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Letter From Helsinki

O.K., I admit it: I have resumed a love affair begun more than four decades ago. The object of my affection -- and I should add, also of my wife's -- is Finland, a country where we once lived when I was researching my doctoral dissertation.
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O.K., I admit it: I have resumed a love affair begun more than four decades ago. The object of my affection -- and I should add, also of my wife's -- is Finland, a country where we once lived when I was researching my doctoral dissertation. Now we're back, spending most of this year in Helsinki in connection with my Visiting Senior Fellowship at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs -- commonly known by its English acronym FIIA and officially as the "Ulkopoliittinen Instituutti" or the "Utrikespolitiska Institutet," reflecting its Finnish-Swedish-English trilingual character.

In this small country on the geographic periphery of Europe, FIIA is a world-class institution playing a role in foreign policy formulation that Washington think-tanks can only dream of. My colleagues -- most of them Finns, but also specialists from several other European countries -- cover international relations with an impressive depth of knowledge and professionalism, additionally remarkable in many cases because of the experts' relative youth.

For my parents' generation Finland was famous as the home of the incomparable distance runner Paavo Nurmi, as the only country that repaid its war debts, and as the little land that gave the Soviets a bloody nose in the Winter War of 1939-40. In 1941 when geopolitical realities impelled Finland to fight against the U.S.S.R. again, this time on the side of Nazi Germany, Helsinki emphasized that it was not an ally of Berlin, rather a "co-belligerent." Partially as a result, the United States, unlike the U.K., never declared war on Finland.

The Finns' legalistic hair-splitting was not merely a rhetorical exercise. In 1942 Hitler dispatched Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler to Helsinki with a ship intended to transport Finland's small Jewish population to the death camps. Prime Minister J.W. Rangell quickly silenced Himmler by curtly telling him: "Wir haben keine Judenfrage" ("We do not have a Jewish Question"). The leader of the Finnish armed forces, Marshal Gustav Mannerheim, also made clear that with Jewish Finns fighting and dying in his army, deportations would not take place.

In defying Hitler, Finland risked suffering the same fate as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which two years earlier had lost their independence through forcible annexation by the U.S.S.R., although the importance of Finland's army to the anti-Soviet war effort did make abandonment by Germany unlikely. In any event, given the enormous national stakes, Finland's behavior stands as an unparalleled act of principle and courage, which for some unfathomable reason the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. does not memorialize.

After World War II Finland adapted its foreign policy to the stark fact of sharing an 833-mile border with the giant Soviet Union. "Finlandization," a term of condescension translated from the German "Finlandisierung," was equated with appeasement by many Cold Warriors, although, in fact, Finland's tactical accommodations were never allowed to compromise the country's Western democratic, free-market fundamentals. As a result, by the time the U.S.S.R. collapsed a quarter-century ago, Finland had become a normal European democracy enjoying unprecedented prosperity. It joined the European Union in 1995, remaining militarily nonaligned but increasingly cooperative with the U.S. and NATO.

It's a fascinating time to be here. National elections this spring yielded a Center-Right coalition faced with the tasks of reversing a multi-year economic recession and of pursuing an effective foreign and security policy in the face of nasty Russian provocations. The Kremlin's intimidation tactics haven't proven to be very effective. When Russia harassed a Finnish research ship in the Baltic, staged snap maneuvers of thousands of troops, and reopened a shuttered military base near their border, most Finns yawned. But when a foreign, presumably Russian, submarine was spotted in their territorial waters, the Finnish Navy dropped warning depth charges. To Moscow's surprise, the new government in Helsinki has declared that it retains the option to apply for NATO membership at any time.

The hard line Helsinki is taking on the EU's third bail out of Greece was predictable. Finns have no patience for those whom they consider slackers. In the early 1990s after the Soviet Union's demise temporarily eliminated a key export market and Finland's unemployment soared, the people hung together and restructured their economy. Today Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's government is once again formulating austerity measures, and opinion surveys show that most citizens will support them. It's difficult to explain to Finns why others should not be expected to sacrifice the way they are.

Greece's widespread reputation for tax evasion also sits poorly with Finns, in whom one observes a rigid insistence on following the rules -- last year Transparency International rated Finland the third best country in the world in perceived levels of public sector corruption. During the Greek bail out negotiations Athens saw this rectitude as having led Finland, especially its brilliant and outspoken Finance Minister Alexander Stubb, to self-righteous verbal and policy extremes. As a result, Greek social media have overflowed with anti-Finnish invective.

