The Vatanen touch?

May 24, 2012

by Louis Clerc

Following in the steps of other sportsmen-philosophers, the Finnish rally driver Ari Vatanen has been throughout his career a reliable source of candid, shot-from-the-hip soundbites. This one comes from a seminar organized by the Finnish authorities in relation with the 1989 Lahti Ski World Championship:

Finland is a cold, poor, remote and communist country…

As one can imagine, Vatanen’s judgement was worryingly examined in Finland, both in the press and in more exalted spheres – for example during the meetings of the National Information Committee (Kansainvälisen Tiedottamisen Neuvottelukunta, abr. Kantine). Created in 1988 under Finland’s Foreign Ministry, the Committee had been given the task to improve Finland’s public diplomacy: a better “country image” was to be one of the tools Finland would use in the new, more competitive, more integrated economic and political Europe.

For the members of Kantine, Vatanen was an ambivalent figure. Although his outspoken style made him a constant public relations hazard, the rally ace was one of the best-known Finns abroad; an ideal billboard for Finland’s image policy.

Vatanen was not the only “informal diplomat” Kantine discussed about: artists, young athletes, scholars, prominent businessmen, language teachers abroad were examined as possible relays of an official discourse on Finland’s society, foreign policy, history, culture. Nor was the idea particularly new. Before the country’s independence in 1917, the Finnish national movement had seen a host of informal ambassadors spreading a certain vision of Finland’s position inside the Russian empire. Certain members of these networks, like for example the University scholar Yrjö Hirn, moved seamlessly from nationalist propaganda into a diplomatic career (Clerc). After the independence, the Finnish authorities knew how to use these informal ambassadors, during quiet times and sometimes in connection with dramatic crises: the long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi, for example, was put to use in film reels destined to foreign audiences during the 1939-1940 Winter War (Nurmi at 2″08).

In a comparatively small society like Finland, this use of ad hoc diplomats points to a fascinating interplay between the official authorities and civil society actors, both in the country and abroad. The broader issue hidden under these cases is the nature of this interplay specifically in the public diplomacy efforts of small states. In his book on Canada’s public diplomacy, Ewan Potter writes (Potter, 65) that

the only differences in the public diplomacy of large-, medium-, and small-sized countries lie in the organization of the structures and the budgets that can be devoted to each type of public diplomacy

While it is obvious that most of small states’ diplomacy works in the same way than Great powers’, small states’ national image management efforts seem to have specific features, clearly on display in Kantine’s work. Some of these features have been emphasized by Jozef Bátora in his study of Norway and Canada (Bátora). The diplomatic apparatus of small states might acquire more ”naturally” the conviction that national image is an important asset, a field to be occupied by diplomatic actors. Small states’ public diplomacy might also be more “attention grabbing” than “value spreading”, communication than advocacy. Small states might have less difficulties to ensure their outward legitimacy – while great powers have the burden of their obvious hard power interests to carry, small states can present their national interests in terms that are more acceptable, and can appear more legitimate.

Finally, coming back to Ari Vatanen, the tools and practices used by small states might be different from the ones used by Great powers. Particularly, small states might make more use of networks abroad, informal ambassadors, partly out of easier communication between the authorities and civil society actors. In a small state, working with the authorities to improve the national image abroad might be well within the pale of acceptable elite behavior. As the circumstances of this interplay change and evolve with time and context, they seem to organize in ways subtly different than those exposed in the diplomatic practices of Great powers.


Jozef Bátora, Public Diplomacy in Small and Medium-sized States: Norway and Canada, Clingendael Discussion Papers in Diplomacy (Netherlands Institute of international Relations “Clingendael,” 2005)

Louis Clerc, “A Feeling for Justice: French Reactions to the “Finnish Cause” between 1870 and 1917. Journal of Baltic Studies, Vol. 38, issue 2, June 2007. 235-254.

Kantine’s papers, Finland’s Foreign Ministry Archives, Helsinki

Ewan Potter, ed., Branding Canada, Projecting Canada’s Soft Power Through Public Diplomacy (MacGrew Hill, 2009).