Articles - December 2018


A Successful Country and Proud of It.
A Conversation with Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi
by Roland Flamini

Judged from the outside, Finland enjoys an image of the world’s safest, best governed, and most stable country, and the Finns agree, according to Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi in a recent interview with Diplomatic Connections. Which is remarkable, considering that this Nordic state has an 833-mile border with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and in its current predatory mood Moscow constantly browbeats its m  uch smaller neighbor with cyber attacks and other electronic propaganda. St. Petersburg is a mere 100 miles from the Finnish border, with six million inhabitants – more than the whole of Finland’s total population.

But the Finnish border is also where the European Union meets Russia, and Finland is a devout EU member. By contrast, the Finns have dithered for years over whether or not to also join NATO - with Russia’s possible reaction if they took that step as a prime factor in their decision, or so far, lack of it. So Helsinki settles for the next best thing, close military and political cooperation with the North Atlantic alliance, taking part in major exercises and coordinating its strategic plans and its weaponry. In the summer of 2018, because of Finland’s location and thin veneer of neutrality, Helsinki was chosen as the venue for the Trump-Putin summit

Planning the summit in the middle of summer, when everyone had to be called back from their summer cottages, was “a logistical nightmare,” recalled Ambassador Kauppi. Still, Finland bends over backwards to avoid too much friction with Russia, in the hope of better days, but has good relations with Washington, despite disagreement on Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and Washington’s flirtation with trade war tactics. Bi-lateral trade is at an all time high at $7.42 billion (U.S. exports $1.5 billion), including Finland’s most famous cultural export – a regular supply of highly talented orchestral conductors from the famous Sibelius Academy.

Ambassador Kauppi is a senior career diplomat on her second D.C. assignment. From 1997-2000 she served as the embassy’s political officer. Before coming to Washington as ambassador, she occupied the key post of political director at the ministry of foreign affairs in Helsinki.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ambassador Kauppi, before we all start packing our bags to move to Finland, please tell us how do the Finns feel about having this reputation for security, good governance, and stability?

Ambassador Kauppi:  It’s a successful nation and we are very proud of it, especially because of the background. Finland was not always an affluent country. A hundred years ago, we had just gained our independence and we had a civil war. So, where we are today is a big achievement.

Diplomatic Connections:  But give me some examples what this means in real terms. For example, what is Finland’s crime rate?

Ambassador Kauppi:  It’s relatively low. There are some areas, which are of concern, maybe not so much crime, but some other security-related matters. The crime rate is not on the same level as in other Nordic countries.

Diplomatic Connections:  To pick another possible yardstick, when did Finland last have a political crisis?

Ambassador Kauppi:  It depends on how you define a political crisis, but we are a very stable country, our government is always a coalition government. We have something like ten parties in the parliament, so we always have to have a coalition, and that somehow tends to result in a certain stability. After the elections, there are negotiations - how do you form the government - and that government tends to last for the whole period (of the legislature), which in our case is four years. There are political crises in the smaller sense -  different perceptions about key issues - and sometimes the government does have difficulty keeping the coalition intact.

Diplomatic Connections:  Staying on politics for a moment. In January, your president was elected for a second term…

Ambassador Kauppi:  Yes.

Diplomatic Connections:  And the government coalition remained much as it had been before – including an extreme right party- The True Finns Party …

Ambassador Kauppi:  That party in the government is a populist party, but compared to other European right parties, it’s not really considered to be extreme right. But since you brought up the question of the president, our system is such that the president is elected through direct election, he has certain competencies in foreign and security policy especially, and he’s also the commander-in-chief of the defense forces. Early next year there will be parliamentary elections, after which there are negotiations about how to form a government for a four-year term.

Diplomatic Connections:  And, as well, Finland has a cradle-to-grave welfare system.

Ambassador Kauppi:  Welfare has a different notion here in the United States than in Finland. I would say that (what we are talking about) is a basic security for everybody, irrespective of one’s income. It’s important to understand that the social security network actually covers the whole population. It means that everybody has health insurance as well as access to free education, and that kind of basic security is provided for all to enjoy.  Additionally, we have the system that helps you in a situation where you, for instance, don’t have a permanent income.

Diplomatic Connections:  How different is the social security network in Finland from the prevailing program in Sweden, or your other neighbors?