One doesn't fall in love with a history or foreign policy, however admirable they may be. It's the surroundings, the culture, and the people that attract. Helsinki is a cultivated city with a wide array of concerts, recitals, opera, ballet, and museums. At the moment its northern location enhances the already enviable quality of life. For the past several weeks my smartphone's hourly weather app has often forecast "sunny" for the 10-11 p.m. period. This extended daylight enables us to take late evening strolls to a delightful seaside café in our Töölö neighborhood. Our Finnish friends remind us that, alas, all good things must come to an end. I've heeded their advice and ordered a "happy light" contraption for my office, which, I have been assured, will ameliorate the inevitable autumnal depression.

The natural beauty of the place is stunning. After an unusually cool spring, the vast canopy of deciduous trees has finally leafed out. Helsinki is built on peninsulas and islands with wooded, rocky shores resembling Maine or Nova Scotia and their clean air to boot. Lovely parks of varying size and character dot the urban landscape, whose signature feature is the jumble of giant granite boulders interspersed with birch, spruce, grass and flowers.

In a way the boulders serve as a metaphor for the Finnish people: not flashy, but rock-solid. We still are close to friends we made 45 years ago, and now we know their children and grandchildren. The relative equality of Finnish society also strikes us as immensely appealing. One routinely sees cabinet ministers walking around downtown, and former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari lives just a few blocks down our quite normal street. His apartment house is a good deal grander than our faculty housing, but with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, I can't imagine a former U.S. President being such a "man of the people."

We have encountered nothing but politeness in thousands of personal interactions with Finns. The sole exception was a bus driver who intentionally drove past us while we were deep in conversation at the bus stop with a young couple and their children, because all four adults had forgotten to give him the requisite hand-signal to pick us up. When I related the incident to a Finnish colleague, she became so incensed at his atypical behavior that she insisted on dashing off a letter of protest to the municipal transit authority. On the other hand, several times when streetcar drivers have seen me sprinting to catch their trams, they have smilingly waited to depart until I hopped aboard.

Although the historical core of Helsinki boasts several new structures including a concert hall, a sleek modern art museum, a few gleaming metal-and-glass office buildings, and a large indoor shopping mall, its overall appearance hasn't significantly changed since our first sojourn here. What is strikingly different about the city, however, is the nearly universal knowledge of English. Proficiency indexes rank Finland in the top three or four worldwide with Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden. It may not have much to do with language, but the ubiquitous New York Yankees baseball caps (in various colors) worn by youthful Finns of both sexes lend a quirky touch of the Bronx to Helsinki.

No country is perfect, and Finland has its flaws. I've already commented on how an inflexible rectitude may be unduly influencing public policy. At the personal level, the flip-side of Finns' appealing modesty is a curious reluctance to express themselves. After listening to stimulating public speeches, audiences often begin question-and-answer sessions by sitting on their hands in an embarrassing, dead silence. Such passivity becomes a problem in the political arena. The new government coalition includes the populist Finns Party with a racist, anti-immigrant wing. Party leader Foreign Minister Timo Soini is a highly intelligent, decent man who for political reasons refuses to discipline his flock, some of them Members of the national or European Union Parliament, who make outrageous statements. The domestic press corps seems content to question him once, receive an evasive answer, and leave it at that.

One often hears complaints that the marketing of Finland could be improved, and there does seem to be a tendency to undersell or under-utilize the country's strengths. For example, Helsinki is an excellent restaurant town. In the summer months thousands of tourists disembark daily from cruise ships. Yet in peak-season July, especially on Sundays, many restaurants in the harbor area are closed. When we visited Mariehamn, the charming provincial capital of the Åland Islands, during the popular Midsummer holiday, the top restaurant in town was similarly shuttered for the long weekend despite the large influx of visitors.

In this case, taking advantage of the marvelous outdoor life -- Finland boasts nearly 200,000 lakes and the lowest population density in the EU -- apparently trumped additional profits. On the personal level, I can certainly relate to that. Things get more complex when quality of life concerns are utilized as a catch-all argument in disputes about big business and the arts.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has offered to open a branch museum in Helsinki to go along with the other Guggenheim museums in New York, Bilbao, Venice, Abu Dhabi, and Berlin. The proposal has aroused strong passions, with supporters stressing cultural and economic benefits to accrue to the city and opponents advancing budgetary, aesthetic, and unfortunate chauvinistic arguments. While some financing issues remain to be sorted out, a consultant's study has projected substantial economic gains after only a few years. Recently an architectural competition unveiled the winning design, which is dedicated to harmonizing the museum building with its natural surroundings. Agreement on the Guggenheim project would likely catapult Helsinki into the top tier of European tourist destinations.

And a lot more people would see why Finland is so special.

Michael Haltzel, former foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He is spending 2015 as Visiting Senior Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.

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