Kai Sauer- Diplomacy Needs To Evolve But Is As Relevant Today

Travel was something he started to do at an early age. But he didn’t reach exotic places by plane like most of us. Instead, he spent months aboard a container ship with his captain dad. Such experiences kicked in a fascination for people and cultures from different lands and they also coloured the rest of his life: he knew he did not want to be anywhere too long. He spent years supporting the peace process in Kosovo and Ache; strengthening commercial links between Finland and the world and fighting for human rights, specially those of women. Today Kai Sauer is Finland’s Ambassador to the UN. I meet him with his shirt rolled up at the arms, at his New York office under a Kaj Stenvall picture of Donald Duck. A straight talker, this ain’t your formal diplomat. He is one that wants things done expediently. And the lady in this picture is not me. It is Samantha Power, his counterpart and the intrepid US UN Ambassador.

Why did you become a diplomat?

I played with the option of becoming a journalist or war correspondent but I did not have the talent of patience for writing. So I took a different path. I was lucky in many ways. At the end of my studies there was an internship at the Foreign Ministry which coincided with my exam timetables. I could stay in the ministry on temporary assignments and extensions. A couple of years later I applied to the Foreign Ministry for a job. And I was accepted.

Both of those professions –war correspondent and diplomat — involved an international dimension. What was it specifically that you were called for?

My childhood played a role in this. The longest stretch I spent with my father on the container ship was six months. This ticks you. You become interested and open to the world. I never really felt comfortable with the idea of staying in one place for too long. Instead I wanted to get to know people and cultures.

In addition, a sense of patriotism motivates me to do this work. Being a diplomat allows me to work for my country and to make an international contribution.

What is diplomacy at its best? What problems can it help us solve?

Diplomacy is a mystified profession for various reasons. There are many misconceptions about it. But it is actually very mundane. It is sometimes like your local bureaucracy brought to at an international level.

There are of course many facets to diplomacy: cultural diplomacy, trade promotion, security. But it’s always about human interaction and creating trust and fostering relationships.

Working in a country embassy or in a multinational organisation is very different because bilateral and multilateral diplomacy are  very distinct. Here in the UN one does not see results so quickly. This can sometimes be very frustrating.

Please tell me about instances you have seen diplomacy work in conflict resolution

During my early career I worked in the Balkans for quite some time. When he was appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan as a chief negotiator for the Kosovo crisis President Martti Ahtisaari reached out to me. I helped him assemble the right team and I supported him in being in touch with some of the key stakeholders. This experience taught me a lot about what diplomacy can do and gave me a good contact network. It was a rewarding process in many regards but at the high political level it was also disappointing. You see how big powers work and how their national positions prevent them from reaching agreements. The final goal in Kosovo was left unfinished because of that.

Ahtisaari is a very modest man and will not advocate for himself. But he is a great peace maker. I encountered his work also in Indonesia where he managed to coalesce the parties of the Ache conflict. Five years later, I was very well received in Indonesia as a consequence and part of my work there was to ensure the peace reached would be sustainable.

And how about in the commercial space: how effective are Embassies to foster bilateral trade?

There are questions about why we spend money maintaining diplomatic networks but I see that Embassies add a lot of value.

Embassies have different functions. There is a whole legal framework related to services provided to citizens through the embassies. With globalisation and the rise of emerging markets such as China, India and Indonesia– which are not completely independent markets often Embassies act as a key to a door.

The other aspect that needs to be thought of is security where if you are not present somewhere you may leave a vacuum for the opponent to fill. I witnessed that in Indonesia when Russia invaded Crimea. When the Euromaidan protest movement began in Kiev in late 2013 and former President Victor Yanucovych was ousted, my Ukrainian colleague in Indonesia was not visible perhaps because he did not know where the chips would fall: if the current government would continue or the reform movement would take over. The vacuum that was left by the Ukrainian Embassy in Indonesia was taken by Russia. The Russian embassy carried out a  big campaign promoting their view. They went to Universities, the media, civil society and government. Ukraine lost the opportunity to defend its case.

The same could happen to any country. Embassies play an important role to defend the cause of their state.

Why and when does diplomacy fail?

There are probably many reasons why diplomacy can fail. One profound reason is the national interest of one of the parties, which leaves no room for flexibility in negotiation.

People who follow the process of diplomacy get frustrated often because they don’t have the intimate knowledge about the processes needed to reach solutions. By nature the international system, such as the UN where there are 193 countries is very slow machine. It is a consensus based organisation so everyone has to be on board and it can be very tedious to reach results.

There are many good examples of how this can be detrimental. There can be a case with the purest of motives, a completely innocent subject like sport which should be of mutual interest to everyone. It can be something like sport and health, reconciliation and world peace. Something you would imagine no one would disagree with or contest it. But then one after the other governments come in with different angles. And soon it can take 2 years for a resolution like this to be adopted by the UN General Assembly.

