The question to be asked here is whether sauna can be located at the core of the Finnish cultural diplomacy or whether it belongs into the realm of traditional diplomacy? Or should the sauna actually be kept out of diplomacy?
It seems that sauna and diplomacy might have a twofold relationship. Sauna is among the most important cultural items of the Finnish society and could even be a part of the Finnish brand but at the same time, sauna has been used as a cultural tool that accommodates some of the most heated government-to-government negotiations.
Some facts about the role of Sauna in Finland:
- 3 million saunas (population of 5.3 million)
- More saunas than cars (!)
- Sauna is the only Finnish word used globally
- All Finnish diplomatic and consular missions have their own saunas
- Finns are known to take their saunas with them, even peacekeepers build saunas wherever they go
(Torstila, 2010 and Gannon and Pillai, 2010:160)
As mentioned above, all the diplomatic premises have their own saunas and there are even “sauna academies”, which gather significant people together. A story of one such academy from The Washington Post.
Sauna has played a significant role in the Finnish pavilion of both the 2010 Shanghai Expo (Giant’s Kettle) and the 2000 Hannover Expo (Wind Nest) and the choice to have a sauna in these pavilions might highlight its importance for the Finnish brand, as according to one study:
The most common goal [for participators] was to enhance national image…World Expositions have also become a platform for ‘national branding’. Countries are beginning to understand that national reputations have economic and political value (Walvis, 2003:361).
Finnish saunas have also been built for example in the Sport Palace constructed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games (Torstila 2010) and into the premises of the Sino-Finnish Centre of the Tongji University in Shanghai, home to the Sino-Finnish Sauna Club (Elomaa, 2012).
Finnish sauna has also got its fair share of media coverage:
Sauna and government-to-government negotiations:
There are numerous examples of sauna being used to advance diplomatic negotiations. The Finnish Cold War President Urho Kekkonen is said to have “left his guests to steam until a deal had been hammered out” (Torstila 2010). The current Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb writes about similar practice in his book “The Naked truth” and Martti Ahtisaari, former President and Nobel peace laureate has emphasized the role of sauna for being a place where negotiating parties can “meet and talk, meet and talk” (cited in Torstila 2010). Recently Olli Rehn, Vice-President of the European Commission was accused of sexism following his attempts at sauna diplomacy. The Guardian article above! Even UN Secretary-General has visited a Finnish sauna while meeting with the former President Tarja Halonen, Ban Ki-moon’s speech with a funny anecdote about the visit.
Cultural diplomacy has no clear definition, which relates to the difficulty to define culture (and even diplomacy) and there are no agreements over its objectives and to make life complicated, it is difficult to measure its success – its long term impacts are hard to measure (Mark 2009: 3-6). This in mind, we can turn to sauna for the final time. Can it be beneficial for the Finnish cultural diplomacy and how can this be measured? Following Mark’s analysis, it is possible to measure the number of visitors to specific saunas around the world and even the media coverage they have, but can sauna reach the wider public or just small fragments of the society/national elites? At least sauna has one advantage compared to many other items of cultural diplomacy, it is a concrete structure that stays in the location where as concerts and exhibitions move forward and become memories.
Finally, Simon Mark argues that cultural diplomacy is “a little studied tool of diplomacy” (Mark, 2009) and since sauna diplomacy has not been academically studied, I am in murky waters here and all comments would be most appreciated!
- Henley, Jon “The Euro finance commissioner and his heated debates in the sauna” in the Guardian, Monday 5 March 2012, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/05/euro-finance-commissioner-sauna, last accessed 11.04.2012
- Horowitz, Jason “At Finnish Embassy, the heat is on” in The Washington Post, 18.03.2012, available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/17/AR2010031703965.html last accessed 11.04.2012
- Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Press Release, 6/13/2011 “Finnish Sauna Society recognises the sauna diplomacy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs” available at: http://www.formin.fi/public/default.aspx?contentid=222849&nodeid=15145&contentlan=2&culture=en-US last accessed 11.04.2012
- “Sauna Diplomacy; the Finnish Recipe” Speech by Finnish Secretary of State Pertti Torstila at XV International Sauna Congress 2010, 27-28 May, Tokyo, available at http://formin.finland.fi/public/default.aspx?contentid=222929&nodeid=15149&contentlan=2&culture=en-US last accessed 11.04.2012
- UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, speech, “Remarks at reception hosted by the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations in honour of President Halonen”, 22.09.2011, available at http://www.un.org/apps/news/infocus/sgspeeches/search_full.asp?statID=1320 last accessed 11.04.2012
- Walvis, Tjaco “Building Brand Locations” in Corporate Reputation Review, Winter 2003, Vol 5, Issue 4
*the tittle is borrowed from the opening of Secretary of State Pertti Torstila’s Speech