NEWS ANALYSIS: A president chooses his prompters
By Kari Huhta
At one of the last election debates of the presidential campaign Sauli Niinistö tried to describe the actions of Swedish jet fighters in the NATO air operation over Libya.
Answering the question put to him by former Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, Niinistö said as his recollection that Swedish fighters did not fly much in Libya’s air space. In fact, they did, and in the last months of the operation they also pinpointed targets for bombing. What Niinistö was apparently going for was that the Swedish planes did not do any of the bombing.
However, as the presidential candidate of the National Coalition Party Niinistö knew quite enough about the Libya operation to make it through the debate. He also seemed to be more or less in agreement with Vanhanen’s notion that Finland could have been more active in the operation.
But how much does Niinistö know now, after he has been elected to office?
A perfect command of the jungle of details in foreign and security policy would be an impossible and pointless goal for a president. What is most important is to have a command of the main strategic lines and to form an assessment on them.
As President, Niinistö nevertheless will need much more knowledge of the details of international politics than he ever has before.
The presidential office, which also oversees the execution of the tasks of the President, is in a key position in filtering out the information. The information often comes from the Foreign Ministry or elsewhere in the government, but the small institution of the presidency has a significance that is greater than its size.
When choosing his closest aides in his office, Niinistö reveals his own priorities, in which his aides have an influence. The key posts are the Chief of Staff and the foreign policy advisor.
Judging from a recent report, the priorities of a president have a clear impact on what kind of a footprint is left by Finnish foreign policy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations has examined the achievements of EU foreign policy in recent years. The organisation also assessed Finland’s role.
According to the assessment, the role was fairly modest, but was at its most significant in climate and development questions. These have been key issues on the agenda of President Tarja Halonen, nor were they unfamiliar to Minister for Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja (SDP).
Sweden’s footprint is much heavier. It includes the themes of traditional foreign policy, such as EU policy toward Russia. It includes the traditional themes in foreign policy, such as the EU’s policy toward Russia. This reflects the agenda of Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who has a sovereign command of Swedish foreign policy.
Finland’s footprint will change somewhat with the new president, as foreign policy is implemented by people. Niinistö’s personal relations with the leaders will become an important factor.
Any other changes that will emerge in the Finnish political system will come by degrees, but it is likely that they will emerge.
Niinistö has not hinted in any way that he would give up on the president’s leading role when the president and the key ministers of the government formulate policy in the foreign and security policy committee of the president and the government.
At committee meetings, which are held behind closed doors, Niinistö can raise themes for Finnish foreign and security policy, or he can also block them, just like Halonen has done in the past 12 years.
In economics a similar phenomenon would be compound interest. It is a subtle but strong force for change.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 12.2.2012
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Sauli Niinistö – a lone star (6.2.2012)
President of the Republic of Finland website
KARI HUHTA / Helsingin Sanomat