I wasn't surprised when I learned Friday that Finland's former President Martti Ahtisaari had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Not because I knew who he was – in truth, I didn't – but because one of the things that impressed me during my recent trip to Helsinki is how deeply ingrained peacemaking is in Finnish culture.
Perhaps the next U.S. president should visit Finland, as I did last month, and talk with government officials and people on the street. He may learn something from Finland's extensive role working behind the scenes to help feuding parties find common ground. He may even want to adopt the Finnish people's tradition of trying to resolve disputes by spending time together – naked – in the sauna.
Ahtisaari, 71, was awarded the peace prize “for his important efforts in several continents and over three decades to resolve international conflicts.”
Ahtisaari has been a United Nations diplomat, Finland's president from 1994 to 2000 and most recently chairman of the Crisis Management Initiative, an independent international mediation group. Among other things, he helped bring feuding sides together in Namibia, Kosovo, Indonesia and Iraq through quiet, often under-the-radar diplomacy.
Ahtisaari's successor as president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, told me during my visit to her country that Finland has a long tradition of good-will efforts abroad. When she was a young trade union lawyer in the late 1970s, she traveled to Chile and Argentina in fact-finding missions to look into their respective dictatorships' human rights abuses, she said.
History shapes modern Finland
Finland's tradition as a peace-maker, which it shares with its Scandinavian neighbors Sweden and Norway, is most often attributed to its geography – it's between East and West – and the fact that it was under Swedish or Russian control for eight centuries before it gained independence in 1917.
Trying to survive as a small, independent nation sandwiched between two regional superpowers has turned the Finns into pragmatists and consummate deal-makers. It's not surprising it was in Finland where the United States, Western Europe and the former Soviet Union signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords that started to reduce Cold War tensions.
More recently, after an Aug. 7 military operation by Georgian forces into the separatist region of South Ossetia, followed by the Russian invasion of Georgia – a conflict that shook Russian-wary Finland – most Finns I talked to shook their head in disapproval of Georgia's military action. “You just don't poke the (Russian) bear in its eyes,” they said.
“For the past 1,000 years, we have been the border line between East and West, between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Church,” Antti Blafield, an editorial writer of Finland's leading Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, told me. “We have learned that it's good to listen … and to be humble.”
In addition to history, Finland's cold climate and sparsely populated territory may have prompted its 5.2 million people to stress teamwork and consensus building.
Finally, the tradition of going to the sauna with friends and foes alike may have something to do with Finland's peace-making character. When I visited the Technopolis science and technology park on the outskirts of Helsinki, its chairman Keith Silverang showed me the sauna room within his penthouse office. He said he often breaks up difficult negotiations with potential business partners to share some time together in the sauna – au naturel.
“Being naked creates a level-playing field, because people tend to be more relaxed when they take off their suits,” Silverang said. “That creates a more informal atmosphere, a climate of trust, which is often conducive to a breakthrough.”
Neutrality, not spinelessness
I'm not an unconditional fan of Scandinavian neutrality. On occasions, it can be a bit spineless, as when Finnish President Halonen suggested she has a soft spot for Cuba despite that its five-decade-old dictatorship. Sometimes, you have to take a stand.
I'm not suggesting that, if Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wins Nov. 4 and keeps his promise to consider talks with hostile leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, he immediately invite his interlocutor to talk diplomacy in his White House sauna.
Sometimes, as Obama himself is recognizing, you have to keep your distance.
But after the Bush administration's eight years of my-way-or-no-way diplomacy, and considering the U.S. financial crisis, the next U.S. president – whoever he is – should start his term with a touch of Finnish humbleness and quiet diplomacy, without forgetting America's commitment to fundamental freedoms.