But that's what happened in the industrial city of Tampere, Finland, where the ruling Social Democrats gathered recently to hold their party convention.
After they adjourned one night, I retired to a lovely Finnish bar where I enjoyed a lovely Finnish beer with a local political reporter who spoke English quite well. It was a typical sun-lit night in Tampere. They get 20 hours of sunlight a day in June, quite unnerving I quickly discovered. We sat a few blocks from the world's only normally operating Lenin museum. And we were comparing Finland to America.
Maybe it was the beer talking, or maybe it was the questioning that got more and more pointed as the conversation went on and on and the sun stayed up, but suddenly my colleague, who really is a nice guy with interesting insights and who comes from a small Finnish city, said, "How do I know you're not with the CIA?"
I was stunned.
Actually, I would imagine he's got no way of knowing. And I've got no way of assuring him that I do not, indeed, report to Langley. I just smiled. Any answer I tried would be wrong.
Technically, it wasn't an accusation. But neither was it praise. Perhaps it was closest to paranoia.
I can forgive that. Stunned, yes. Offended, no, as I wrote in my daily cable to the director of Central Intelligence. -- Did I let that slip out? Some spy I am.
I was in Finland as a guest of the government to observe and report on Finnish politics. I started in Tampere, Finland's second-largest city, for the Social Democratic congress where they renominated Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen. And I ended up in Helsinki to meet with officials of the Center Party and former prime minister Esko Aho.
Before the trip, my knowledge of Finland was basically limited to the fact that Europe hates America. And they hate President Bush. Well, not exactly hate. It's not like he's Russian. More like, don't like -- a logicians' distinction. It's because Bush is a big-booted Texan who supports global warming, opposes Kyoto, and doesn't understand them. He's easily dismissed.
Once in Finland, I had no problem confirming that opinion. Many folks I talked to said the same thing: he doesn't understand us.
But you know what? It is tough to understand Europe. They make things so darned complicated. Take Finland. It's a non-aligned country, like Sweden or Austria, but leans to the West. It borders Russia, but doesn't much care for Russia for valid and bloody historical reasons, even though Finland's economy prospered after the war because of trade with the Soviet Union, and industries developed to comply with reparations to the Soviet Union thrived. Historic oddities abound, here.
It's a Scandinavian country, but sees itself as having more in common with continental Europe than, say, Norway. And because it's European, it has a wide variety of alliances to belong to or snub.
Just review the list of major memberships Finland does and does not have. European Union? Yes, passed by popular referendum over a decade ago.
Euro common currency? Yes, they were the first to convert, thanks to their time zone.
NATO? Not yet More on that later.
Landmine treaty? No, they still want to reserve the right to mine the border with Russia. The list of possible community memberships goes on and on.
And that's just one country. Multiply the number of European countries by the number of possible entangling alliances, and soon you've broken a hundred.
George W. Bush is supposed to know all that? Isn't that why he has staff?
Naturally, it goes deeper than what Bush knows. It's what he does, too.
Look at the war on terrorism.
I attended the SDP convention the day after Bush announced the Department of Homeland Security.
Sitting on a comfortable sofa in Tampere Hall, I chatted with Reino Paasilinna, a popular Finnish member of the European Parliament. He was quite polite, very generous with his time, and very learned about the world. Rather delightful to talk to.
And he trashed the concept of a Department of Homeland Security.
Actually, his point was quite interesting. Even the Soviets during their worst days in the 1930s never dared combine security and intelligence under one government apparatus, he said. Too dangerous. And doing it in a democracy might be even worse, he speculated, given all the people who have access to our records.
But what about the bigger picture, I wondered. What about the war on terrorism?
He said Bush places too much emphasis on fighting terrorism. We must address root causes of terrorism, we must improve people's lives. That goes for the Middle East, that goes for Northern Ireland, that even applies to Russian Georgia, in his opinion.
Here it got tricky. Finland is no stranger to warfare. Even today, young Finnish men face the draft. They have fought many times against many enemies, both foreign and domestic. More than hundred wars and lost every one of them, according to Paasilinna's count.
But they fought bravely. And during World War II, the West essentially abandoned Finland as Finns valiantly fought Russia. They stood their ground as a stubborn barrier to Russian invasion of Europe, a historic mark on the nation's psyche playing itself out now in the NATO debate. Again, more on this later.
So, I had to ask. Gently. How can any country that has not suffered terrible acts of terrorism -- there were no Finnish deaths at the World Trade Center -- say that there is too great an emphasis on stopping it?
Paasilinna's response: On Sept. 11 and immediately thereafter, he watched CNN's World Trade Center coverage. He said that every time salvagers discovered more dead bodies, the CNN anchors reported the news with a smile. They couldn't stop smiling, he remembered. In fact, it was two women anchors, he assuredly pointed out for a reason I couldn't understand.
