Donald Trump Is 'a Lot More Constructive' on Global Issues Behind 'Tough' Bluster, Finland President Says

The president of Finland said Friday U.S. President Donald Trump is a lot more collaborative than he appears, as he warned that the rules-based world order is collapsing, and that unified action—including from an increasingly isolated U.S.—is required to save it.

Sauli Niinistö told attendees of the Yalta European Strategy annual meeting—organized by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation—in Kiev that the post-World War II geopolitical status quo is under threat.

"The rules based order is crumbling before our eyes," he told President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass during a question and answer session. International law, he added, is based on the assumption that "others will play in the same way," but if a major power refuses to do so, "it's no use."

Haass noted that the U.S. under President Donald Trump appears increasingly unwilling to support the global order. Trump seemingly has an inherent aversion to multilateralism and global cooperation, demonstrated by his disdainful remarks regarding the European Union, NATO, NAFTA, the WTO, the Paris Climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, among other institutions and agreements.

Niinistö urged Haass and the audience to look past Trump's public bluster, suggesting the president is "tough with his headlines" but "a lot more constructive" underneath when drilling down into the issues.

Finland's position on the border between Europe and Russia means its leaders must work with both sides. But Russia's recent belligerence has made it difficult for its neighbors to maintain and promote cooperation.

Niinistö has previously said it is hard to imagine solving the global problems faced by the international community without Russian participation. But Haass asked the president how this squares with Moscow's efforts to undermine the established rules-based order.

"This is something we have been talking about since Crimea," Niinistö reflected. He explained that at that time, many in the international community believed that a massive campaign of sanctions would bring the Russian economy, and subsequently the government, to its knees. "That hasn't happened, and I'm afraid it doesn't happen," he said.

Malign Russian influence has been, for Finland, a fact of history. But Niinistö suggested that this historic threat has somewhat prepared Finns to better deal with Moscow's modern active measures than their fellow European or American friends. "People are so careful," he told Haass.

"Every citizen is a defender of his or her country," he said, before pointing to his head and adding "at least between the ears."

The president suggested that the international community must be more agile in facing Russian meddling, which shows no signs of abating. The 2016 U.S. presidential election showed the potency of such measures, and even that has been described as a mere "dress rehearsal" by the head of the FBI ahead of the 2020 poll.

The West must "stop existing elements of hybrid warfare" but also predict and pre-empt how it may develop, Niinisto explained. Otherwise, governments will be forever playing catch up. This, he added, has to be a unified effort to succeed.

Niinistö warned that European strength and cooperation is vital to balancing the global geopolitical map and to protecting the struggling liberal world order. Niinistö said once he considered the four corners of global diplomacy to be Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Brussels, but in recent years the Europeans have lost ground.

Turbulent politics—not least Brexit and other similarly anti-establishment movements elsewhere, for example, Italy—has been a "wake-up call" for the European Union, Niinistö suggested. As to whether the bloc will be stronger in 10 years than it is now, the president simply said, "Let's hope so."

The growing reach of China is also new element in the modern European equation. Beijing's Belt and Road project is bringing the Communist Party's influence to the heart of the continent, and is already starting to pull some nations into its orbit.

Niinistö explained that the wealth wielded by China is a powerful pull for European countries, particularly those who have struggled financially in the past or find themselves outside of the continent's wealthiest club. "People are not that prepared to say no if they are offered a lot of money, Niinistö said.

Sauli Niinisto, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, world
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Finland's President Sauli Niinisto during their meeting in Helsinki, Finland on August 21, 2019. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images/Getty