Finnish delegation heads to a changing United Nations

President Sauli Niinistö leads a team of Government Ministers to New York to attend the annual General Assembly.

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Sauli Niinistö, President of Finland, addresses the opening of the high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. 22 September 2014 United Nations, New York / Credit: UN Photo

President Sauli Niinistö heads to New York this week to attend the 74th annual United Nations General Assembly.

Among the Finnish delegation joining him in the Big Apple are Environment Minister Krista Mikkonen (Green), Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) and Minister of Development and Foreign Trade Ville Skinnari (SDP).

Kosonen and Skinnari are in action already on Monday at the UN Secretary General’s Climate and Sustainable Development Summit which will again call on countries to tighten their emission reduction commitments and draw up plans to be climate neutral by 2050.

“Finland can present its 2035 carbon neutral plan with great joy and pride. What the world needs now is the courage to do things differently, and Finland is ready for this” says Mikkonen in a statement.

The highlight of President Niinistö’s UN week is a set-piece speech on Tuesday. He’ll also attend a reception hosted by US President Donald Trump and have bilateral meetings with the Presidents of Georgia, Poland and Kazakhstan.

A sign outside of the General Assembly building highlights the hash tag for attendees to use to promote the General Assembly / Credit: UN Photo

A changing order of priorities at the UN 

This year when the Finnish delegation arrives at the United Nations they’ll find a somewhat changed political landscape from recent years – and a shift of priorities.

“It is notable that the Europeans are in quite an upbeat mood at this General Assembly. Two years ago, EU leaders were very nervous about Trump and the weakening of world order” says Richard Gowan, UN Director for the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation that works to prevent wars.

“This time round, France and Germany are launching a new ‘Alliance for Multilateralism’ on Thursday to promote international cooperation on emerging issues like cyber security and killer robots” says Gowan.

This year the focus is more squarely on the climate crisis that it has been before, with UN Secretary General António Gutteres working hard behind the scenes with leaders to make Monday’s summit a top priority – even if one particular leader hasn’t shown much interest.

“I think Trump is not quite as potent at this General Assembly than in 2017 and 2018.  Guterres and other world leaders have decided to focus on climate issues even though the US does not approve.  There is a sense that most UN members now feel that they have to work around Trump on big multilateral problems if they cannot work with him” explains Richard Gowan.

“That said, everyone will listen intently to what Trump has to say on the Persian Gulf.  As recently as two weeks ago, it seemed possible that Trump and [Iranian President] Rouhani would meet in New York and start a process of reconciliation.  That now looks awfully unlikely after the attacks on Saudi Arabia.  Foreign leaders will worry that Trump will threaten Tehran with force” he adds.

File picture of Kai Sauer at the United Nations / Credit: Aura Lehtonen

Finland’s place in the UN mix 

With such high stakes diplomacy taking place under the United Nation’s spotlight, how does a small country like Finland operate effectively?

In a recent speech to Finnish diplomats, President Niinistö said more clearly than ever that Finland probably can’t hope to change the course of action once a major power like America or Russia has made up their minds.

However they can exert influence in other ways by building partnerships on the ground at the UN.

“The United Nations very much operates as a constellation of blocks” says Kai Sauer, who served as Finland’s Ambassador to the UN in New York until earlier this summer.

“For Finland, the EU and the Nordics are the primary reference groups. To promote our interests, we have built partnerships and coalitions with a number of countries also from the Global South” explains Sauer, who now works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Helsinki.

“The UN is very much about listening and respect. Finland’s foreign policy is consistent and predictable. We are committed to the rules-based international order and multilateralism. We usually ‘walk the talk’. All these qualities make us a good partner” says Sauer.

“Also, the Finnish societal success, for example in the fields of education, health care and gender equality, adds to our credibility.”