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We must have the courage to defend our values

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In a candid and wide-ranging interview with Martin Eiermann for The European, Martti Ahtisaari discusses Europe's role in the world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 'responsibility to protect', and why egalitarianism always leads to better societies.

The European: One of the original arguments for European integration – voiced, for example, by the former French prime minister Robert Schuman – was that economically interdependent states would not wage war against each other. Do you think history has confirmed that hope?

Martti Ahtisaari

Martti Ahtisaari: Yes. That’s why I was very much in favor of the Nobel Prize being awarded to the European Union, and I was surprised that some people were so critical. They had a very non-historical way of looking at Europe: We have now enjoyed a long period of peaceful development. And we have had developments that justify further political and economic integration – what has happened in the Balkans, for instance. Integration has been a great success story for Europe and for those who originated the whole idea.

Yet the processes of integration you praise also lie at the root of current qualms about fiscal policy and democratic governance in Europe.

We have perhaps underestimated how complex the expansion of the EU from the original six member-states to the current 27 members has been. Some of the new EU members have a very different political history behind them, and it shows how difficult it is against that background to transition towards a truly democratic society. When I was in Poland recently, I said: ‘You are in a much better position to advise countries of the Arab Spring by telling them about your own transformation processes. You have gone through very similar processes in your own society.’ Let us not undervalue the importance of those transitions. The Nobel Peace Prize should be understood as an encouragement to continue those processes of integration and enlargement. You can see that logic as well when you look at previous prize recipients who have been awarded the prize for their efforts to solve the Middle East crisis. The justification for giving the prize was to remind everyone of the importance of pushing further so that the conflict can finally be resolved.

What international responsibility does the Nobel Peace Prize imply for the EU?

Let me give you a personal example. Our organisation, Crisis Management Initiative, negotiated a peace in the Aceh province in Indonesia, and the EU stepped in to help monitor the implementation of the peace agreement together with five ASEAN countries. It turned out to be a great success story, and it speaks to what the EU can do. The Nobel Peace Prize should encourage the EU to continue to play a similar role in the future, and also to pursue its enlargement process, which has unfortunately come to a standstill.

The criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize are rather international in scope. By contrast, most current discussions about the EU are very inwardly focused…

They better be! We have to get our act together and particularly get our economic development moving again. We have to ease the burden on the young people who have become unemployed as a result of the fiscal crisis. We have to make sure that people can move from one country to another, and perhaps the aging population provides that opportunity. The aging process is so fast that we need immigration from the outside as well. We can’t fill all the jobs that need to be filled.

When one asks Europeans about Europe, two issues that frequently come up are the officiousness of European law-making and the wastefulness of European bureaucracy. What’s the positive narrative of the EU today?

I’m afraid that I have come to the conclusion that we cannot count on the help of the media in creating common understanding in our societies. I am not complaining, I am simply analysing the current state of affairs. If you look at the media today, you see that it thrives on the creation of conflict. Conflict generates headlines in a very competitive market. So the media likes to create controversy whether it really exists or not. In Europe, we have identified our problems. Now we have to work for solving them. We need educated people in order to be able to do what should be done in our societies. We also have to be prepared to deal with the aging population. 

Can you rely on Brussels to push that initiative?

In general, I would not look to Brussels for solutions to all our problems. We have to start nationally and discuss amongst ourselves, so that best experiences can inform solutions to the problems we have identified.

One of the constant and unresolved struggles of the EU is the tension between national interests and the good of the union. Integration thus far hasn’t resolved that tension…

Every country has its own economic interests, and they won’t disappear anytime soon. Germany has its interests, Finland has its interests, and so forth. Sometimes they might be mutual, but sometimes not. What binds us together is that we have to integrate to become competitive again and to grow. I don’t believe that austerity measures alone will get us our influence back.

Have the years of austerity been lost years for the EU?