Ambassador Kauppi:  All the Nordic countries have a similar overall approach, which means that the basic services like education, health care, should be either free or very affordable for the entire population. That’s the fundamental program, but then you have differences in implementation.

Diplomatic Connections:  Finland is a member of the European Union, but not a member of NATO, and there’s an ongoing national debate over whether or not Finland should join NATO, with views sometimes swinging in favor and sometimes against. At the moment, Finland is taking part in a major NATO exercise. So although not a member of the Atlantic Alliance, Finland cooperates with it closely. How closely?

Ambassador Kauppi:  Finland is one of the so-called Enhanced Opportunity Partners of NATO, which means that we have a very close partnership with the alliance. Five countries have this kind of partnership and it has been tailored respectively, according to the need of each nation, and of NATO. The partnership is extremely close and very pragmatic, and is aimed at ensuring that Finland’s defense forces are one hundred percent inter-operable with NATO forces. And that’s why we participate in a lot of joint exercises, but always as partners and at many different levels. The bottom line is that we are not members, and therefore not covered by the obligation of mutual support.

Diplomatic Connections:  No Article 5, and no 2 percent contribution --

Ambassador Kauppi:  No Article 5, nevertheless we have taken defense seriously throughout our history, so we have actually invested quite a lot in our national defense and will reach more than 2 percent in the next few years. In addition to a robust national defense, we have a network of partnerships with NATO, the U.S., with Sweden, with the other Nordic countries, and also we put an emphasis on the security and defense dimension of the European Union, not as a challenge to NATO but actually complementing it.

Diplomatic Connections:  Parenthetically, how do you think Brexit is going to impact the European Union’s security ambitions?

Ambassador Kauppi:  It’s a big loss because the UK is an important foreign policy power and it has an efficient and capable defense policy. We know the EU defense activities in concrete terms are about crisis management, and if the UK is not involved that will influence capability. But it is our hope that we can see a UK cooperate with the European Union because I think that, together the EU and the UK share many security interests and it makes sense to cooperate while continuing to be as close as possible.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do you think that Brexit has been, or is going to be the corrosive factor that some feared that it would be, or has it, in fact, been a cautionary tale to other member states?

Ambassador Kauppi:  The polls show that it’s the latter. Support for the European Union has gone up in all the member states, and the importance that the member states and their populations attach to a more efficient EU has actually grown. So we think Brexit is a most unfortunate thing, but it seems to have focused the minds of the population on the fact that irrespective of whether we dislike some aspects of the European Union, without it we would be weaker, and less secure.

Diplomatic Connections:  So if a referendum on the EU were held in your country tomorrow, what do you think would be the result?

Ambassador Kauppi:  I think it would be something like strong support, 60-70 percent. At the moment, there’s basically no serious movement to exit the European Union. There’s a lot of discussion about how could we make the EU more efficient, and less focused on less important things, and more on important things. And, of course, we also have some serious issues in the EU which result in a very lively debate on how to make it better.

Diplomatic Connections:  Getting back to the NATO membership question, to what extent is the decision to not make a decision the result of Russia’s close presence, and the history that presence has with your country?

Ambassador Kauppi:  We have a long, long border with Russia and they are our neighbor; and obviously, Russia is a difficult neighbor in many respects, especially today. Ten years ago was a better period. So, Russia is always a part of the calculations as far as our policy is concerned, and also – I believe -  as far as the considerations of the NATO countries are concerned. But it works two ways: Russia is for some people a reason for NATO membership, and for others to say, “Well, this is not a good time to consider joining NATO.” However, I would say the more fundamental reason for the fact that there’s no popular support for applying for membership to NATO is elsewhere. If you ask Finns, they aren’t so concerned about military security; we have a robust national defense, a web of partnerships and a consistent foreign policy. Although, Finland is not a neutral country. We don’t belong to a military alliance, yet we belong to a political alliance, and that is the European Union.  Thus, there is a well-established feeling that we are part of the same security community as the other EU countries which are also NATO countries, most of them.

Diplomatic Connections:  Part of the security community, but without the comfort of the treaty commitment that NATO members enjoy; even though that historic assurance that the rest of the alliance will jump to your aid in case of an attack seems somehow less set in stone these days than it used to be.

