“Semi-official diplomacy” case: Martti Ahtisaari and CMI

October 11, 2012

by Louis Clerc

The first thing one notices when opening the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative‘s website is the big DONATE button. Money, of course, is of the essence for an organization such as this. It was reminded to the Finnish-speaking readership through a long article in Helsingin Sanomat (paywall, in Finnish) a few weeks from now; under the title “A peace mediator with money issues” (“Rauhanvälittäjää riivaa rahapula“) was basically a long advertisement piece for the CMI. The organization’s executive director, Tuija Talvitie, showed journalists around and complained about the scarcity and project-based nature of the Center’s funding.

According to the Center’s website:

CMI’s main funder is the Government of Finland with a share of 53%. Private foundations and societies are also significant supporters (21%), as well as other governments and the European Commission.

The article quotes Talvitie saying that 15% of the 7 millions they needed for 2012 had to come from private sources and were difficult to come by. A normal situation for any University or research center, but the CMI is Finland’s leading semi-private peace-mediation organization, that The Economist classified recently amongst the four top players in this field. CMI has been created in 2000 by Martti Ahtisaari, former Finnish diplomat and former president of Finland. In the early 2000s, Ahtisaari was active as a mediator in ex-Yugoslavia, and for example in the Aceh dispute. He was awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The Economist‘s piece gives a good run-down of the main issues involved in the activities of such “private mediation”, “track 2 diplomacy” offices as CMI. The article pinpoints four particularly active organizations:

In what has become a crowded field, the biggest players are: the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) based in Helsinki and founded in 2000 by Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland; the Carter Centre’s Conflict Resolution Programme, which helped win Jimmy Carter the Nobel peace prize in 2002; the Congress-funded but independent United States Institute of Peace (USIP); and HD, which was established in 1999 by Martin Griffiths, a British diplomat and former UN assistant secretary-general.

These organizations have interesting specificities. Most of the time they revolve around a prominent personality, ex-Head of state or diplomat, his network and reputation as a good will ambassador. This is not a new phenomenon, as the example of Fridtjof Nansen and his International Office for Refugees can show, but it seems to get a new dimension in the post-Cold War world.

These organizations also seem to work in an intermezzo between state-funded and private, official and non-official. Most of those depend on the states that host them for money, but also, one might think, for other resources: intelligence, personnel, networks, communication, etc. The CMI does not act completely in a vacuum, and if it cannot be seen simply as an extension of the Finnish Foreign Ministry, it remains very much in contact with official diplomats. CMI and organizations of this sort should not be mixed with “corporatediplomacy“, for example, or even with the work of classical NGOs. Contacts with state activities are important, especially in “small states” like Switzerland and the Nordic Countries, which have been classical players in peace-building and mediation. Amongst the Nordic Countries, Norway appears as the most involved in these activities, through a combination of tradition as an “in-between” country, political will and resources. The Oslo Forum of Mediators stands as a good example of Norway’s involvement.

As The Economist emphasizes, these organizations have a function. As non-official, they can act quicker and at different levels than state diplomacy. They bring different patterns of legitimacy, involvement, interests than pure state diplomacy. They make excellent mediators, good will ambassadors, fact-finders, first contacts and such activities lying either below the level where states’ authority and resources should be mobilized, or beyond that level. The feeling coming from the Helsingin Sanomat‘s article is that an organization like CMI has most of its daily activity in peace-building, expertise, disaster relief, reconstruction, and development aid. Actual armed conflict mediation or “diplomatic” work seems to be just a part of these organizations’ work, not necessarily the most important. Also, while Ahtisaari is still active, the Center cannot be reduced to just Ahtisaari’s activities.

These organizations form a very interesting field for studies, at least around two questions: their link with official diplomatic efforts, and the changes this semi-official diplomatic organization went through in the post-Cold War context. CMI has been the object of only a few studies, one of them Mette Vuola’s Master’s Thesis for the University of Helsinki. Vuola rises an interesting point: the need of an organization like CMI to prove its legitimacy and its relevance, mostly by emphasizing its specific expertise. She writes about the “marketing logic” through which CMI has managed to sell its activities as legitimate and worthy of consideration and funding by the Finnish government. This rises the question of a “privatization” of peace mediation, in a sort of parallel process to the emergence of private security contractors in and around the US war effort in Iraq and elsewhere. Vuola also emphasizes the term “semi-official peace mediation” (puolivirallinen rauhanvälittäminen) as the best way to designate CMI’s activities.

Ahtisaari’s case brings another problem: the link between diplomats and domestic policy, the way diplomats and envoys are perceived by domestic opinions. There is a complex interplay of politics and representations in that. Ahtisaari became in 2008 one of the most famous Finns abroad, but to many Finns he is a domestic figure with political enemies and skeletons in the drawer. A vaguely ridiculous follower to sportive, straight-up presidents (Urho Kekkonen, Mauno Koivisto), mocked for his chubbiness or his limping way of walking (the infamous “Mara Walk”), he also represents the diplomat and party apparatchik who rose to presidency as a surprise candidate, and the pro-NATO/pro-EU wing of the Social-Democratic party. Beyond these domestic political elements, one also gets the feeling of a vague suspicion linked with a wider doubt about diplomats, those in-betweeners between the national group and the wider world, that the most nationalistic can see as too worldly to really understand anymore or represent their own country. There would be an interesting link to be made here between political, social, national conceptions and the perceptions of diplomatic envoys.

Ahtisaari has given his version of the Aceh talks, his morceau de bravoure, in various places: Here, here, and here.