I always think that you can learn even from the tough times. The problem is that when things are going smoothly, you relax a bit too much. Like human lives, social change unfolds in waves. The important challenge is to recognise when change is coming, or when it is necessary. When “Newsweek” voted Finland as the most livable country in the world, I didn’t think that we had created a paradise. Compared to others we were doing better, but we still have problems that we have to solve.

You, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand have all spoken about the importance of personal experience for your commitment to European integration or global peace. You come from a generation of politicians that still knows World War II and postwar reconstruction. Now you have left office, and a new generation is holding power that doesn’t have that experience.

Many of the younger generation take the achievements of social policy for granted. They take it for granted that Finland has an excellent education system and good healthcare for everybody. But that has been a long, long development process. One danger is that we become ahistorical and don’t look back into the history of our country. The other danger is that we become victims of our history, and that’s not good either. Every new generation is facing new challenges, but what gives me hope is that the starting point for each successive generation can be better because of the achievements of previous leaders. We have now enjoyed peace for a long time; our society is functioning. The challenges today are more nuanced, but they are not easier.

The chair of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Hagland, issued a word of caution to Europe’s leaders. He said: “We need to maintain solidarity across borders, as the Union is doing by cancelling debts and adopting other concrete support measures." What’s at stake in Europe today might not be inter-state peace, but social peace.

“You might have the world’s best elections, but what matters is often how leaders behave after they gain power. Are they mainly interested in enriching themselves, or are they pursuing egalitarian policies that create opportunities in a society?"

When I look at the world today – at Europe, but also at the United States – I see that social issues are very important. I have been involved in many efforts to improve elections around the world. But what happens after people come to power? You might have the world’s best elections, but what matters is often how leaders behave after they gain power. Are they mainly interested in enriching themselves, or are they pursuing egalitarian policies that create opportunities in a society? I think that much more attention should be paid to social issues.

That’s how you started your own career…

I joined the Finnish foreign service in the mid 1960s to work on development issues, and I have never left that field. When you talk about peace, it’s vital to talk about political and economic development at the same time. We can’t get rid of poverty unless we pay more attention to government policies. Egalitarian policies matter – in particular, we should give everyone a good education and a decent livelihood. That’s a major challenge in Europe today.

Are you worried about the resurgence of a particular kind of parochial nationalism that might be evident in the rise of groups like “Golden Dawn” in Greece, the “True Finns” in Finland, or British eurosceptics?

I’m not particularly worried about the True Finns party in my country - they are very different from the radical nationalist parties in some European countries today. The True Finns appeal to all those who feel left out of political decisions, who think that the “elites” have not listened to them. If they embraced racist sentiments, for example, they would lose the support of those who have legitimate concerns about the domestic economic and social issues. The main constituents of this party are disappointed people, not extremists.

There appears to be a more general credibility crisis of European politics: Governments and legislatures have failed to deliver on their promises.

The traditional parties have lost touch with some parts of society, so new parties rise to fill that gap. We’ve seen that happen before, but it usually did not last very long. As soon as the new parties became part of government structures, they started to lose their credibility because of taking responsibility for unpopular decisions. I see this as a continuous development in our societies.

Germany – and other countries, too – have reacted very ambivalently to the idea of German leadership in Europe. What’s the proper role for a country like Germany?

You cannot avoid a leadership role. You are an important economic and political player.

Are you satisfied with Mrs. Merkel’s leadership?

Yes, I am very impressed with her and I don’t hide that. I was very pleased as well to see that Germany abstained on the vote in the UN General Assembly on Palestinian observer status. That was a very good decision, because it reinforced Germany’s possible role in the Middle East and the country’s objectivity.

Let’s talk about foreign policy then. The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to better equip the EU to speak with a common voice. Arguably, that endeavour has failed.

