An Interview with Bruce Oreck, U.S. Ambassador to Finland
Bruce Oreck was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Finland on August 12, 2009. Born and raised in New York City, Oreck also lived in New Orleans, Louisiana for many years, and prior to moving to Helsinki, he was a long-time resident of Boulder, Colorado. Oreck obtained his B.A. from The Johns Hopkins University, his J.D. from Louisiana State University, and his Masters of Law (Taxation) from New York University. Mr. Oreck practiced law for over 25 years, representing many of the largest companies in the U.S. He has authored several books on taxation and has enjoyed a successful career as a speaker and lecturer on topics ranging from taxation to creative thinking. Ambassador Oreck also served as General Counsel and Executive Vice President of his family business, the Oreck Corporation, until its sale in 2003.
The Politic: What exactly is your job, and what issues do you address daily as ambassador?
Every day is a little different. Perhaps the easiest way to address that question is to realize that there is a very wide range of things that an ambassador may be asked to handle. It might be cultural, artistic, or educational events; or protecting Americans or American interests in their host country. It can relate to the political issues of the day or a longer-range political conversation; the host country’s economic issues, business issues, intellectual property issues. In the end, the ambassador and the embassy are the face of America in whatever host country they’re posted to, and every day is very different. Some days it is lots of really gnarly stuff and some days it is a lot of fun stuff, and other days it is really routine. That’s a hard question to answer, because you have such a wide variety of responsibilities.
The Politic: What are the challenges of serving as ambassador as a political appointee, rather than as a member of the Foreign Service?
The challenge for a political appointee is to quickly become inculcated in the culture of the Foreign Service: understanding the rules and the language of the Foreign Service, how the State Department works, those are the challenges. The flip side of that is, coming from the private sector, you can address challenges with a different perspective; you can infuse a different kind of energy in how an embassy may operate from day to day. It’s a balance — clearly some negatives, but there are lots of positives.
The Politic: Would you say there is one experience, person, or event in your country that has influenced one of more of your policies? How so?
The policies that we’re here to promote are those that are coming forward from the White House. Any ambassador is the personal representative of the President, so the challenge there is whether a policy that my host nation has is a policy that isn’t already in harmony with a U.S. policy, in which case we find ways to work together to share the goals and move forward more effectively. In the instance that the U.S. may be promoting a certain idea or position, and a host country does not, then you’re always working to help to move them down the conversational line to find more points of alignment with White House policy. If you get to a place where you’re just at odds — as the saying goes, “You say potato, I say potato” — then you find ways to make sure that those differences have the least adverse influence on the rest of the relationship.
In a country like Finland, we share many fundamental values: human rights, respect for the rule of law, high emphasis on education, women’s rights, minority rights, environmental concerns. There are so many issues where we find ourselves in full alignment. The challenge of serving in Finland is not the places where we disagree, it is the positive opportunities to create synergies and to work together that mean every day is a long day. There are always so many good things to get done, as opposed to some posts where everything seems to be a fight.
The Politic: What misperceptions do you feel that the average Finnish citizen has towards America and Americans?
You [Anna-Sophie Harling] have dual citizenship, so you have lived both in Germany and in the U.S., and you have a different sense of the world. For someone who hasn’t traveled to the U.S., the handle — the U.S., the USA, America, whatever — makes it sound like it is one country, one place. And while we’re one legal entity as a nation, we’re twice as diverse as the EU. No European would ever say, just because they’re members of the EU, the Greeks are like the Germans, or the Germans are like the Fins. That would never happen. Clearly, everyone understands that even though you all fall under the governing fabric of the EU, there are many different cultures.
