President Sauli Niinistö spoke to the heads of Finnish missions abroad in a virtual meeting at the Merikasarmi building, which houses the premises of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

President Sauli Niinistö speaking at the Ambassadors’ Conference on August 24, 2021. Photograph: Matti Porre/The president’s office

In his speech at the Ambassadors’ Conference on Tuesday, President Sauli Niinistö talked about the situation in Afghanistan, the U.S., the E.U., the pandemic, the climate change, the spirit of Helsinki, and more.

Here are the Finnish president’s remarks in full:

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Over the past days and weeks, our attention has been fixed on the dramatic events in Afghanistan. Naturally, we knew to expect problems as the foreign presence in the country was reduced. But the speed at which the Taliban took over control of the country took us all by surprise. It is still too early to see the whole picture. Still, it is already clear that these sudden turns of events will have major consequences, both in concrete and symbolic terms, both immediate and long-lasting ones.

The foremost thing is, of course, the acute human distress and concern for what will happen next within the borders of Afghanistan. There is a great concern over the situation of women and girls and other groups in a vulnerable position in particular. We have a specific responsibility for the security of the locally hired people who have enabled our own operations in Afghanistan over the past years.

In Afghanistan, what collapsed extends well beyond the government in Kabul. What has happened forces the whole western world to face even broader, fundamental questions. If, after two decades of massive efforts, the outcome is this, what will be the future of big international crisis management operations, particularly of the kind of operations aimed at building nations and transforming societies on a larger scale? What kind of capacity does the West have to promote its values worldwide? Or is there even a will to do so anymore? Furthermore, what will all this mean for the world order?

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The constellation in Afghanistan will inevitably reflect the great-power competition as well. It is unlikely that anyone, neither China nor Russia, would want Islamic extremists to seize power in an area near them. Furthermore, regional stability is not an insignificant matter to them either. But both Beijing and Moscow have surely come to the conclusion that what happened in Afghanistan showed that neither the United States nor the Western world as a whole can succeed in exporting their set of values. Whether the interpretation of the West being weak is right or wrong, the shadow of a doubt is difficult to shed.

The U.S. also examines the world through the lens of great power competition. When U.S. President Biden visited Europe in June, having a series of meetings, the priority given to China was conspicuous. The U.S. hopes and requires that the allies and partners would now make bigger contributions in this respect, too. Another sign that the main opponent of the U.S. has changed was the relatively constructive spirit in which the meeting between Biden and President Putin seems to have been held.

Even though we did not witness the emergence of great mutual understanding, the two minds met: the will to avoid the continuous tightening of mutual relations turned out to be the lowest— but for the time being sufficient—common denominator. It tells a lot about our time that this can be considered one of the positive news over the past year.

In Europe, the rapid and rather unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan has raised questions. But have we noticed how invisible the E.U. has been during the crisis over the past few weeks? For a long time, I have been highlighting my concern over the erosion of Europe’s status by the side of other centers of power.

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The forthcoming elections in the two biggest E.U. member states all but make it easier for the European Union to strengthen its positions within the next year. The stepping down of the experienced German Chancellor Merkel after the German federal election in September will leave a large gap, and it will take time to have that gap filled. The French presidential election next spring, in the middle of the French E.U. presidency, will draw President Macron’s attention to domestic affairs.

At the moment, the E.U. is preparing a document called the Strategic Compass to serve as a guideline for the E.U. security and defense activities. It is certainly necessary to discuss the role of Europe in the world. I have also personally insisted on the need for such a discussion.

But a compass alone will not suffice if we are not even on the map. Reality rapidly runs over strictly worded condemning statements and well-meaning declarations. To be able to deal with the growing power political pressures independently, Europe needs a force of its own. Force, then again, requires unity, determination, commitment to mutually chosen policies and executive capacity. Unfortunately, at the moment, the E.U.’s Common Foreign and Security Policy seriously lacks all of the above.

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In 2025, 50 years have passed since the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was held in Helsinki. Finland is certainly expected to commemorate that anniversary in one way or another. In my opinion, we should respond to those expectations with high ambition. Not by reminiscing on the past only, but by looking into the future.

Let us begin with the letter of Helsinki or the CSCE Final Act of 1975. The ten principles set in the document were reconfirmed in the Charter of Paris in 1990. Those principles still form the best foundation for the European security order. They have not lost their importance, even though they have been both challenged and violated against over the years. As I said at the inaugural summit of the Crimea Platform in Kyiv yesterday, we must be unwavering in defending these common commitments in the future as well.

As the host of the original meeting, Finland has a special responsibility for the future of O.S.C.E. and its principles. In the anniversary year, we would be the most natural choice for O.S.C.E. chairmanship. When the O.S.C.E. Secretary General Schmid visits Helsinki later this week, we will certainly discuss the matter.

It should not depend on resources whether we bear this responsibility or not—if we could hold the chairmanship in 2008, why would we not be able to do so also in four years’ time? And, right now, it is precisely responsibility that there is on the offer, not just ceremonial roles: Within the O.S.C.E., there is a great need for both reaffirming the Helsinki principles and the restoration of the whole organization’s functioning capacity.

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The O.S.C.E. chairmanship is a demanding task in itself. Still, we must not settle for the mere letter of Helsinki. Namely, in the middle of growing tensions and common problems, not only the O.S.C.E. region but the whole world is sorely in need of the spirit of Helsinki. 50 years ago, that spirit of Helsinki brought the great powers of the day around the same table to engage in dialogue with each other, in spite of their differences.

Now the great power positions are different, but the need for a dialogue is ever greater. The world is becoming divided into blocs, which may be quite understandable.