Now I'm not trained in the art of diplomatic talk. Neither, I repeat, am I a CIA spy. So if there was a deeper meaning to his point, it was beyond me. Frankly, I was baffled.
He did say something I understood, that America thinks it commands the world, that for America, we are the world. No, I thought to myself and declined to say out loud, we fund the world. Sometimes it's just good to see how our money is being spent.
We ended our talk and he politely left as politely as he came.
I should point out here that Social Democrats don't represent all Finns. They see things a little bit differently. I got a whiff of that when they opened their congress by singing not the Socialist international anthem, but Elvis Presley's "Love me Tender." The lead singer was a local sensation from nearby Nokia, where he plays the coffee houses. Unlike the real Elvis, he wasn't fat, didn't sweat, and remembered the lyrics.
It was both touching and innovative. Not old-fashioned, but neither contemporary. Just very, very, bizarre.
I got more mainstream political opinions talking to folks from the Center Party in Helsinki. Just as the name implies, the Center Party is in the center of things, in between the Social Democrats and the Conservatives. It's the main opposition party.
If the Social Democrats have interesting answers, the Center Party has interesting questions. They're short on answers, but long on wondering.
Like NATO. Why should Finland join NATO?
Finnish officials admit that the people oppose NATO membership. There are a number of reasons, some rational, some emotional. Here are some:
- Finland faces no immediate security threat. Ecological concerns are more pressing. So is international crime, i.e. Russian crime.
- Post-Sept. 11, security threats are to civilians, not countries. Military power is not useful today.
- Any security threat Finland might face can be addressed by the European Union.
- Under NATO's Article V, Finland would be committed to respond if another member country is attacked. And that won't fly with Finland.
That last point is critical. Finns enjoyed no such reciprocity 63 years ago when they stubbornly fought the Russians. The country's slogan still boils down to: Trust no one except yourself. You will be abandoned. Ultimately Finns can only rely on Finns. History proves that.
Modern Finnish politics is deeply rooted in history. And Finnish history is rich with ironies. I was amazed to learn, for instance, that because Finland was a "co-belligerant" with the Nazis against the Russians during World War II, the lives of many Finnish Jews were saved. Finland simply refused to surrender their Jews to the Germans. I heard of a photo portraying Finnish Jews fighting on the Russian front praying in their makeshift battlefield synagogue, mere feet from a German outpost.
So addressing NATO now, before the next elections, is potentially political suicide. Better off wait till after next year's parliamentary elections. Then just join.
But the rest of the world isn't waiting for Finns to go to the polls. The Baltic States, for instance, want NATO membership, and they want it now. How embarrassing it would be for Finland if, in order to find out what happened at a NATO meeting, they'd have to ask Latvia or Lithuania for their notes.
No, NATO membership isn't about security. It's about diplomacy. It's about political maturity.
Outgoing Center Party president Esko Aho, the former prime minister and one of Finland's best-known politicians, told me that Finland "would join NATO because NATO has changed." Now it's "less military and more political."
To avoid all these messy problems, Finnish politicians are simply keeping NATO off the election year agenda. Too quiet, Aho has charged in other interviews. Instead, they're talking domestic issues. Like unemployment.
Standing at one-tenth of the population, unemployment is Finland's Number One domestic concern. This in a country whose taxation policies are tailored to promote employment.
There is a fascinating little soap opera playing itself out in Nokia right now. Nokia is far and away Finland's greatest success story ever. The company is worth more than the whole Finnish economy. Nokia is credited with pulling Finland out of its early '90s recession, which was blamed on the fall of leading trading partner the Soviet Union.
But Finland's high tax rates, which support a generous classic welfare state and reach a whopping 60 percent marginal tax rate, now are driving away skilled workers to other countries and smothering entrepreneurs.
Patriotic corporate Nokia itself won't emigrate, but its engineers and technicians will. It is classic brain drain, sparked by high taxes. What to do? Listen up, supply-siders: Nokia Chairman Jorma Ollila is calling for a cut in marginal taxation of wages.
Reagan-esque? You bet. And it sounds contrary to the Finnish mindset This is a country, after all, where speeding fines are pegged to a driver's income.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja, a Social Democrat, told his comrades in Tampere, "People don't trust the market forces, or the power of unlimited selfishness. Instead, they want an enhancement of community."
Aho addressed Nokia this way: "You cannot solve the problem only by reducing taxes. But reducing taxes is one element of reform. Tax cuts aimed at reduction of unemployment, tax cuts leading to restructuring for entrepreneurship."
Aho continued, "We need tax reform simultaneously with labor market reforms and reforms in the financing system."
Then he admits in frustration, "There are so many different interest groups. It's very difficult to make reform aimed at the future."
Sound like, whether it's tax reform or NATO membership, Finland these days has more questions than answers.
So do I.
Howard Mortman, a Washington-based writer, does not work for the CIA.
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