An Interview with Ambassador Pekka Lintu
By Hugh S. Galford
In describing the unique architecture of the Finnish embassy, today surrounded by snow-laden trees, Ambassador Pekka Lintu says, “It is our visiting card here in DC.” An example of homegrown Finnish architecture, it “shows the values that are important to us. The architecture is very high-tech, as is Finland itself. It is very transparent—it is easy to come and go, and it is also a statement of our policies, as we have continuously been voted one of the least corrupt nations in the world. The embassy is also close to nature, with the trees in the back almost coming into the building.”
The ambassador says that these values are also attractive to American tourists. “Finland is a small, successful country where things work quite well. It is easy to move around and people are glad to meet foreigners.” Americans enjoy the safe environment Finland provides, and the wide range of activities available, from nature hikes and watching the northern lights to cultural events such as classical music and Finland’s rich architectural and design heritage.
The history of this small, valiant country is well documented in A Concise History of Finland by David Kirby published in 2006. According to Kirby, during the past 50 years few countries in Europe have undergone such rapid social, political, and economic changes. Finland is a country that, at a great price, has had the courage to protect and preserve its own highly distinctive identity.
Installed as Finland’s ambassador to the United States in January 2006, Pekka Lintu’s focus has been concentrated on his country’s EU presidency. Now that Finland has handed the position to Germany, Ambassador Lintu plans to focus his energies on the US-Finland relation. “It is a constant challenge for a smaller country to bring its good news and our own thinking on issues” to an American audience.
The ambassador is pleased with Finland’s tenure as EU president, stating that while they had hoped to accomplish more, their successes were important and consequential. The early months, he says, were dominated by the situation in the Middle East. The EU was “in a difficult situation, but did quite well to bring about an end to hostilities in Lebanon and to see to the strengthening of UNIFIL.” Given its renewed mandate, UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) needed an increased number of troops, the great majority of which come from EU countries. Finland, a major donor for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction programs, had “hoped to take [policies] further, but now we need new steps in the Middle East, particularly concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
Turkey’s admission to the Union was another major issue during Finland’s presidency. The solution found, Ambassador Lintu says, “was a good one in difficult circumstances. It was decided to continue our talks, reflecting the not-full satisfaction of the EU nations with how talks with Turkey had proceeded so far” and the further policy changes that Turkey needs to make to meet the various EU policy stances.
Relations between the EU and Russia also saw a strengthening under Finland’s leadership. There were several important meetings, including two with President Putin, covering issues such as energy use and the framework of EU-Russian relations. Finland, he says, was able to “take things further, though not all the way to total interdependence.” While he says that there were “good discussions” on the principles of relations with Russia, “we need to see how those principles will be reflected and implemented.”
Finland’s “pet item” for its presidency was the economic competitiveness of the EU. They were able to “push legislation on some major issues, including pushing through a new service directive and a new EU regulatory framework for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH).” REACH is intended to improve the protection of human health and the environment through the better and earlier identification of chemical substances’ properties, while enhancing the innovative capability and competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry.
EU-US relations were also “a success story” during Finland’s presidency. The highlight, for Ambassador Lintu, was the first meeting of high-level officials dealing with climate change, sustainable development and clean energy. Furthermore, EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers met here last year, and Economic ministers met with US Department of Commerce officials in November.
One area of EU policy still on hold is that of the proposed EU constitution. Ambassador Lintu says that consultations with member states are on-going, “trying to see what possibilities exist to take matters forward.” The Constitutional Treaty, he says, “is a good document, and we hope to revive it. We don’t want to see any changes to the document. It is good as it is, and must be accepted as a whole. Changing it is not that easy, as that would involve give-and-take negotiations,” effectively starting the process all over again.
Having completed its presidency of the European Union, Finland now steps into presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, a consultative and cooperative council of the Nordic nations, from Iceland to Finland. The Nordic Council was organized following World War II, and is independent of other organizations. It serves as a bridge of sorts between other European and trans-Atlantic groups. For example, Iceland and Norway are members of NATO but not the EU, while Sweden and Finland are EU members but not part of NATO. This blending of NATO, EU and Eurozone nations proves useful to presenting solutions to issues that did not exist in the 1950s at the Council’s establishment.
The Council, as noted, is more a consultative body than a legislative body. It is not a single market and does not have the same legislative powers as the EU does, but it has led to closer cooperation among the Nordic countries. The Council established the Nordic Passport Area—a rough precursor to the EU’s Schengen Accords—and a cooperative labor area and market.
