Former Finnish president wins 2008 Nobel Peace Prize

Sunday, October 19, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

Loory: Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland and diplomat, has won the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. He is known for leading the negotiations that won freedom for Namibia from South Africa in 1990, and for helping to settle a dispute between Acehnese rebels and the government of Indonesia in 2005. The award emphasizes the idea that negotiations can avoid, or halt, armed conflict. At the same time, negotiations have halted North Korea’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon. In return, the United States removed North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terror. What makes Ahtisaari so successful as an international negotiator and what can we learn from his success?
Kari Huhta, special correspondent for foreign policy and international affairs, Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki, Finland: Ahtisaari was the Finnish president from 1994 to 2000 but his career in diplomacy goes back much longer. He won the prize from his perseverance and the ability to maintain the involved partners’ confidence.
Loory: However, his negotiations that began the independence of Kosovo is rather controversial.
Huhta: The United Nations Security Council gave him the task of creating a status report on Kosovo. When the report recommending internationally supervised independence was drafted, no consensus remained in the Security Council because Russia changed its policy.
Loory: You were involved in seeking a settlement between the Acehnese and the government of Indonesia. How was that settlement brought about?
Damien Kingsbury, professor of international and political studies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia: Ahtisaari agreed to host talks between the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia and the Indonesian government, toward the end of 2004. This was two days before the Boxing Day Tsunami, which compelled the pace of the process. At the outset, one of the difficulties was Ahtisaari’s lack of knowledge of the conflict, but he learned the issues very quickly. He was able to bring an increasingly nuanced approach to keep the talks going then they were about to break down. He was able to construct a framework between the two parties by studying the question in-depth and by being flexible and open-minded.
Loory: As a negotiator yourself, is it always necessary to do something that both sides in a negotiation can view as a success?
Kingsbury: Yes, in a negotiation one goes in with a claim in one hand, but with an acknowledgement of what can be given away. Ultimately, negotiations are about compromise. In the case of Aceh, the Indonesian government maintained territorial integrity, while the Acehnese independence movement gained a considerable degree of political autonomy. Despite some glitches, the process has stayed intact through continuing involvement of Ahtisaari and the European Union.
Loory: (Last week), an agreement between the United States and North Korea was announced. Is this a lasting settlement, unlike what happened earlier this year?
Young Hee Kim, editor-at-large and columnist, Joongang Ilbo, Seoul, South Korea: It is premature to say. Kim Jong-Il, himself, is not sure if he will eventually give up the nuclear weapons program. The assistant secretary of state, Chris Hill, exercised patience in this deal when Washington hard-liners, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, posed strong resistance to any agreement.
Loory: Why is this deal not going down so well in Japan?
Leo Lewis, Tokyo correspondent, Times of London, Tokyo, Japan: In Japan, the whole issue has a domestic political angle. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea abducted some Japanese citizens. Each successive Japanese prime minister is obligated to make it look like the issue is not being given up. This just adds an extra layer of complexity to an already fiendishly difficult set of talks.
Loory: Are these Japanese still being held in North Korea?
Lewis: Probably not. With each successive year, it becomes harder to figure out the truth. Some are almost certainly dead, while a few were repatriated to Japan. Japanese TV still plays interviews with families of abducted children.
Loory: Why doesn’t Chris Hill take up this issue in the negotiations?
Kim: Denuclearization is more important from an objective point of view. Therefore, the sequence here is a nuclear deal first; when that issue is stabilized, Tokyo and Pyongyang can resume talks on the abduction issue. If the Japanese government — the prime minister — goes one step further then it may look parochial.
Lewis: It already looks parochial. The absurdity is that Japan doesn’t realize how petty it looks compared to the detonation of a nuclear device in North Korea. With Japan’s well-known history with atomic weapons, one would think the abduction issue would disappear, but it hasn’t.
Loory: How is this Nobel Peace Prize being greeted in Washington, and how is the deal with North Korea going down there?
Jim Lobe, Washington bureau chief, Inter Press Service News Agency, Washington, D.C.: First, Ahtisaari is on the Inter Press Service’s board of trustees, so we are pleased. Not much attention was paid to the award, nor the North Korea deal, because of the financial crisis and ongoing election campaign. Among the Asian specialists in Washington, it was big news and controversial in its meaningfulness and durability. There is concern that the U.S. has damaged its relationship to Japan. Hawks associated with Cheney, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, have been screaming this is a betrayal to get a fully verifiable denuclearization regime. They wanted to be able to inspect anywhere, anytime, and they’re clearly not going to get that, for now.
Loory: Why did the Bush administration agree to this? Does this reflect a split among hawks and negotiators?
Lobe: Bush administration foreign policy has been conflicted between hawks and realists, which still hasn’t been resolved in the North Korean case. In Bush’s second term, the realists have gradually ascended in the past 6 months, to a foreign policy practiced by Bush’s father. People close to senior administration figures believe that shortly after the election, the administration will announce intentions to open an interests section in Tehran. The balance of power over the last five years has shifted from complete dominance by the hawks, the neo-conservatives, particularly in the Middle East, to a picture where the realists were able to get this deal with North Korea, despite strong resistance from Cheney and his people.
Loory: Are realists and negotiators synonymous?
Kingsbury: In this sense, realists are people who understand what is possible and don’t necessarily deal with power politics. In North Korea, the deal is not the most desirable one, but it was the one possible, one that works as a confidence-building measure for further deals.
Loory: Is there anything to be learned from Ahtisaari’s activities, or Hill’s activities in North Korea, that can benefit the situation between the U.S. and Iran?
Kingsbury: What is it they need to secure most and how does that address issues of national interest? There is a great deal of anti-American sentiment in Iran and any politician there who engages in negotiations with the U.S. will contend with that backdrop. Keep in mind; the U.S. has been playing games in Iran going back decades. So, they will regard the U.S. with suspicion. Sometimes the parties need to go back and be honest about where mistakes have been made and activities undertaken that undermined confidence; lay everything out on the table and talk about it.
Loory: Has Ahtisaari given any indication that he would like to become involved in Iran?
Huhta: I have not heard, but I have asked him about future plans. He said there are some situations where, no matter what you do, you cannot achieve success. Some issues have to be narrowed down before the mediator has anything to do.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Chris Hamby, Sananda Sahoo, and Hui Wang. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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