The same can happen with the European Union. I was recently at a panel about the Future of the EU and came across a term, not multilateralism, but minilateralism. It is in minilateralism where the EU can be most effective because the 28 countries of the EU rarely come to a quick agreement on anything. So they build subgroups of 2 to 3 countries that do agree on issues and they start to promote these together. This is the direction I think multilateralism is going.

Can minilateralism assist achieve resolutions?

I think it definitely helps because it reduces the numbers of points of view. There are many examples where minilateralism has led the path to a resolution.

Examples today are the P5+1 Nations and Iran Negotiation, the Six Party Talks on nuclear negotiations with North Korea, the International Syria Support Group, the Contac Group on the Western Balkans and the Normandy Format (Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia) on Ukraine.

Tell me about some diplomatic breakthroughs you have witnessed and are proud of?

The agenda 2030 was a big event last year as well as COP 21. These are culminations of very long negotiation processes.

The most pressing issue in the world is the Middle East which has many subset of conflicts, from the Mediterranean rim, the Magreb space all the way to Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. Terrorism is a new component of this conflict and the UN is now confronted with may new challenges.

The confrontation between US and Russia, which is becoming worse. Russia has been taking military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria while their economy is shrinking. This may be untenable in the future. As a close neighbour we watch this closely.

We pray for the wisdom of our world leaders. As they say in Latin: “An nescis, mi fili, quantilla priudentia mundus regatur” (Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”)

What can you think Finland can export to the world?

Traditionally our foreign policy has been cautious if you look at our history of independence and how we have behaved internationally. We have a discreet way of conducting diplomacy. During the cold war our main objective was to solidify our neutrality and western identity. After the cold war we have wanted to to be at the core of Europe politically even if we were at the fringes geographically.

Now we are in a third phase in the new international environment. The EU, the UN and regional organisations play an important part.

Gender equality has been part of our foreign policy profile for a long time, already before the 1995 Beijing agreement and has been a very consistent line in our activities. For me it is very easy to commit to this goal. I personally regarded as the most natural thing that men and women are equals. As long as this is not the case globally we should promote it. I want my children and grandchildren to grow in a world where this is self evident. The same applies to sexual minorities and LGBT rights, which are also part of our policy. I am sad to see some intolerance developing with some sectors of the population.

How can Finland and Scandinavia play a role in steering the UN in the future?

Currently the biggest process in New York is the selection of the next Secretary General. For the first time the process has been opened up a bit. In the past it was the Security Council and the 5 permanent members of the Security Council who convened in a small room, locked the door and made a decision. It was really nit that dissimilar to the Pope’s selection.

Now the President of the General Assembly is organising hearings with candidates that have declared their candidacy (9 of them so far). The hearings were open. And anyone can follow their progress.

Transparency is a Scandinavian value. So in addition as the chair of the Nordic Council (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). I am organising lunch meetings with the candidates. We share with our neighbors many common interests and policies, such as our commitment to human rights.

On the Ambassador level we meet weekly and we rotate the chairmanship every year. We also invite guests to hear different view points, not only the candidates for Secretary General. We can meet with especial representatives and envoys. Last week we had the especial envoy to Yemen who briefed us on the peace process. Next week we will look meet with the Western Sahara representative.

We collaborate on many things but we also compete in others. Our nations and our products are similar. Here in NY we sometimes compete with candidatures.

How can small nations influence the UN?

I attended yesterday a football tournament organised by Liechtenstein. This is a good example because Liechtenstein despite its size is very successful in putting itself on the map in new York. They have a small staff but a  great Ambassador and they focus on few issues. Their key area of focus is international law and supporting the ICC International Criminal Court which is in The Hague.

We are not as small as Liechtenstein but perhaps we should be more selective in our priorities. When we produce a white paper which should be short and crisp the outcome is a 30 pages book. especially in conditions where we are cutting development aid and public funds we need to prioritise more.

What is happiness to you?

I am at the stage in life where I am quite content with how  my life has been. Happiness to me is fulfilling the basic needs. You and your family are healthy, there is stability in all your key relationships and there is a purpose in life.

What is the most underrated value?


I am the Ambassador of punctuality. Punctuality is about respect for others and other people’s time. We waste a lot of time and resources by being idle. If everyone respected time we would be more efficient, achieve more and enjoy more free time.

What is the most overrated value?

Overrated value is a tough question as virtues are implicitly are positive. But we had a discussion with the family  and our”candidate” is obedience or subordinance of women to their husbands, which in some cultures is still regarded as a virtue. Well we all think it is not.

Do you have a life motto?

I like this one by Samuel Beckett:  “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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