The U.S. is very similar, as you know. And so the misconception is, while we may have a common language — in plenty of different accents, of course — it is easy to get the wrong impression. If you see someone from the religious right protesting gay rights in Kansas, for example, that has no relevance to what people are doing in New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago or Denver. That may be a small town of 5,000 people, versus New York, which has 10 million. Depending on how the media reports something, someone in Finland can say that all of America is opposed to gay rights. (I just bring that up because this happens to be Pride Week, right?) Clearly, there are Americans who are not supportive of the full plate of equal rights for the gay, lesbian, and transgender community, but that isn’t really where America is. The polls show you that there is widespread support across many states. So it is easy to misunderstand just how vast the U.S. is and how many cultures and textures there are.
The Politic: On that same note, do you feel that Americans have any misperceptions towards Finland?
Finland is a small country with 5.5 million people. There are many Americans who have never traveled to Europe or who don’t travel very frequently. And when they do, they go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower or London to see Big Ben or Germany because they want to see Berlin. It is easy to not have a sense of any of the smaller countries in the E.U. or modern Europe, and Finland is one of those. For the vast majority of Americans, they’re not quite sure what to think of Finland or the Fins, other than that it’s in the far north and, therefore, it is cold in the winter. They may think of reindeer. They may think of a sauna. There are some large generalizations, but not a lot of detail in the Finnish life and culture and social structures. They read good things — Finland is always at the top of the global studies for education, and they have a big footprint in the world in terms of what they do for peacekeeping and mediation. But on a personal level, most Americans really wouldn’t have a good sense of what Finnish culture is like.
The Politic: How do you promote American economic, political, and cultural interests or values in Finland?
That’s a long question. The U.S. has a very vibrant and robust program across all of those facets you described. Let’s start culturally. We do a lot of cultural outreach. We work with Americans who are here — whether they are here for the ballet or the symphony, whether they are here for art or film, or other cultural events. The State Department also helps bring American cultural events and groups to Finland and other places in the world. They will bring a blues musician or a classical musician to do events in venues in different cities or schools. It is a very active and vibrant cultural outreach program, and it is very effective. In terms of political policies, I talk to a lot of people, and the professional staff here is always engaged with the political leadership, from the president of Finland on down, on a regular basis.
From a business standpoint, there’s a concept that’s developed in the last few years known as “economic statecraft.” Governments, by their nature, are slow-moving — they are bureaucratic and they are very systemic. Getting a government to be quick or nimble is very difficult. A business, on the other hand, has to be nimble or it goes out of business. We’re able to develop deeper cultural and political ties through business relations on a much faster basis. If you look at U.S.-China relations, for example, there are so many places where we don’t share a lot of common practices, yet we do an immense amount of business. And our business relations help build political bridges, deepen our understanding of one another, and allow us to work together as nations. That concept of economic statecraft is very important and plays a key role in diplomacy today.
So we promote U.S. business interests very actively. We help U.S. companies protect intellectual property rights. We help them gain access to markets. We help Finnish business interests partner with American business interests. Finland is a little bit different — we also focus on a lot of innovative business practices and technologies. We have the State Department’s first Innovation Center, which is basically a cutting edge business center at the embassy, so that is a very active part of our portfolio.
The Politic: Lastly, do you have any words of advice for someone who is interested in joining the Foreign Service?
I would say this: the Foreign Service is a compelling career choice. First of all, you have to be an adventurous type. For the person who is a homebody — who likes to be in there same place all the time — it is the wrong choice because our diplomats are moved to different parts of the world every two or three years, often doing different things. It is a very transitory life that requires you to be open to the world in a way that not everybody is. If that’s part of your personality, it is a great choice.
The other thing is, to be a part of the Foreign Service, you have to have a sense of responsibility — of public service. You won’t get rich working in the Foreign Service. You have a good life in that it is fascinating. You meet interesting people and travel the world and move in diplomatic circles. It is rewarding in the mind and in the heart and in the soul. People who do this do it because they’re passionate about serving their country in different ways around the globe, not because they are going to be a big, fat corporate lawyer pulling in an enormous salary. It doesn’t work that way. You meet lots of really smart folks who have fascinating lives and stories and do very committed work.
Embassy of the United States to Finland: http://finland.usembassy.gov/index.html