration by France and the United Kingdom it was stated that the EU should be able to act autonomously and be backed by a credible military force. The goal was ambitious as the it demanded the EU to have a force of 50,000 to 60,000 ready for use in 60 days. We have every reason to maintain similar ambitions in our time and at the end of the day, this is ultimately up to the will of member states.
Part of rethinking the EU’s defence and security role concerns shining the light on EU’s security clauses. Finland has been a long-time advocate on the subject. The issue of the EU’s security clauses is a matter of particular importance to Finland, as these clauses create obligations for member states to provide mutual assistance to each other. At the moment, the EU’s security clauses are our only formal commitment for international cooperation in crisis times. If the threshold for activating the mutual assistance clauses is low enough, its weight as a deterrent to different crises, including military, will also increase. In other words, this would have a strengthening effect on the EU member states’, including Finland’s, security. Finland is prepared to provide and receive a wide range of assistance in accordance with Article 42.7 and Article 222.
I would also like to draw attention to the holistic nature of shared European responsibilities. Or how this should at least be the case. If we desire a stronger commitment to the EU’s financial solidarity, we need to consider how this should apply to security as well. In my opinion, the EU’s responsibilities must be balanced, and this is also what Finland must demand. Security as integral and clear part of the EU’s comprehensive solidarity. The EU cannot be an alliance where economy and security do not go hand in hand.
The evaluation of the EU’s security and defense policy is now undergoing major steps. We look forward to the EU’s strategic compass coming out soon. It will provide a flashpoint for future steps. Its preparation has been well received in the member states and the idea has been to update our strategic compass every five years. All in all, this has been the right direction – a common European strategic culture is emerging in small steps.
Finland has been closely involved in the major integration developments of Europe since the end of the Cold War. Yet, our national EU debate and policy have long been characterized by reactivity. The national focus has been on criticizing the openings made by other member states, instead of providing our own vision. The past narrative and policy of Finland reaching for the EU’s key cores was a product of its time. It certainly served our EU policy well when the union was going through its deep integration stages. But Finland’s aspirations for the EU cores have been achieved, and the question is what we should do there. The EU is on the brink of major changes and Finland can either drift with the events or influence them. There is no middle ground between these two options.
We need to focus on the issues, which are the central to the union’s global role and emphasize economic growth, security and the fight against climate change. This is what EU citizens expect from the union, and we cannot afford to fail to resolve these problems. The National Coalition Party is taking initiative and later this year, I will be present our new EU policy paper, the purpose of which is to offer Finland a brand EU vision.
Solutions must also be sought at national level. In this context, I would like to refer to the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act in 2025. Finland will be chairing the OSCE at that time. The anniversary can offer opportunities to improve global dialogue, which would naturally also suit Finland’s interests. It would be in everyone’s interest if relations between the great powers were even somewhat predictable or consistent.
A few words about security policy.
Security is usually perceived from a military perspective, but in today’s world, this is not unequivocal. We should therefore pay particular attention to how the distinction between war and peace is being blurred. While traditional military threats continue to exist, security challenges are appearing in front of us in other forms as well.
We often hear talk of hybrid threats, which mean the use of non-military means for pressure. In general, this refers to various forms of hostile influence aimed at the stability of the political system or society. The problem, however, is that if everything is a hybrid, in the end nothing is a hybrid. This is also the purpose of the actors who challenge us. To create uncertainty and an inability to react by adequate means. As a recent example, we can use the actions of the Belarusian government on the Polish-Lithuanian border. Or the refugee flow on our own eastern border in 2015-2016. I have personal experience of this as I was Finland’s Minister of the Interior at the time. Hardly anyone could have imagined 10 years ago that the distress of people in need would be ruthlessly used as a means of coercion.
Tackling these security threats is fundamentally about strengthening the potential weaknesses of rules-based democratic and open societies. Maintaining a balance between the rule of law and emerging threats is not a simple task. The question is how to respond to potential threats to national security that are indirect by nature? Indeed, these threats seize loopholes in national legislation and exploit its incompleteness or interpretation. For example, the dissemination of disinformation in the name of freedom of expression is difficult without undermining the principles of an open society. The same principle applies to asylum seekers when external and coordinated pressure is applied to undermine international agreements.
However, legislation and its compliance distinguish us from actors who do not adhere common principles and seek to change them. If we chose otherwise, ultimately it would be the opposite and undermine the legitimacy of authorities. Thus, while some of the problems of emerging threats are rooted in legislation, so are the means to overpower them. For example, during the last electoral term in Finland, a new set of legislation was put into place or redefined so that we are better prepared for various scenarios. However, the challenge here is to not always lag behind and patch gaps as they arise.