I haven’t given up on the idea that the EU can play a bigger role in world politics. One of the criticisms is always that we impose Western values on the world: values like democracy, human rights or the rule of law. But what happened in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were historical developments. Those who went to Tahrir Square justified the argument that these are not Western values – they are universal values. Indeed, unrest did not start in Tunisia or Egypt, it started in the suburbs of Paris. The people who were complaining about their lives in Paris largely came from the countries of the Middle East. This is not meant at all to diminish the role of the people who took to the streets in a peaceful manner in Egypt, but it speaks to the universality of their claims. We must never feel sorry for that. We must have the courage to stick to our values and defend them, which we haven’t done in the past. The UN has been far too defensive. We must emphasise egalitarian policies with much more determination.

Yet the enthusiasm of early 2011 has given way to the complex task of rebuilding politics after decades of authoritarian rule and against a complicated religious background.

“As a peace negotiator, I can tell you: You have to talk to those in power, whether you like their opinions or not.”

We should not have been surprised at all that the Muslim Brotherhood won the Egyptian elections. They were the only organised entity in Egyptian society and the West had largely excluded them from political discussions. That should never have happened. In Palestine, we had good elections but the wrong guys won, from the perspective of the West. As a peace negotiator, I can tell you: You have to talk to those in power, whether you like their opinions or not.

How important is the insistence on formal rights?

The most important thing is that the process continues. It’s illusionary to think that a large demonstration in Tahrir Square means that we now have a democratic society in Egypt. That process will take generations. If we haven’t learned that much from our own process of EU integration and enlargement, then we have missed the point. We still have differences among the 27 EU-members in the way democracy functions.

Times of crisis can result in isolationist retreat. When European countries had to decide on military operations in Libya, there was anything but consensus and enthusiasm.

When the UN Security Council accepted the “responsibility to protect” in 2005, that was a historic development. We should not accept military interventions unless they are sanctioned by the Security Council. In the case of Libya, that was the case – but it happened so fast that not every country had the time to think carefully about its participation. And it’s important to remember that Libya was a unique situation. It will be a long time before we will see a similar change of power happening again.

Do you think that the Western humanitarian enthusiasm of the late 1990s – the world of R2P and “never again” – has waned?

The responsibility to protect has replaced humanitarian intervention in my vocabulary. It sends a clear message to any leader: If you abuse your power and treat your people badly, the international community has a responsibility to interfere. If we don’t act against those abuses of power, we have gone back to the stone age. But it has to be done in an orderly fashion. I’m against unilateral action.

What happened to the concept of sovereignty? It almost seems as if it has been replaced by legitimacy on the international stage, and by subsidiarity in discussions about the future of Europe.

Instead of sovereignty, we have started to emphasise responsibility. If we have values that we cherish, we cannot sit on the sidelines. In Africa, the international community didn’t do a thing, and enormous numbers of people were killed and are still being killed. The permanent members of the UN Security Council have a special responsibility in this regard.

Are they living up to that responsibility?

I am disappointed that the Security Council has not been able to deal with the Syrian crisis. I went to New York in February 2012 to talk to representatives from all permanent members on behalf of The Elders. There was a real opportunity for a solution, but it never materialised.

You once said that without idealism, politics can easily lapse into cynicism. What is the role of idealism in European and global politics today?

If you don’t have a vision, you should not be in politics or in peace-making. People always say that mediators have to be neutral. That’s utter nonsense. Mediators have to be honest brokers; they have to be able to treat different parties objectively. That’s true in Europe, and it’s also true in the Middle East. You have to treat Israelis and Palestinians objectively. If they do illegal things, they have to be criticised, otherwise you lose your credibility and you have no influence. If you try to remain impartial and let the parties come to an agreement amongst themselves, you will sit there to the end of your days – as we have seen in the Middle East.

You have to offend all parties equally?

You have to be willing to criticise all if they break accepted ground rules. I took it as a compliment when I was called Ayatollah Ahtisaari during the negotiations in Aceh.

Against whom has the international community been unfairly biased?

For instance, as a member of The Elders I have signed an op-ed piece with Mary Robinson on Israeli goods that are coming from the Occupied Territories. As European consumers, we should not buy them. Israelis are in the territories illegally, and the EU should not import Israeli goods from those settlements.

Is time running out for a two-state solution?