Ambassador Kauppi:  First of all, there is a Finnish characteristic, which is again rooted in our history, namely that you are primarily responsible for your own security – that’s the obligation of any independent nation. You cannot delegate your security to anyone, so being outside of NATO, or within NATO, the practical consequences would be the same – you must have a robust defense force of your own which is interoperable with those of your partners. Secondly, in the European Union, although not a military alliance, there is a clause in the basic treaty which represents an obligation to come to the assistance of (a member state) if it is attacked. When that clause was negotiated, we took it very seriously – understanding that the EU doesn’t have the military muscle to do anything, but it’s a strong political commitment. And it’s exactly the same in NATO, the political commitment is the key. NATO has the military muscle and a different structure, but the political commitment is absolutely necessary in both of these instances.

Diplomatic Connections:  How much traffic is there, people-to-people, between Finland and Russia?

Ambassador Kauppi:  Quite a lot. A lot of tourism – St. Petersburg, which is only 100 kilometers from the Finnish border, has the same population as the whole of Finland. There is a lot of inter-action, Russian tourists. The political and economic crisis resulting from the Russian aggression as far as the Crimea and Ukraine is concerned, and the economic crisis in Russia had resulted in a drop, but it’s picking up again. This kind of people-to-people contacts are important, and an investment in the future, in the sense that we, of course, hope that Russia will develop into a more normal country, democratic, with good governance, and hopefully they will get there one day. I think Finland is a big attraction to ordinary, middle class Russian tourists.

Diplomatic Connections:  You say that Finns are not overly worried about what Putin might take it into his head to do, but you don’t have to be reminded of the history. The Treaty of Finland of 1948 guaranteed that Finland wouldn’t become a Soviet satellite like the Baltics and Eastern Europe, but Finland’s neutrality was very conditional and precarious, involving a continuous concern of what the Soviets might or might not want Finland to do. And that became known as Finlandization. Isn’t there at least a slight worry about a new Finlandization?

Ambassador Kauppi:  We are worried about some Russian activities. As far as political pressure that we were certainly under during the Cold War, our perception is that we are very strong as a society and the situation is different now. Remember why Finland ended up in the place we did after World War II. We had been on the “wrong side” in the war, and we were basically assigned to the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, by the Allies. It was not our choice. But we were not occupied, our democratic system was successfully maintained. Making the best out of it has been our focus, and today we are a strong, confident society, which is, however reliant on a good, rules-based international system. Certainly, there is a dependence on institutions like the European Union, and even if we are not NATO members, we are contributing to the security of NATO. So, yes, to say that there is worry about many developments, including Russia, would be true, but we are also super pragmatists, and this is the situation, so we try to act in such a manner where the insecurity is diminished.

Diplomatic Connections:  What about Russian pressure in other ways?

Ambassador Kauppi:  We are all continuously talking about the so-called hybrid threat – disinformation, cyber attacks, and that kind of thing, which are real and existing problems, and danger. A robust system to guard against them has been put into place by our nation and we also took the initiative to establish something called The European Center of Excellence against hybrid threats. That’s based in Helsinki, but there are several countries involved, including the U.S., and we are comparing notes, and exchanging best practices to improve our defenses against that kind of threat. The Helsinki center has the beauty of serving both EU and NATO countries, the two institutions cooperating together.

Diplomatic Connections:  What would be a nightmare scenario that would undermine this Finnish pragmatism that you mention?

Ambassador Kauppi:  There are several nightmare scenarios, and it’s good not to be too much fixated on one, because the scenarios that we think about come from the past, and that wouldn’t be innovative. The bottomline is that whatever threats there are, it all comes back to what is the shape of your own society, what is the level of resilience, and the level of trust in your own society, how they’re governed, that is the key, and we try to concentrate on that. The other aspect is the strength of the international institutions, and then other forms of international cooperation. So rather than dwell too much on the threat scenarios, what we are trying to identify is what are the important ingredients for any threat, and preventing those threats from taking place.

Diplomatic Connections:  For example?

Ambassador Kauppi:  The so-called migration crisis of 2015 and 2016 was a very specific and exceptional situation, but the people involved focused, much more than previously, on what do we have to do in order to prevent that kind of crisis happening again. I don’t think there’s any one single answer, quite a tool box of different activities would have to be put into place, and international cooperation would absolutely be required.