But, ultimately, it must be possible to have a dialogue across the blocs. Only together we can respond to the questions of war and peace, climate change and biodiversity loss, pandemics and the challenges of new technologies. It is a question of our common human responsibilities, in other words, of what kind of a world we leave to the next generations, of what each one of us can do to make our legacy a sustainable one, for the well-being of nature and humanity alike. Bearing this responsibility requires building trust, which at first also means finding the lowest common denominators.

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This is the starting point, building of trust, from which I have been proposing the revitalization of the spirit of Helsinki at the global level. If successful, the initiative could even aim at holding a Helsinki Spirit Summit, a clearly separate meeting from the O.S.C.E. connection, with sufficiently broad representation by heads of states from different continents. It could result in a commitment made to practices and methods by which we attempt to fulfill our human responsibilities, together.

Now, it is good to focus on sounding what kind of responses this idea evokes in general. An open dialogue will gradually give us an idea of what different parties consider possible and what they consider impossible. A positive response would provide foundations for advancing to the next level. And even before that: the more we talk about the Helsinki spirit, the closer we get to realizing it.

In recent months, I have already had conversations on this matter with many of my colleagues. The discussions have been very encouraging, from Berlin to Moscow, from Washington to Beijing. In the coming autumn, I will have several opportunities to continue and deepen this discussion. Your Excellencies, I now wish that you would also bring forward the message of the Helsinki spirit in the countries where you are stationed and listen with a keen ear how the message is received.

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Combating climate change is one of the weightiest human responsibilities we have. That challenge we also have to address under the Helsinki spirit. We were given an important reminder of the facts we are already very well aware of in the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The man-made climate change has spread extensively, is advancing rapidly and is getting increasingly stronger. It is no longer possible to fully stop the development, but we cannot continue like this. We need to take immediate action.

For quite some time, I have been speaking about the Arctic region as a forerunner in climate change. The danger of losing the whole world along with the Arctic region has increased. However, here in the north, we have potential for not only showing what the problems are but also for finding solutions to them. We must make the solution models more concrete. For example, it is easy to identify the immediate nature of fighting black carbon. It is also worth noting that the Finnish business sector is increasingly starting to see adaptation to climate change as an opportunity rather than merely a threat. I now call for everyone to adopt this same approach.

It is clear that the scale of climate change is global. Finland cannot solve climate change on its own. But to be believable and have a say in these matters—the possibilities of demanding stronger measures from the major emitters—we must take our own actions. Actions, not just objectives. We must live as we teach. We must also have concrete evidence of new climate actions when I represent Finland in the high-level meeting of the Glasgow Climate Change Conference at the beginning of November.

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Many people hope that science and technology will save us. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that this hope is not totally unfounded. Even though we have experienced several disappointments and setbacks during the past 18 months, it is good to remember that we have never before been as hot on the heels of any pandemic as we have now. The vaccine development in particular has advanced at unprecedented speed. At the same time, we have seen the power of cross-border cooperation in the global science community. It has worked across national borders and ideologies.

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However, rapid advances in science and technology do not bring about technical solutions only. They transform economies and societies, deeply affecting all of us. Not only our livelihoods but our whole lives are changing rapidly. New technologies enable all kinds of good things, but the problems and threats related to transformation are also starting to emerge.

No one can tackle these challenges alone. We need wide-ranging global co-operation. However, it hinders collaboration that technology is inseparably intertwined into the ongoing great power competition. Technology is both a platform for the competition and one of its main motives. The race is on as to whose technologies and whose standards will conquer the leading position. For a small country like Finland, which relies on an open economy and co-operation, this is a difficult situation.

The same problem applies to the whole of Europe. The future of our whole continent is defined by how capable we are of riding the crest of a wave of technological development. If we cannot keep up with the development, our global influence will erode even further. If we do not understand the meaning of technology in a profound and comprehensive manner, we have very little to contribute to international discussions. We must realize the connection between technology and foreign policy much better than we currently do. You, your Excellencies, have your own important share to play in increasing this understanding.

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The human responsibilities I referred to earlier naturally also include human rights. Defending human rights has been an essential part of Finnish foreign policy for a long time. It seems clear that Finland will be elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council for the next three years in the election to be held in October. It provides us with a platform we must use wisely. It is easy to draw up strictly worded declarations, but it is much harder to achieve real change. Succeeding in the latter is the real indicator of the success of our human rights policy.

Recently, the conflicting pressures of human rights and migration have made me go back to the speech I gave at the opening of Parliament in 2016. Back then, not many people liked my reference to the dilemma deeply related to our set of values—to the question whether the old treaties and agreements are applicable to totally different circumstances.

Our standards are being tested to the utmost. We cannot blame any individual migrants for this. But migration challenges the E.U. to challenge its own principles. If it really comes to the crunch, can we adhere to the human rights agreements as we are making ourselves believe? And if we cannot, what will happen then? We have already seen how Europe protects itself with barbed wire and push-back methods. We have shifted from adhering to principles, through silent approval, to the path of interpretations.

The dilemma is once again going to become more acute as there are clear signs of migration picking up from areas other than Afghanistan as well. In addition, we have recently been forced to witness the very cynical way in which Belarus exploits migration as a means of putting pressure on Lithuania and the whole of Europe. Led by Germany and France, the discussion has already begun on how we could this time avoid the kind of development that generated the crisis in 2015. Finland should also take active part in this debate. We must find a satisfactory balance between our principles and realities. A perfect balance is impossible to find.

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Esteemed Heads of Missions,

It would be more pleasant if we did not need to face juxtapositions. But decision-making and bearing responsibility is not always pleasant. Ultimately, we all need to defend the Finnish society.