Proud of Finland, Proud of Europe

Q&A with Kirsti Kauppi, Ambassador of Finland

Name: Kirsti Kauppi | Age: 59 | Hometown: Tyrnävä in Northern Finland, close to the Arctic circle, in a small village close to Oulu

Ambassador to the U.S. since: September 17, 2015

Q: You began your career with the Foreign Ministry in Finland when you were just 25 years old. Was there a particular moment or experience that inspired you to pursue a diplomatic career?

Not at all. I never thought about a career in the Foreign Service. I was interested in international politics, history, international affairs, but I think it was the fact that there were some friends of mine when I studied — I studied economics in Helsinki — who then were recruited by the Foreign Ministry. At that time, in the early 80’s, the area I was interested in was development.

These friends of mine started working at the Foreign Ministry in development. Then I started thinking, “Well, it might be interesting,” but I have to say it was never something that I planned. I don’t know what I planned.

Everywhere in the world, there was a lot of discussion about the gaps in development, inequalities, poverty, and that was also something I found very important. In Finland, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there was a department for development cooperation, and it started to grow very rapidly so they were recruiting new people to work on those issues.

Q: At the time, were there many women in the Foreign Ministry?

I think around that time it started to change in the younger generations. About half of the new recruits were women. In the older generations, we had very few. But we did have some and they were in prominent positions so it was not an issue. You could think easily that you could have a good career in the Foreign Ministry as a woman.

Ambassador Kauppi in 1992.

Q: Did you think that you would ever become ambassador?

No, I didn’t. It was not important, so I never thought about it. I didn’t think about my work as a career. I thought about the issues, I found them interesting, and I wanted to work with those issues. I didn’t think about where it would take me as far as my career was concerned. I did what I liked to do, and the rest is history.

Q: What are your favorite parts of the job?

The feeling that you are working with issues that are crucially important and that you can actually have some influence. I like also the fact that it is changing and evolving. In our career (in the Foreign Ministry), you change jobs every 3 or 4 years. You have to start from the beginning, but you also learn a lot. You meet a lot of new people and there are always new issues, so you never stand still.

Q: What are your most important issues or what are the things you are most passionate about?

The future of the world we live in. The fact that we are so interconnected, so that something that happens far away has an impact on us. It’s very much about the future. I do think that we have a big responsibility vis-à-vis the coming generations, actually the existing generations.

It is important to understand that we cannot delegate the responsibility to anybody, we have to act ourselves.

I have worked with many different issues in my career. I started with development, and I worked a lot with Africa, and also Asia. I was posted in Bangkok and worked a lot on Nepal. Then the next phase was very much EU issues — that was very interesting and important. I have also worked a lot with security policy, both in a limited sense and a broad sense. My current job entails more or less…everything. I think it’s very much about two things: I’m very passionate about equality and also security in broad terms.

Q: Looking back over your career, what would you say was your most difficult challenge?

In my career there have been some ups and downs and sometimes when you are in the down you don’t know whether you are going up or not. It doesn’t necessarily relate to career prospects — it may be more about the issues at hand. There might be a dead end on an issue that you are working on. That is difficult. Also a sense that things are not progressing — like what we’re experiencing now for instance — that there might be a rollback on certain kinds of achievements. Those kinds of situations are difficult.

Q: If you hadn’t joined the Foreign Ministry, what do you think you would have liked to be?

Research, journalism, and teaching — some kind of combination of the three.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I’m very proud about Finland — the fact that we have a high level of equality in almost every sense. I’m also very proud about Europe. I think what we have achieved in the European Union is unique and historic, and I’m very anxious that it would remain so.

I think in my own work and life, I’m proud about some instances or situations where I have felt that I could actually contribute with some kind of new insight.

Ambassador Kauppi presented her credentials to President Obama at the White House on September 17, 2015. Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about gender. You are the second woman to serve as Finland’s ambassador to the United States. Have you experienced any gender-specific challenges in your career? How has gender affected your interactions?

About 50% of Finnish ambassadors are women. So for us, it’s a bit different than many other countries. When I joined the Foreign Service, everything looked very different from today. There were a lot of obstacles — the kind of obstacles that unfortunately are still there today in many environments. Normal obstacles would be that there are very few women, you would not be included in many situations, you would not be seen, you would not be heard, you would not be understood. I think that it is the case still in many working environments, but that started to change when there were more and more women, also when the male colleagues got used to it, and when you had situations when the majority were women. I think that it is also important that you have different kinds of environments. I have to say that during the past 15–20 years, there have been fewer and fewer occasions when I would need to think about it. We are in a lucky situation in the Foreign Ministry, and it probably also has something to do with your position.

When you are an ambassador, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a woman or a man. Everyone acknowledges that you represent your country.

I think things have changed in that respect. In the beginning of my career it was more difficult. You had to be more persistent, you also had to be accustomed to handling the kinds of situations where you would not be seen, heard, or understood. You had to have certain tactics to deal with those kinds of situations. Now, for me, as I said, it’s not really an issue that I have to think about very much. But I certainly think about gender whenever I’m in a situation where it may be an issue.