As with their presidency of the EU, Finland looks to implement a program of sustainable development, research, and innovation. In addition, cooperation in the Adjacent Areas, equality and equal opportunities, children and young people and Nordic-language issues will be central to Finland’s presidency.
Another major policy area is Finland’s neighbor to the east, Russia. As a former Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire, Finland has a long and tumultuous history with Russia, having had to balance Western and Soviet wishes during the Cold War. Ambassador Lintu says that, “in many ways, relations with Russia are better than ever.” Economic cooperation is good and trade booming, the situation is stable politically, and leaders of the two nations at various levels see and talk with each other on a regular basis.
There are, he says, “a number of projects to improve the border and near-border area” of the two countries. “There is more cooperation on the environment, health and transportation, which are important for a model modern relationship.” There is also cooperation in treating wastewater, with Finland having taken part in the construction of St. Petersburg’s southwest wastewater treatment plant, the first major public-private partnership project in Russia. The plant will improve the state of the Baltic Sea as it will treat the wastewater of more than 700,000 of St. Petersburg’s residents.
There is still work to do to solve border area issues such as differences in standards of living, ill-health and poverty and relations with the EU and the Nordic countries. But with normal relations and regular meetings between officials, the ambassador sees these issues as solvable.
Furthermore, trade relations with Russia are good. Finland buys the majority of its energy from Russia, and sells a wide variety of goods to Russia. Russia, the ambassador says, “is now our number three or four export market. We sell everything from telecom to engineering to foodstuffs and forestry products. In addition, the transit of goods to Russia through Finland is still important.”
Lintu’s focus on trade is not surprising. He began his career with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 1972 after completing a Masters of Arts degree at the University of Helsinki. His prior postings included tenures in Marseilles (1972-73), at Finland’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva (1975-79), at Finland’s Permanent Delegation to the OECD in Paris (1984-87) and in Tokyo as Ambassador to Japan (1994-2000). He focused on economic and trade issues during his home postings, ranging from bilateral to regional issues. In the early 1990s, he was in charge of economic relations between Finland and the US, and from 2001 to 2005 was Under-Secretary for External Economic Affairs, serving at the 133-Trade Policy Committee of the EU and participating in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Round.
Interested also in theater and art, Ambassador Lintu completed a translation in rhyming verse of French poet Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac in 1993. Lintu’s translation played at the Finnish National Theater for a number of years.
With Finland’s EU presidency over, Ambassador Lintu is turning his attention to other matters. Two major events in Finland this year are the parliamentary elections on March 18, and the 90th anniversary of independence and the centenary of granting full political rights to women. The embassy and consulates general will serve as election polling places for Finns living or traveling in the US. Ambassador Lintu notes that Finnish governments are normally a coalition of parties, so there is not the same built-in political confrontation as is found here. The three major parties are the Center Party, the Social Democrats and the National Coalition Party, the moderate right-wing party. Finland also has a Green Party that has served in coalition governments before. The challenge for the Greens, the ambassador says, is that “many other parties have become greener, so the Greens must find a way to become a general issues party.”
There will be programs both in Finland and here to celebrate Finland’s independence in 1917 and the achievements and sacrifices involved. Finns will also celebrate being the first country in the world to grant full political rights to women. This occurred before independence, as an autonomous Grand Duchy with its own elections to its own parliament.
While in Washington, Ambassador Lintu’s main objective is to strengthen US-Finnish relations. Finland has “good relations economically and politically” with the US, but DC, he notes, “is a place where countries want to make their views understood” and it is easy to get lost in the constant activity. He plans to continue working with US colleagues and friends to make Finland and her achievements better known to the US public. He wants to publicize Finland’s economic competitiveness, her good governance and her emphasis on environmentally sustainable policies.
Ambassador Lintu also hopes to continue the embassy’s long-standing contact with Finnish-Americans. Beyond providing consular services, the embassy “supports Americans of Finnish descent and their cultural activities.” While Finnish-American groups are independent and organize their own programs, the embassy does its best to support and participate in them.
The ambassador is looking forward to an opportunity to travel and visit some of the US’s natural wonders. He wants to visit Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, and has a special desire to visit Yellowstone National Park. When he was a boy, he recalls, he saw photos of Yellowstone in one of his books. “I was totally captivated. It has been 50 years but I still remember those photos and their impact on me.”
Hugh S. Galford is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC, with an academic background in Middle Eastern Studies.