In the silence of the foreign minister

The big news of the weekend has been president Barack Obama’s visit to his father’s homeland, Kenya.

The symbolism of the visit of the first African-American president of the United States to a leading African country, can hardly be more obvious.

What unites Kenya and America are the ways in which both countries are wrought with frustration – and with hope. Hopes arise from the apparent dynamism and forward looking spirit of their societies, economies and cultures. But frustration comes from the perennial tensions, and at times violent conflicts their nations face, and which bring to the fore the ethnic, cultural and race-based cleavages apparent in them.

To live with, and manage, difference, is one of the biggest challenges the humankind faces today.

The same applies, paradoxically, to Finland, which is one of the most culturally and socially homogenous countries in the world.

The big news in Finland has not  been Obama’s visit to Kenya, and his impassionate speech in a packed Nairobi gymnasium. The big news in Finland has been another peek into the melting pot of a new, virulent type of Finnish nationalism, that feeds itself with xenophobia, anti-islamism and explicit hatred of the idea of cultural co-existence, i.e. multiculturalism.

What is the right measure to judge the Breivik-styled outburst this weekend by Olli Immonen, member of Finnish parliament, to “defeat this nightmare called multiculturalism” and his call “to fight until the end for our homeland and one true Finnish nation”?

Indignation, irony, silence? Or just a list of basic facts?

Immonen is a member of Perussuomalaiset, one of the largest parties in Finland and which contains a significant xenophobic element. His party serves as a conduit for such opinions in the country at large.

The party holds governmental power in Finland. Its ministers control the foreign ministry, the ministry of defence and the justice ministry. The Speaker of the Parliament is from that party.

Their members naturally have private opinions and views. But anything they say in public, or in private, are set against these facts.

Their views represent power. Power given to them by the Finnish people. That is why their private views matter.

All this should be obvious to any experienced political operator or communicator. If trouble arises, the party leadership intervenes and restores orderly conduct.

Instead, the party is now hell-bent to let the Immonen-affair to escalate. The party leader, foreign minister Timo Soini has decided not to say anything on the matter, that is, effectively endorsing Immonen’s cry for war against cultural co-existence.

Practically at the same time when Barack Obama says in Nairobi: “I’m the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States. That goes without saying.”

Other party functionaries have tried to convince a skeptical public that Immonen’s views are merely his private views. Not many in the country buy that. And not surprisingly, the international media is slowly awakening for a scandal that refuses to blow over.

The Perussuomalaiset has weathered other similar scandals in the past. But this time is different. Why?

The crucial factor is the portfolio Timo Soini holds, the foreign ministry.

International relations is a special field of politics, loaded with symbolical and cultural forms of power. Reputational issues are incredibly important, especially in gaining trust by others. It may sound startling, but it makes all the difference who the person carrying the MFA portfolio is, and where and from what background she or he comes from.

Think of John Kerry in the middle east. Think of Obama in Kenya.

That is why many countries choose carefully whom they trust the all important foreign ministerships. Even the dictators often rely on professional diplomats – or at least less than colorful politicians. Remember Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s chief diplomat? Or Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s trusted man on the field?

There are many others that you cannot remember. But that is precisely the point.

International diplomacy is a world of its own, its customs and habits are centuries old. Finns have always understood this. A prior holder of the portfolio had to resign due to his habit of sending mildly erotic text messages to a busty celebrity.

A foreign minister cannot be the laughing stock of fellow diplomats. Neither can she or he be suspected for entertaining views that are in overt conflict with the ones she or he shares with her or his confidential interlocutors. Especially if they are allies, such as other EU- or Nordic countries.

Furthermore, the carrier of the MFA portfolio is more a representative of the Finnish state than other ministers are.

The diplomatists’ backgrounds, values, motives and operational principles are constantly analyzed and evaluated by other players. That is why views expressed in Soini’s power base (his parliamentary group and party) are directly relevant for the day-to-day handling of foreign affairs – of Finland.

And the longer Finland’s heads of state let this scandal simmer, the greater will the reputational damage be – to this great nation, and the state of Finland.

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