“The friends of Israel should be the first to press for a peaceful solution, because nobody can really guarantee the safety of Israel if a peaceful solution is not found soon.”

It’s the only lasting option. The emphasis must be on moving forward. If we have an agreement that the borders of 1967 are what matters, then that’s that. It is wrong to try and go back to the beginning to reopen those discussions. Negotiations for the sake of negotiations are no negotiations. But the friends of Israel should be the first to press for a peaceful solution, because nobody can really guarantee the safety of Israel if a peaceful solution is not found soon. As long as you have money, you can buy all kinds of weapons. So the conflict needs to be solved, and everyone knows on what basis it has to be solved.

Do you see the world as messier and more uncertain than it used to be?

I would say that it’s more interesting. During the Cold War, it was like you were repeating the Ten Commandments but didn’t act accordingly. Speaking as a Protestant, I can confidently say that we Christians don’t always live up to the Commandments. But now the world has become much more complicated and more demanding, but there are also more possibilities.

Are our international institutions up to the task, or are they still very much stuck in a Cold War framework of big-power governance?

“I don't even participate in debates about UN reform any more. My staff has orders to say that I have more important things to do.”

It’s very sad that we have not been able to get new countries into the Security Council. Even in Europe, we have not been able to say who should become a permanent member. Naturally, I would say that Germany and Japan should be included. The World Bank is behaving much more rationally than the UN in reinforcing and changing its structures and ways of operation. It’s a sad reflection on the capacity of the UN. I don’t even participate in debates about UN reform any more. My staff has orders to say that I have more important things to do.

In Germany, the government has been repeatedly criticised for allowing arms exports to the Middle East. Do you think it’s justified to export military weapons into a conflict region?

We have international rules for that. I don’t think that arms should be sold if one knows that they will be used for aggressive purposes. But I don’t think that you can stop arms trading entirely, and I also believe in the right of people to defend themselves. But when it appears that arms are used for aggressive purposes, we normally declare an arms embargo that should be monitored properly.

It’s hard to imagine that some of the weapons that are now being sold to the Middle East – including surveillance technology, which remains largely unregulated – will be used solely for defensive purposes and not against internal dissenters.

“Why should we fight? When you have to take up arms, it's a sign that you have lost your argument.”

We have more and more surveillance wherever you go, even in this society. At the moment, that’s not the issue that worries me most. We have allowed far too many conflicts to continue around the world. Sometimes people tell me during negotiations: ‘Why are you in a hurry? We have so many conflicts, why not have one more?’ I say to that: ‘I am not in the business of advancing conflicts, and neither should you. End of discussion.’ That has usually ended the conversation with some of my friends who were not so keen at that moment to find a peaceful settlement. But why should we fight? When you have to take up arms, it’s a sign that you have lost your argument.

The German poet Heinrich Heine published a poem during the mid-19th century that includes the line, “Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht / Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht.” If you think about Europe today, what makes you lose your sleep?

I sleep rather well, actually. I can even sleep on planes or take quick naps – I’m out of the country around 150 days per year, so I need to do that in order to do something useful.

No crisis is big enough to disturb your sleep?

No, it doesn’t make any sense. It would destroy my capacity to think clearly. Or maybe it’s a sign that I have a good conscience, that I have been pushing the right issues all my life and that I have been lucky to work with excellent colleagues. Many Germans, too. I normally want to work with people who are better than I am, because that makes life more interesting. I can’t think of a better life, and I hope that everyone in a leadership position preserves an openness towards new ideas.

Do you consider yourself a Finn, a European, or have those categories lost their meaning after decades of international work?

I am a Finn, but I have 12.5 per cent of Norwegian and 12.5 per cent of Swedish blood. In the 1870s, a gentleman from my father’s side of the family came from southern Norway to work here in the sawmilling industry and married a young Swedish lady from just across the border. So I am very much a Nordic, I am European, and I am a world citizen. I don’t see any contradictions between those. But if you ask me where I would like to live, I’d say that I certainly feel very comfortable living here in Finland.

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