Diplomatic Figures

March 20, 2013

by Louis Clerc

Not to turn this blog into a series of obituaries, but two fascinating diplomatic figures have died recently. One of them is probably known of this blog’s readership: the French Stéphane Hessel, who passed away late February; the other certainly less so: the Finn Max Jakobson, who died on March 9th.

These two figures had a lot in common. They were both classical examples of a specific type of diplomat: the multilingual, cosmopolitan, worldly man of words and networks. Both were gifted with great intelligence and fascinating public personalities: while there was an endearing, youthful petulance to Hessel, Jakobson carried himself with, in turn, brooding elegance or the sort of British “service with a smile”-attitude one would expect from someone raised in 1950s London. Both were good writers, and had had full, tortuous lives between borders and languages. Jakobson was born in Viipuri to a Jewish family, before the city became a part of the USSR in the aftermath of World War II. His life unfolded between Helsinki, London and the US, first as a journalist and foreign correspondent, then as a Finnish diplomat, finally as a public intellectual, writer, and the head of a business lobby group, EVA. In 1960s-1970s Finland, he was surprisingly cosmopolitan and unabashedly capitalist. The life of Berlin-born Hessel was an even more bewildering maze of people, places, countries, religions. With a father of Jewish origins and a protestant mother, he had grown between Germany and France, settling in France and to an eventful life between World War II and a post-war career in the French diplomatic services. Both worked in the UN: Hessel in the late 1940s as a modest “errand boy” (his terms); Jakobson in the late 1960s as Finland’s permanent representative.

Hessel was known in France by those with an interest in public affairs, but he came to a wider fame in his later years, with the publication in 2010 of his pamphlet Indignez-vous! (translated in English as Time for outrage!).  The retired diplomat, resistance fighter, death camp survivor, became the grand old man of engagement against injustice, the elegant and soft-spoken godfather of all indignados. Notwithstanding the merits and defaults of this short text, it gave one the occasion to dig deeper into the man’s life and listen to what he had to say about his diplomatic work. France Culture, an operation of the French public radio broadcaster Radio France, did part of the job by re-running a series of interviews Hessel did in 1988 with the journalist Bernard Pingaud. In the second installment of the series, Hessel comes back on the first years of the UN with great candor, and I noted at least two things. First, he insisted on the enthusiasm and energy that characterized the early years of the organization. Hessel describes an unlikely cast of all nationalities, trades and ways of life gathered in New York around the conviction that a new international environment was in the making, that would topple down the old states. For a young French diplomat who had fought in the resistance, New York was one of the obvious places to be, and the UN was a calling. Hessel describes the role of jurists like René Cassin, political figures like Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom he has no compliments strong enough) and others. But, and this is the second thing, the disillusion was quick, and Hessel’s decision in 1951 to ask his transfer to Paris comes from this disappointment. The resilience of the nation-states, he concludes, forced those who stayed, the “international civil servants”, “to feel happiness when anything, however small, succeeds – because they see modest steps towards an international society in even the smallest things, born after the most gruesome debates, through the most difficult compromises.” This part of the interview is a fascinating dive in the mind of  “multilateral diplomats”.

One would never associate Jakobson with this kind of elated hopes and enthusiasm. If he worked also in the UN, he was there always very clearly as Finland’s representative, and as a cold warrior born and bred, was always more tuned to the thoughts of a Henry Kissinger or a Raymond Aron. He also shared with those two the same taste for elegant, witty writing, dry humor, and the slight sneer of those who are always right – and, of course, he was often right.

If Hessel brings us something on multilateral diplomacy and the interesting world of the early UN, Jakobson’s story is a fascinating dip in the meanders of Finland’s foreign relations, political life, and “national image management” during the Cold War. After starting his career in London as a journalist, Jakobson joined the Finnish foreign service as a press attache, then in the late 1950s as the main responsible for Finland’s public diplomacy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was the head of the Ministry’s Press and Culture Bureau from 1953 to 1962, then moved up the ladder to the Political Department, the UN as a permanent representative (1965-1971) and Stockholm as an ambassador. In all these posts he followed the lead of Ralph Enckell, one of the grand old men of Finland’s diplomacy in these years. Following Enckell, Jakobson became one of the most influential diplomat in Urho Kekkonen‘s Finland, and a master in the strange games of Finland’s “neutrality in the shadow of power” (to quote from George Maude). Jakobson’s writings over the year do give a good idea of his vision for Finland’s foreign policy. His book on the 1939-1940 Winter War works as a fine entry point in this vision, where Jakobson chastised the Finnish 1930s leadership’s “idealism”, insisted on Finland’s loneliness during the conflict (he would continue to write on Finland as the “lone wolf” of European politics), and advocated a policy of balance between West and East, devoid of grandstanding but conscious of the realities of Finland’s geographical position.

But in the frame of this blog, what makes Jakobson stands out is his activity as an indefatigable, proficient and clever propagandist of Finland’s foreign policy towards foreign and especially Anglo-Saxon audiences. Finnish neutrality during the Cold War had two parts: convincing the East, and convincing the West. Convincing the West, explaining the position of Finland to Anglo-Saxon audiences, journalists, academic, was an important part of what Jakobson did during his career – both in public service and after his diplomatic career ended. Publishing, chaperoning foreign visitors to Finland, providing information to the likes of Stanford University’s Anatole Mazour, reacting to anything written on Finland by foreigners were just some of the activities through which Jakobson worked to spread certain notions on Finland’s foreign policy. He did that naturally as a diplomat, but he continued to do it as a private citizen and as the head of EVA. For many foreigners showing an interest in Finland, the first stop during fact-finding trips to Helsinki was in Max Jakobson’s office. In the small confines of Finland’s public life, marked by a strong sense of common purpose despite differences in visions and interests, participation in this “national” work came naturally. Jakobson’s skillset was also precious, and he is a good example of a series of Finnish figures standing between the private and the public, working from the aisles, especially in contacts with foreigners, “on behalf of Finland” (Suomen asialla). While most studies on Cold War Finland have concentrated on the guys at the top, Kekkonen and his inner circle dealing with the Soviet top brass, the activities of someone like Jakobson was extremely important as well. For anyone from France, the US, or Britain, starting academic research or writing journalistic pieces on Finland in the 1950s-1960s, peoples like Jakobson, Keijo Korhonen and the like were obvious and practical points of contact with a little-known country nobody cared about. Their visions pervaded books, articles and publications, and contributed to make up “what was known” about Finland.