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Speeches, 5/6/2009

Pertti Torstila, Secretary of State, on Finland-USA - 90 years of diplomatic relations

University of Helsinki
May 6, 2009


President Halonen, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to begin by quoting from the United States Office of the Federal Register, September 21, 1987:

"Finnish settlers first arrived in this country in 1638, when Nordics, many of them natives of Finland or Swedes who spoke Finnish, established the colony of New Sweden in present-day Delaware. They introduced European civilization to the Delaware River Valley and began the transformation of a vast wilderness. Theirs were the pioneer spirit and virtues that are the foundation of our national character".

This was part of Proclamation 5704 entitled "National Year of Friendship With Finland, 1988" signed by President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress to recall that the friendship of the United States and Finland has deep historic roots.

So it is not only the 90 years of diplomatic relations between our countries but a much deeper common history. Many of the early settlers from Sweden to Delaware were actually Finns who had earlier moved from Finland to Sweden to live and work there. In terms of early technology transfer, we Finns introduced the log cabin to the Americans - no small contribution to the new nation's needs at that time.

Finns and Americans have always shared the firm belief in the blessings of hard work. The pioneer spirit and the Finnish "sisu", tenacity, are a wonderful combination. In the midst of the present economic crisis, these same virtues of entrepreneurship, creativity, spirit of renewal and innovation, are very much in demand.

Our joint diplomatic history started on May 7th, 1919. The U.S. Secretary of State Mr. Robert Lansing cabled to Mr. Rudolf Holsti, the Finnish Foreign Minister, the following message: "Excellency, I have the honour to inform your Excellency that the United States has recognized the independence of Finland and the Government, of which Your Excellency is a member, as de facto Government of Finland."

The uncertain times of Finland's early independence and civil war had passed, and the international community was ready to accept Finland as its new, full-fledged member. Finland was of course very gratified that the United States took this important step.

In August 1919, Mr Armas Saastamoinen, a wealthy industrialist from Kuopio, presented his credentials to President Wilson as Finland's first diplomatic representative to the United States. The United States appointed Mr. Alexander Magruder as Chargé d'Affaires to Helsinki in January 1920.

We are pleased to see Ambassador Derek Shearer in Helsinki and among us here today. Derek Shearer became a good personal friend to many of us in this hall during his Ambassadorial years in the mid 1990's. Ambassador Shearer belongs to the long row of able American Ambassadors accredited to Finland, including career professionals, notable politicians and businessmen. And Derek Shearer didn't just want to sit behind his Ambassador's desk in Kaivopuisto. He was the first ever U.S. Ambassador in Finland who flew supersonic in an F-18 Hornet purchased by the Finnish Air Force. Derek, I said first ever because you are not the only one in this exclusive club any more. Ambassador Barbara Barrett did the same thing and joined the club last year.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Much of the early work by the Finnish Embassy and the Consulates in the United States was devoted to the affairs of Finnish immigrants. Immigration brought almost 300.000 Finns to the new continent between 1900 and 1930. In the mid 1920's two new Consulate offices were opened, one in Duluth, Minnesota and another in Seattle. The Duluth Consulate reported in 1932 that almost 200 000 Finns lived in its operating range.

The Embassy was assisted in passport matters by a temporary "Finland Office" in New York. The office assisted in delivering passport application forms and sending filled applications to the Embassy in Washington. A Consulate General Office was opened in New York in 1919 and the office got an official permit in January 1920. The first Consul-General in New York was Axel Solitander, who later served as Minister for Trade and Industry in Finland.

The Consulates in Duluth and Seattle were closed in the 1930's and 1940's as the Finnish immigrants gradually got settled in American society. A Vice Consul office was opened in Los Angeles in 1948 and the activities of the Embassy and the Consulates then focused on other areas such as political, economic, cultural and trade. Today, in addition to our Embassy in Washington, D.C., there are two Finnish Consulates-General in New York and Los Angeles, as well as 33 Honorary Consulates in various parts of the United States.

Ladies and Gentlemen

In the early years of Finland's independence one of the most urgent matters was to get financing from America to ease the food shortage in Finland. In early 1919, the Finnish Government applied for a loan from the U.S. Government to buy grain. The U.S. agreed, and the details including the payment schedule were finalized in an international agreement in 1923. Then came the Great Depression. All countries ceased their repayments to Uncle Sam. There was one exception: Finland. The Governor of the Bank of Finland, Mr. Risto Ryti stated: "We signed a contract. We promised to pay. It is the only honest thing to do."

What a fantastic Public Diplomacy victory this was for Finland. Around 3000 newspaper articles were written about a small honest country in the North of Europe that pays back its debt to America. Even today, the story of the trustworthy Finns, the country that paid back its debt, is remembered in the United States by the elder generations.

This good reputation helped us during the Second World War and even after. In the WW2 Finland fought for her very existence against the Soviet Union. The United States was engaged in a global war and the set-up put us to different sides. The situation led to a break in our diplomatic relations. The Consulate General in New York was closed in 1943, and the two Embassies in Washington and Helsinki in 1944. But the United States never declared war against Finland. The American sentiment was strongly supportive for Finland. Americans viewed Finns as a heroic nation, determined to survive and keep alive her values and democratic system of government.

Diplomatic relations were restored in September 1945, when the U.S. Government appointed Mr. Maxwell Hamilton as Minister in the American Embassy in Helsinki. The first Finnish Minister in Washington was Mr. K.T. Jutila. The Embassies in Helsinki and Washington D.C. were elevated into full embassy status in 1954. Finland did not become part of the Marshall Plan but we got other support from the United States. Part of the Finnish debt was converted to a fund to finance Finnish-American scientific and educational exchanges, the ASLA-Fulbright programme. It has opened invaluable contacts and international avenues for many Finnish scholars and scientists.