Equally important is to understand how tackling modern threats is not just about taking legislative action. We need to define the boundaries that cannot be crossed or blurred and have the capabilities for countermeasures. Only then will our voice be heard. If we do not create the rules of the game ourselves, someone else on will do it for us. By keeping our legislation up to date and fostering our democratic deterrence, we ensure that the greatest strengths of our societies – transparency and legitimacy – will not turn into our greatest weakness.
In addition to addressing multifaced threats, we must address the needs of Finland’s defence policy. In all circumstances, we must ensure that the threshold for armed action against us remains high. Primarily this means taking care of our national capabilities. As we know, European security and the surrounding areas here in the Baltic Sea and in Northern Europe remain tense. This has been visible mostly in the increased military movement and activity in the region, even though Northern Europe is not the source of these tensions.
The war in Ukraine has had a significant effect in Finland’s assessment of its defence policy, namely our emphasis on international cooperation. When we interact on with our partners, we no longer engage in defence dialogue or exercises solely for peace time purposes. When Finland has dialogue and exercises with for example NATO, Sweden, Norway and the United States, among others, we are also addressing crisis times. It is in our interest to better understand how our partners think and see the geostrategic context of Northern Europe. Although Finland is not a member of NATO, it should be understood that not being a member of a military alliance does not exclude close defense cooperation. As such, we will also have to consider our position more often from the perspective of alignment.
Historically Finland has traditionally been seen to succeed by itself, either through its own choice or due to prevailing circumstances. Roughly speaking, for some, the current non-alignment – previously in the form of neutrality – is a virtue, for others a terrible nuisance. However, there has always been and even now is a space between alignment and non-alignment. Looking at Finland’s history, either external military assistance or the possibility of obtaining it has been decisive for Finland’s fate in war time. Indeed, we know how the potential to receive French and British military aid in the Winter War acted as a deterrent against the Soviet Union. This factor had a significant impact on the outcome of the Winter War as Stalin wanted to avoid war with the UK and France over Finland, regardless that the probability and nature of French and British aid then remains disputed.
We can learn from the past as we form our defense policy today. The possibility for defence cooperation in crisis times and improving it can, at best, form a deterrent. For Finland, it is therefore worth executing close defense cooperation and continue to exercise with partners. As long as European security remains tense, we must continue along this line. What we should not do, is get bogged down in arguing about the definitions of Finland’s status or pitting our various forms of cooperation against each other. The most important objective is to prevent war and create stability, and everything that supports these objectives is valuable to Finland.
Nor, therefore, should we rule out any of our options. This also applies to Finland’s potential NATO membership. The National Coalition Party has supported Finland’s NATO membership since 2006 and continues to do so. Finland’s NATO membership would improve our security and increase stability in Northern Europe. If Finland decided to apply for NATO membership, the National Coalition Party would give its full support and contribution to advance it. But NATO membership must have the adequate national support for the membership, both among Finns and the political parties. No party can decide on the issue alone and we do not need major internal disputes in Finland, which could also be used against us externally. Yet, I would also like to point out how politicians and parties speaking in favor of Finland’s NATO membership has national value itself. In order it to be a real alternative to Finland, NATO membership must have its supporters. If this was not the case and no political parties had the capacity to promote NATO membership if necessary, Finland’s option to join the alliance would be thin.
My intention has been to describe the broader lines of Finland’s foreign, security and defense policy. The analysis is perhaps gloomy, but I see no need to tone down on the challenges of our time. As inconvenient problems are making a comeback in the form of military threats, pandemics, migration and economic crises, we have been slow to recognize the totality of the difficulties we imagined belonging in the past.
Yet, there is always a hint of optimism, even if a quick glance at the world leaves a dark impression. When crises hit us, it is easy to imagine Finland as either a driftwood or a rapid boat. However, history should not be treated as a dollar shop, where favorite articles of faith are randomly removed from. The true value of the past is not in its alluring afterthought. In Finland’s case, the true value of its history lies in its reminder to us how amid difficult times we have survived by making our own choices – even when the surrounding structures of international politics have created challenging boundaries and conditions. Agility is an indispensable virtue for a small state as it creates room for maneuver. This is the case especially in difficult times and is something Finland has experience of.
In other words, the structures of international politics are not static. As this is a Paasikivi Society event, it seems appropriate to reflect on President J.K. Paasikivi’s idea of the importance of acknowledging facts. Paasikivi’s wisdom continues to live on. It is possible to refine his idea into not just acknowledging the facts, but also to identify them. I believe this is the source of an even greater wisdom, as it offers us the opportunity to face the world without necessarily collapsing underneath it. If we are able to understand the very problems of our time, we are also able to recognize the required solutions in Finland’s foreign, security and defense policy.
Translated version of Petteri Orpo’s speech. Check against delivery.