FINLAND: 'The Finnish advantage is knowledge'
Thomas Cromwell

Nursultan Nazarbayev

Finland proves that even a small country can have a significant impact on the world if it is focused on developing its strong points. With just over five million people, Finland, through its emphasis on education and creating a knowledge-based society, has created an educational system that is rated among the best in the world and which produces a world-class group of engineers who are responsible for many technological innovations. In fact a stunning 27 percent of masters degrees are in engineering (compared with some eight percent in the United States).

"The Finnish advantage is knowledge," Ambassador Jukka Valtasaari says simply. "If knowledge is a component of a product, Finland is a good place to invest."

Finland has not stumbled onto a focus on education and knowledge by chance. Rather it has seen that this is where it can lead and be competitive in the world. SITRA, The Finnish National Fund for Research and Development , which was set up in 1967 to serve as a think tank for Finland's future, and is supported by an endowment of $1 billion, conducts studies into areas in which Finland can excel in the future. The ambassador, who has sat on its board, says that all the studies point to education as the top priority for Finland's success in the future.

Education and the knowledge society it has produced have made Finland a net exporter of inventions and a base for some of the world's leading technology companies. Probably the best known of these is telecoms giant Nokia, which is the world leader in mobile phone design and manufacture. But Finland is credited with one percent of worldwide innovations, a huge figure for a small country.

And all areas of Finnish society and industry benefit from innovative thinking and new approaches to problem-solving. Ambassador Valtasaari points out that in forestry and the paper industry, traditional economic mainstays, technology is used to get the maximum out of each tree, in timber or paper and by-products. "Papermaking has become extremely high-tech," the ambassador says. This is accomplished in part by giving each tree a digital identity and then creating a record for it. In this way, 80 percent of each tree is used, and the whole process of paper manufacture is kept within Kyoto parameters. What's more, 60-70 percent of what would otherwise be left on the ground in the timber-cutting process is now used to produce heat for nearby cities.

Kyoto was not the impetus, the ambassador points out. The engineers who developed these systems were simply focused on making their businesses successful.

And, he says, imagine how it would be if each person had a card that contained his or her entire medical records, updated with each visit to a doctor or hospital. More complex than trees, indeed, but the potential for efficiency and savings would be enormous.

Going hand-in-hand with its focus on education is Finland's emphasis on transparency and clean government, earning it the ranking of least corrupt nation on earth.

Part of Finland's success is its small size. But the more important element is the cohesion among the various segments of society. "We do a lot of work in Finland to produce a common concept of the future," the ambassador says. The process involves all the key players, including government, NGOs, the business community, etc. As a result, "We have developed a common view," he says.

The strength of this is that with this buy-in from different stakeholders, all the major institutions, from the army to individual businesses, work in synergetic approaches to a shared national vision.

And, a national culture of openness to knowledge and free flow of information underlies the approach to everything from education to business innovation and foreign affairs. As Ambassador Valtasaari says, "Cultural paradigms dictate how you approach life." In the case of Finland, the cultural paradigms have deep roots. Surviving long, harsh winters required close cooperation within and among families, creating a strong ethos of social cohesion. What's more, the role of women in maintaining homes was very important. A recent study by the World Economic Forum found that Scandinavian countries ranked the best in bridging the male-female divide in equality, with Finland ranked fifth in the world. "We are tapping the entire talent in Finland," the ambassador says.

This social cohesion in the face of challenges has also served to make Finns tough. "We always had to prevail in our own interests," the ambassador says. He tells of Stalin describing Finns to Tito as "nuts," in the sense that they are hard to crack. Indeed, they succeeded in persuading the Communist governments in Moscow that it was to their advantage to have a good relationship with a Western nation, Finland, thereby preserving a delicate state of independence in the shadow of the Soviet empire.

Ambassador Valtasaari sees Finland's cultural paradigms embodied in the technology developed around mobile phones, for example. Through their predisposition to share information, the Finns have proven adept at developing technologies that facilitate the flow of information in the easiest ways for the maximum number of people. 

The ambassador says that Finland and America have enjoyed a "wonderful" relationship, especially since World War II. Through programs such as student exchanges (which in Finland are know by their American name, Fulbrights), Finns have developed a strong affinity to American ways, especially in areas such as technological innovation. (Finnish productivity is now on a par with American.) In fact so deeply engrained are these exchanges that students take it for granted that one of their secondary school years will be spent in America.

Asked why Scandinavian countries in general seem to excel in design, the ambassador says he thinks this is due in part to the shared environment in which light and dark are juxtaposed in special ways. In apparel, he says, "We have had intelligent clothing for some time." In furniture and architecture, the simple lines or Scandinavian designs reflect the stark lights and shadows of the north.

In fact the Finnish Embassy in Washington, a building of graceful steel and glass that is designed to blend into the woods at its back, is a perfect embodiment of the best in Scandinavian architecture, and has long been a star on Embassy Row. And, true to the Finnish principle of openness, the embassy may be the only one that is open to the public. Programs there have drawn 155,000 visitors in the decade since the new building was opened, with some exhibits attracting between six and ten thousand visitors.

"I spend quite some time on this," the ambassador says of the embassy's outreach in Washington. "We make an effort in order to be interesting," with seminars, exhibits, concerts, lectures and the like. The ambassador, who first served in Washington from 1988 to 1998 and returned in 2001, also has found that "The evening circuit in Washington is very important."

This is in part because of the ascendancy of the European Union in foreign affairs, reducing the role of individual members in negotiating bilateral agreements with Washington. The ambassador stresses that Finland does not give up its sovereignty by accepting the collective representation of the EU in some matters, such as trade policy, which are covered by EU-US agreements. Policy formation in Washington takes place largely out of sight, he says. 

However, he points out that if an EU member has a strong foreign policy issue, "in many cases you drag the EU with you." For example, the Scandinavian role in the EU was to give it more focus on the north. And, since EU relations with Russia are important and for a while Finland was the only EU country with a border with Russia, EU interest was drawn to how Finland managed that relationship. 

But, in general, international interest in Finland is not centered on foreign policy issues, as it often was in the Soviet period. In the past, the ambassador says, people asked: "How do you manage with the Soviet Union?" Now they want to know: "Why are so many conductors Finnish?" In fact Finland enjoys very good relations with Russia today, but, first and foremost, the world wants to know how Finns score so well in education. "This is a great strategic interest of the United States now," Ambassador Valtasaari says.


Biography of Ambassador Jukka Valtasaari

Jukka Valtasaari has been the Ambassador of Finland in Washington,  D.C.,  from  November 1988 to January 1996,  and again since October 2001.  Between his Washington tours he served as the Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs in Helsinki, which is the highest non-elected office in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.  His previous postings include Director General for Foreign Trade in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs 1988, Deputy Director General 1985 to 1988 and Director of Arms Control 1983 to 1985. 

Prior to joining Finland's foreign service in 1966, he lectured on economics at the University of Helsinki from 1963 to 1966. 

He was an International Fellow at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, in 1976 to 1977.

Mr. Valtasaari was born in Finland 1940, graduated from high school in 1958, received his M.Pol.Sci.  from the University of Helsinki in 1962,  majoring in economics,  and his Lic.Pol.Sci. degree in 1965,  majoring in economics and political science. 

He is married to Etel, née Gadd, Occupational Therapist, and has three children, the oldest, Sonja  lives with her family in Kensington,  Maryland,  his son Mika  works with Nokia in Copenhagen,  and the youngest,  Natalia is a sophomore at the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration. 

Mr. Valtasaari writes and speaks frequently on topics related to foreign policy and trade. He has been awarded many decorations by Finland and other countries for his services.