Ladies and Gentlemen

The dangerous confrontation of the Cold War period tested both the nerves and the policies all over the world. The division of Europe became deep and all-inclusive. Winston Churchill first used the term "Iron Curtain". There were virtually no contacts between people of the two competing sides.

Finland's geographic location was between the East and the West next to the Soviet Union, a neighbour that had invaded our country in 1939. Finland came out of the WW2 as a crippled but not as a conquered nation. Finland remained free and we had to find a way to cope with the situation. We endeavoured to develop constructive relations with our giant Communist neighbor. This was far from easy but the overall relationship between Finland and the Soviet Union was stable. The policy of neutrality became the hallmark of Finland.

The U.S. understood well the delicate Finnish position and supported cultural and student exchanges, trade links as well as Finnish integration into international organisations. The U.S. supported Finland's endeavours to integrate into the economic institutions of the West. Finland joined the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in 1950, the EFTA (European Free Trade Area) in 1961 and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) in 1969.

At the same time questions were raised about Finland's chances of survival. Would Finland be able to resist the Soviet pressure? Or would Finland be "neutralized" and then dominated by the Soviet Union? "Finlandisation" became a catchword in the diplomatic vocabulary. Annals of diplomatic history tell that some Americans were worried that Finnish leaders would gradually lose their faith in the success of Western ideals in the face of the growing Soviet influence, particularly in the military area.

But there were also many who saw that, in fact, the Finnish policy, not provoking its big neighbour but keeping to its neutrality in a calm and determined way and simultaneously seeking international recognition and economic integration with the West, was the best available option.

The lower level of tension in the North of Europe and Finland's policy to actively promote East-West relations seemed to serve the U.S. interests quite well. During the Cold War, Finland played an important role as a meeting place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Finland hosted the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in the early 1970's. Many American Presidents and other high-level officials stayed in Finland on their way to Moscow. Helsinki has been a meeting place also after the Cold War. Presidents George Bush and Mikhael Gorbachev met here in 1990 and Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Jeltsin in 1997.

We all know that the former Secretary of State Dr. Kissinger in 1975 was no friend of the Helsinki process. As a scholar par excellence of realpolitik he was deeply suspicious of Molotov's early plan to convene a European security conference, destined to cement the post-war frontiers of Europe and the gains of the Soviet Union.

But the Soviet initiative was essentially modified, not least because of Finnish action. Finland was among the first to insist that the future conference should not only be confined to frontiers but should also open the avenues of cooperation, including in the area of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

"Security is not achieved through erecting fences but by opening gates", President Kekkonen declared in the Finlandia Hall in 1975. The CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) was designed to bridge the East-West divide. It meant an alleviation, not a sanctioning of the division of Europe. The Helsinki Accords played an immense role in the evolution of relations across the dividing line, the Iron Curtain. The CSCE - today's OSCE - not only survived the Cold War but also contributed greatly to its demise.

Today all recognize that the Helsinki Process helped transform the continent for the better and lessen the dangers of confrontation - paving the way for expanding liberal democracy and freedom in Europe at large. Even today, the Helsinki Final Act and its ten principles remain the basic rule book guiding the interaction of participating States, acting as a compass of their behaviour in all instances. The original Helsinki architecture, the three pillars or "baskets" : building security comprehensively with military, economic and human components underpinning each other, are today equally important as they were 34 years ago.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended, Finland supported the process to rebuild the continent, a "Europe whole and free", as President Clinton put it. Institutions remain important for the Finns, and we wanted to make sure that the democratic organisations of the West remained open and welcoming to all democratic nations of Europe able and willing to integrate and become part of the common framework. Finland supported the enlargement of both the EU and NATO and continues to believe that these enlargements serve the twin goal of stability and prosperity in Europe.

A very special role for Finland opened in the aftermath of the tumultuous period in the Balkans, following the atrocities initiated by President Milosevic against Kosovo. President Ahtisaari's job was to bring the war to an end and deal with the situation that had emerged. One of his most difficult tasks was to go to Belgrade to convince Mr. Milosevic that the peace offer, worked out by him and Mr. Strobe Talbott, the then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, and the Russians, including former Prime Minister Mr. Victor Chernomyrdin, was the only option for him. Strobe Talbott attended the Nobel Prize awarding ceremony in Oslo last December as Martti Ahtisaari's special guest.

Ladies and Gentlemen

True friends are able to talk not only about things that unite them but also about things that they see as problematic. Of all the firm friends of the United States Finland is no exception. Recent years have not been without complications. Yet, this should in no way overshadow the fact that Finland, like many other nations, highly values the vital role and place of th U.S among democratic nations, with its cherished values of human dignity, individual liberty and freedom, human rights and the rule of law. The world is a complicated place. New challenges, from climate change to terrorism, nuclear proliferation or swine flu, face us every day. The world without the U.S. input could be a very difficult world.

Today when we all struggle with a deep economic crisis we look to America for continued entrepreneurship and dynamism, in order to get us back to sustainable growth and prosperity. We emphasize the importance of enhanced transatlantic cooperation. It is time to work together. Finland and the United States are close and valued partners to each other in all areas, including trade, technology and investment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

After having received the message about the U.S. recognition of Finland on May 7th, 1919, Finnish Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti replied to Secretary Lansing: "Your Excellency's letter will remain forever one of the surest shields of Finland's independence and a noble guide to her of the lofty ideals which have been the fundamental source of the democratic freedom of the United States themselves".

That encapsulates well the spirit of 90 years of Finnish-American diplomatic relations and our longstanding friendship.

This document

Updated 5/6/2009

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