Diplomatic Connections:  One important element is to make the countries of origin move livable for its citizens so that they don’t feel the need to leave. How big was the refugee problem in Finland?

Ambassador Kauppi:  In 2015, we got ten times the number of asylum applicants as we would normally get in a year. Usually there would be between 3,000 and 5,000 applications for asylum annually: In the last four months of 2015, we received 33,000. If you take that proportionally to the United States, it would calculate to be 1.6 million in four months. Most of them came through Sweden to Finland. Now we are back to, more or less, normal figures. There are a host of actions that the European Union has put in place and they have worked to some extent. But, of course, it’s not a guarantee as far as the future is concerned.

Diplomatic Connections:  Helsinki was recently the venue of the much-discussed Trump-Putin summit. Was Finland asked to host the summit, or did the Finnish government volunteer?

Ambassador Kauppi:  We are known to always be ready to offer our good services. A concrete request came from the two countries, and we were happy to say yes. I can tell you that it was not an easy thing to offer something like that. The summer season had already begun, and everybody was on vacation and out in their summer cottages.

Diplomatic Connections:  How much of the organization fell to the Finnish government, and how much was organized by the participating governments?

Ambassador Kauppi:  All the substance of the meeting was handled by the two parties. The logistical nightmare was ours.

Diplomatic Connections:  What effect, if any, has holding the summit in Helsinki had on bi-lateral relations with the United States?

Ambassador Kauppi:  The parties appreciated the fact that somebody agreed to do it. As far as bi-lateral relations with the U.S. are concerned, they have been excellent for many, many years. And depending on the (U.S.) administration, we have areas of cooperation, and then, certainly, there are areas where we don’t see eye-to-eye. But the relationship as such is, I think, excellent.

Diplomatic Connections:  Never mind the areas of cooperation, where do you not see eye-to-eye with this administration?

Ambassador Kauppi:  Well, at the moment, the biggest issue is trade policy. Finland is an open and advanced economy, very dependent on a level playing field, and the trade policy (of the administration) is of concern. It has not had a direct impact on our bi-lateral trading relationship, or, rather, not a considerable impact, but it has already had an impact on the international trading system, and that is our biggest headache. If the rules-based international trading system starts to unravel, we are in enormous trouble, and we think, so is everybody else. There are other concerns. One of the most important is climate policy. In Finland, if you ask a man or woman on the street, what are you most worried about in the world, everybody will put climate change in the top three. There’s a very high awareness of, and belief in, international cooperation. The fact that the United States decided to withdraw from the Paris (Climate) Agreement is, in our opinion most unfortunate, and we’re hoping – and trying to encourage – the U.S., and also some actors in the U.S. to stay involved and continue to pursue, if not implementation of the Paris Agreement, at least some area where there are positive consequences.

Diplomatic Connections:  How about areas of agreement?

Ambassador Kauppi:  One of the areas where we have been working well together with both the U.S. and with Russia is the Arctic Council. Finland took over the presidency last year, and the cooperation has been good – which is important because, obviously, the political situation vis-à-vis Russia is not good. [The Arctic Council is formed by the eight Nordic countries, the United States and Canada].

Diplomatic Connections:  What recent initiatives has the Arctic Council taken?

Ambassador Kauppi:  Search and rescue, prevention and handling of oil spills, scientific cooperation. The work of the Arctic Council is very much about building a common baseline of understanding, and opening of some critical areas where we need collaboration. One of the areas of concentration of the Finnish presidency has been meteorological cooperation. We have too little concrete information about what is happening in the Arctic.

Diplomatic Connections:  This is your second posting in Washington: your first ended in 2000. What changes do you see in the city, both in terms of the quality of life, and as a working environment?

Ambassador Kauppi:  I loved Washington in those days and I love it today. It’s a wonderful combination of a small town and a very international city. The city has improved a lot, and there is more variety as far as culture, restaurants, but it has retained it’s very green character, and welcoming character – so, yes, changes, more people, but also it has remained the same.

Diplomatic Connections:  And in terms of working here?

Ambassador Kauppi:  Very similar (to before). This is one of the cities where you have great access to administration officials, Congress, civil society, think tanks, the best experts in almost any field that you can imagine, and the access is Obviously, the tension that has increased, to some extent.

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