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Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the World of Sauna Diplomacy*

by on April 12, 2012

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!


*the tittle is borrowed from the opening of Secretary of State Pertti Torstila’s Speech


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  1. Thank you for a fascinating and very original entry on the blog. You have provided a brief but definitive account of the sauna in Finnish diplomacy. I had no idea that there is a sauna in every mission overseas. And I really liked your point about the double nature of the sauna as both a site for negotiation and a form of cultural diplomacy in its own right. The nature of a sauna must have some impact on the talks which take place within them – I liked your pun about ‘heated’ negotiations. This is obviously a subject which demands much more research (especially as the Russians are rather fond of their saunas too).

    You have done some great research for this piece. In places you have resorted to listing points rather than developing an argument. I hope you get to link some of these points together and develop your arguments further when you come to revise the entry for inclusion in your seminar log. Nonetheless, a very good and interesting piece. Well done!

  2. misgee permalink

    In complete agreement with Steve! this was a totally out of the box fascinating way to look at cultural diplomacy, if the Americans can claim the institute of Hollywood as a cultural component or the British can claim their many heritage sites as such, I think it is only fair that the Finnish lay the same claim to ‘saunas’. We all know many a business deal has been negotiated on golf courses, I am sure that, even many more political compromises have been ‘steamed’ out in one of these!

  3. You’re so interesting! I do not believe I have read through
    something like that before. So nice to find anotther person with some original thoughts on this subject matter.
    Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that’s needed on the web, someone with a
    bit of originality!

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  1. Urho Kekkonen museum at Tamminiemi (Helsinki)

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