If you have a young woman diplomat and a young man diplomat and I see that he is seen, heard, and understood but she’s not, I try to somehow make the point that she said it. She said something important.

And this is something that we discuss quite a lot between the women ambassadors and some very good male colleagues. It is very important that everybody is recognized if they have something to say and even if they don’t. Gender equality is still an issue that needs attention. Maybe in the Foreign Ministry things have improved across the board, not only in Finland but in almost every country, but I think there are a lot of workplaces where you still meet these kinds of situations. You need to be aware and spot the situations where you must use good tactics to intervene. Not to make a big fuss about it, but to intervene in the sense that everybody gets heard. I think that’s important.

Q: To young women looking to pursue careers in Foreign Service, whether that’s in Finland, here in the U.S., or somewhere in Europe, what advice would you give them?

To be very persistent. Networks are important. In other words, that you have friends and colleagues — women and men — with whom you can discuss everything. Substantive issues, but also issues related to the workplace. It is very important that you have networks, that you have colleagues, friends, and a collegial atmosphere. Competition is present in almost every workplace, but I think the collegial atmosphere is much more important.

Q: What do you think is the most important characteristic or trait that a diplomat needs to be successful?

Openness is very important. Curiosity is very important. And you must love change. You have to love the fact that things change and nothing stays the same. That kind of adaptability is important. And it’s very important to be well-grounded in the sense that you have a lot of common sense. Because in the diplomatic world, you have to remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the issues. There is something that is called “The Ambassadorial Illness,” which means that you start to think that it’s about you. You begin to behave too much like an ambassador. It happens easily. In Washington it’s not so prominent, but in some countries you get treated like somebody really special…but you have to remember that it’s your country, it’s not you.

Q: You’ve served as the Finnish permanent mission to the EU as well as the head of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy coordination in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Helsinki. Coming back to Washington and working with the other EU Member State ambassadors, how has that been this time around?

The EU ambassadors — we’re like a family. It’s a family circle. You have a lot of solidarity between the ambassadors. It’s easy to get in touch, and that’s very important. We also have a lot of common goals and a common agenda. I have been lucky to have very close relationships with my EU colleagues in almost all my postings, including the postings I’ve had back at EU headquarters. It’s very, very important and it’s really like an extended family.

Q: What do you hope to see the EU accomplish during your time here as ambassador?

I would like to see the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiated and entered into force. I think it’s really, really important. It pains me to see that it has faced difficulties both here in the U.S. and in Europe because I do think that it would be very important for our future.

Q: Why is TTIP so important?

It is important for the economic dynamics, but it is also very important for the international rules and standards. There is a lot of competition among those who set the rules and standards, and this agreement would be a very important cornerstone of the international rules system. If we don’t set that cornerstone, someone else will do it, or nobody will do it, which is also really bad. It has a lot of strategic importance and I don’t want to think about the possibility that it will fail.

Q: What do you like most about life in DC?

I like everything, I really do. I like the city a lot — I lived here at the end of the 90’s. I like the climate, I like the work, I like my colleagues in the embassy. Outside the embassy I love the feeling that you can meet with all kinds of people, the best experts in almost every field and you get intellectual inspiration every day. So I have to say, I really do like everything. Of course, everything is, more or less, related to work. So in that sense, almost every moment in my life is somehow work-related. But I don’t mind it. I get so much out of it that I can take it for a few years.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time in DC?

I do a lot of biking downtown. Over the weekend, I did the Capital Crescent trail back through Rock Creek parkway, which is about 35 kilometers (approximately 22 miles). That was beautiful. I love the riverside — the Potomac. The city is very beautiful. It’s also wonderful to walk downtown at the National Mall or in Georgetown. I love to read. One of my favorite spots is Kramer Books…and Politics and Prose.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A book about Venice, which is very, very interesting. It starts when the Roman Empire really started to crumble and the great migrations were happening. You get this sense that there was a society where there was law and order, structure, institutions. And it suddenly crumbled, and everything that you had gotten used to was wiped out as far as a structure and society were concerned.

What I’m very worried about in the present situation is that we don’t understand how important the institutions are. We don’t give them the value they deserve, and we actually tend to undermine them ourselves.

Of course it’s up to the institutions themselves to be in good shape and stay accountable, but I think it is very dangerous if we start to underestimate the importance of the institutions. By institutions I mean many different things — the international institutions like the international economic institutions, but also the UN, in Europe — the EU, along with national institutions, even political parties. It’s very important that they are trusted by the population and that they function well.

Q: If there were one thing you could share with Americans about Finland, what would it be?

There is a people there up in the North, a small but well-educated people, which has a very eventful history and is aware that we are part of the same world. In other words, I think the Finns feel very strongly about the common responsibility of humankind. If you meet an ordinary Finn, and ask him or her to list the main issues, they would say climate change, poverty in the world, things like that. I think that is something important in Finland but also important for the Americans to understand that there are countries and people who see the world as a whole…and the Americans are also part of that world.


This story is part of the @EUintheUS “Ambassador Spotlight Series,” featuring in-depth, personal interviews with ambassadors from the European Union’s 28 member states. Follow our publication and stay tuned for the next story.