Sweden’s ambassador to Finland, soft power in Spain and Taiwan is tuning in.
Anders Ahnlid, Sweden’s ambassador to Finland, is visibly proud as he shows Monocle around his nation’s embassy, a 19th-century renaissance-style palace modelled on the Royal Palace in Stockholm. The embassy’s plum location, between the presidential palace and city hall on the Helsinki waterfront, underlines the close ties between Finland and Sweden. These two Nordic neighbours were, after all, one country for more than 600 years.
For Ahnlid, the links between Sweden and Finland are more than just work; they are personal. “My grandmother was born in Turku and my father was born in Helsinki,” he says. “During the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union my family moved to Sweden.”
Sweden has a closer tie with Finland than any other country, says Ahnlid, which means his role, unlike those of some of his diplomatic colleagues posted elsewhere, keeps him extraordinarily busy. Swedish is Finland’s second official language, and there are hundreds of thousands of Swedish-speaking Finns inhabiting the southern and western parts of the country. Instead of taking the easy route and sticking to these areas, the embassy wants to promote Swedish culture in the more remote areas of Finland. “We organise Sweden Days and introduce Finns to Swedish writers, show them Swedish films and organise programmes in Finnish schools,” Ahnlid says.
Yet it’s not all soft-power promotion these days. The two countries have grown even closer in recent years, which means that much of Ahnlid’s time goes to facilitating the increasing defence co-operation between Sweden and Finland.
When asked why the two militarily non-aligned countries with a long-standing reputation of neutrality have felt the need to strike a defence pact, Ahnlid is candid. “The security situation around the Baltic Sea has deteriorated,” he says. “That is linked to the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and Russia’s support for the war in Eastern Ukraine.”
Ahnlid underscores the importance of keeping your diplomatic friends close in trying times. “In a challenging international situation in which Russia has changed the security environment close to us, Britain is leaving the EU, some EU members are breaking commonly agreed rules, China is strengthening and we have a president in the US that is not like anyone before him, it is more important than ever to work with real allies.”
Casa de México, Mexico’s new cultural institute in Madrid was agreed as part of a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation back in 1990, but 28 years of changing governments and priorities led to a lengthy delay. In October, a 2,700 sq m former palace in the centre of the Spanish capital finally opened, with art, handcrafted goods and the occasional tequila-tasting workshop, all envisaged to strengthen understanding between nations.
The public-private venture, spearheaded by Mexican business heavyweight Valentín Díez Morodo, has more than 500 activities programmed for the first year. Trade between the two countries (topping €8bn in 2017) is a priority amidst the cultural fare. With in-house restaurant Puntarena hosting dinners, piñata workshops for the kids and a space reserved for Hispano-Mexican start-ups, there’ll be ample opportunities to strike future deals.
It’s not been a smooth year for Taiwan diplomatically – and it’s unlikely to get any smoother in 2019. Leaders and diplomats of the self-ruled island will be paying close attention to what Chinese president Xi Jinping has to say in his New Year speech. While Xi, who has vowed to “peacefully reunify” with the wayward island, did not discuss Taiwan in 2018’s New Year speech, diplomatic tensions between the two have ratcheted up since then.
Any rhetoric shift in his speech will give clues regarding Beijing’s imminent intentions. Xi said in March that Taiwan will face the “punishment of history” for any attempt at gaining independence and the hawkish hard line will not get any softer. If China promises all-out aggression, Taiwan will need to make some hasty New Year’s resolutions of its own.