What do they think of us?

Storytime again:

Someday a Finn, a French, and a German saw an elephant while walking in the African savannah. The French went on to think about the amount of meat he could get out of the beast, and how delicious this would be in a stew. The German examined the elephant and wondered which biological category such an animal would belong to. Meanwhile the Finn, silent, wondered what the elephant thought about Finland.

This joke I heard very early on after moving to Finland. It started to make sense after a while of living here and being asked regularly my feelings about the country. It quickly came to intersect with my scientific work: studying diplomats and politicians working between Finland and foreign countries, I noticed that “what others think of us” was a particularly powerful concern for them too. At the beginning of the century, while the national creed made significant forays in the population of what was then a Grand-Duchy of the Russian empire, most in the Finnish intelligentsia felt deeply concerned about the way “foreign public opinions” considered their nation. Did they know enough? Were they positive towards Finland? Was the information spread abroad correct?

After the 1917 independence, these concerns were reinvested into various official policies of “propaganda”, “Finland’s image construction”, but also in the activities of a host of private actors involved in the definition and disemination of a “national image” for economic, political, national reasons. This Finnish national image management ressembled the propaganda efforts of bigger countries, even if there were differences: differences in resources; differences in practices; differences in goals (Finnish image diplomacy was more “information spreading” than political or cultural influence, etc). If one takes things from this early years of the 20th century, the debate on the opportunity, practices, resources of “national image management” appears strickingly cyclical, repetitive. The Finnish media go through regular cycles of interrogation (what do they think of us?), self-pity (we are so bad), national pride (we are the best), and denial (why bother puting money in public diplomacy, since anyway we are the best/nobody cares?).

Recently these interrogations came back, following a “nation-branding” report in 2010 and the developments of Finnish foreign policy. This week’s Suomen Kuvalehti contained a column by Helena Petäistö, a veteran journalist specialized in (amongst many things) France and EU politics, who dealt with the subject (the column here, finnish).

Petäistö first detailled the bumps Finland’s reputation had taken in Europe during the current economic crisis: the 1990s “good pupil”, constructive partner in EU institutions has become the only country to demand guarantees for its loans to Greece. Finland drags its feet in European summits, oscillating between uncritically pro-German stands and critics where the country’s representatives lecture other countries on their obligations. Petäistö goes on to remind the government of her country that there is no point in being right against everybody, and that a country like Finland should try to voice its concerns in more subtle ways. Reaching for Urho Kekkonen, she ends up saying with him that Finland should ideally be a doctor, not a judge in international politics: realism should command a small state to keep quiet, make itself useful, and wait for the right moment to fall on one side of the fence or the other.

More interesting, however, is what Petäistö shows in her column of Finland’s tradition of national image management.

First, Petäistö exhibits the generally widespread conviction that Finland’s policy inside the EU, and besides, is linked to efficient communication, and if necessary dissimulation. There is something to that, of course: most of what Antti Kuosmanen and other Finnish civil servants involved in the 1991-1992 accession negotiations to the EU did was actually explaining to the Commission and to the member-states what Finland was about: yes, Finland is an industrial country, etc. This communication effort is complex, and of dubious efficiency, but it has been a constant trend in Finland’s foreign policy to dedicate resources to this kind of activities. Finland is unknown, goes the logic, and it should be its government’s responsability to “relate” Finland to the world – using the verb in the same sense Nikolas Glover used it: tell a story, present.

The Finnish foreign policy has also been and still is eager to maintain a few sources of “reliable” information for foreigners, preferably located in the Foreign Ministry. Such mavericks as Johan Bäckmän, who recently became a staple of the Russian media with his wacky comments on Finland’s treatment of Russian citizens, are the terror of Finland’s Foreign Ministry. Finland should come out as a nice, homogeneous narrative, and unsavory things should be hidden behind the language barrier: while Britain, for example, is a linguistic glass house, the Finnish debates are for the most part unaccessible to anyone without a reasonnable command of Finnish – or, at least, Finland is not important enough for foreigners to consider learning its exotic language; Finland is not China. If the Finns have nasty comments about the propensity of other European countries to live above their means, they should express those in Finnish, writes Petäistö. This, too, is not new.

The last interesting thing is the fact that Petäistö considered as her duty to come up with such a breviary of what Finland should do and not do to keep up its reputation. In the long story of Finland’s “national communication”, there has never been a shortage of private actors eager to participate, for various reasons, to the construction and diffusion abroad of certain images of Finland. Companies, chambers of commerce, merchants had economic incentives to do that – journalists, academics, historians, jurists, artists, politicians have done the same because of what they saw as some kind of national obligation. Petäistö sits squarely in this tradition of non-state actors in a small state, naturally invoving themselves in national image management.

Ps. All through this post, I tried to avoid the term “public diplomacy”. I have problems with the term: it is a practical catch-all phrase, but ultimately it is linked to a specific context (anglo-american Cold War public diplomacy) and does not fit with what I observe in Finland. I will come back to that at some point.

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