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Interview with René Söderman, Senior Arctic Official for Finland

With the advent of the Finnish Chairmanship in May of 2017, René Söderman assumed the role of Senior Arctic Official for Finland, while Aleksi Härkönen took on the role of SAO Chair. In this interview, get to know René Söderman's background and thoughts on his work with Arctic cooperation writ large.

Q: What is your background, and how do you feel it has prepared you for your role as a Senior Arctic Official?

I come from a bilingual background, and my family ancestry can be traced from the Finnish archipelago to Livonia in the Baltics and from the rural parts of Helsinki to the wilderness of Posio in Lapland. I am married and have three grown-up children. And music plays a very important role in my life.

My professional background is stitched together from different eras and in various styles. I studied at Hanken Business School in Helsinki, where I majored in finance and investment; I also enjoyed studying statistics. I worked in a couple of Swedish banks as a money market manager, after which I began a career in journalism, reporting on economics for Kauppalehti and YLE News. Following the economic troubles of the ‘90s, I got a job with Nokia Corporation managing European press relations and internal communications, and then (after a brief stint producing the 150th anniversary of the Finnish national anthem) found a position with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a press secretary. I’ve never regretted that move. The overseas postings in Oslo, Los Angeles, and México City were simultaneously challenging and great fun. I miss the landscapes of Norway, the energy of California, and the street food in México. But many more experiences – in the Arctic, not least – still lie ahead!

My role as a Senior Arctic Official is a daunting challenge, to say the least. You need to be a generalist in Arctic issues. Stakeholders in your capital city, colleagues at meetings, and your boss next door all expect you to understand and explain – in plain language –the changes, trends, and challenges that characterize the Arctic and Arctic cooperation. You need a good sense of current environmental, economic, social, and (to some extent) security issues in the Arctic. It helps to be curious! Ask those who know; be nosy. I've been working with Arctic cooperation only since 2013, and I feel I'm slowly getting a grip on the issues. Patience also helps, because the big wheels of multilateral diplomacy usually turn very slowly. Finally, it’s important to be interested in people, learning who they are, where they come from, and what they do.

Q: What elements of your work with the Arctic Council are you most looking forward to?

Meeting with colleagues from the Arctic and beyond is the bread and butter of Arctic cooperation. The thematic discussions by invited experts, the lively interventions by SAOs, the down-to-earth responses from Permanent Participants, the extensive presentations by Working Groups, and Observers' comments are all impressive. It is at SAO meetings where Arctic cooperation comes to life, and I enjoy every bit of it. It is also a privilege to visit Arctic sites, where you would otherwise never set foot if not for this amazing job. I've seen Denali in Alaska, felt the cold in Barrow, walked Jack London's footsteps in Whitehorse, danced in Yellowknife, talked in Inari, networked in Tromsø, played the guitar in Umeå, and walked the streets in Reykjavik. Greenland is still on my bucket list.

Q: What are some of the challenges that you see for the Arctic Council that you are looking forward to tackling in your new position?

I am worried that Arctic cooperation is moving too slowly to adequately address the challenges of the Arctic region. We have all the scientific research, we have the indigenous knowledge and local know-how, and they help us see the actions that we should both take ourselves and promote elsewhere. But somewhere down the line the connection is lost between recommendations and actions. The three legally binding agreements that have been negotiated between the eight Arctic states under the auspices of the Arctic Council are one clear exception to the rule. That is how things get done. Now there seems to be an understanding between the Arctic States and Permanent Participants that the Arctic Council could benefit from a long-term strategic plan. It is my sincere hope that we will be able to agree on a plan that would nail down not only our objectives but also the actions we’ll need to take to achieve them.

Q: What is it like to serve as the SAO for the country that holds the Chairmanship? How do you sort these two roles?

I think the cooperation between the SAO Chair Aleksi Härkönen and myself works very well. We talk daily, and I guess one advantage of being SAO is that I know what's cooking at the Chairmanship end of the table. When it comes to Chairmanship issues - e.g. the agenda for an upcoming SAO meeting - I can offer my advice but the decision is made by the SAO Chair. Speaking events make up a substantial part of representing the Chairmanship and there we have divided the tasks between the SAO Chair and myself. So when I speak publicly as the SAO of Finland my voice would be the voice of the Chairmanship.

Q: What is your most memorable Arctic experience?

It must be the time when Aleksi and I flew on a small propeller plane to visit the town of Nome on the west coast of Alaska, near the Bering Strait. On our way to the town we were greeted by a road sign saying “Seppala Drive.” It turned out that this Leonhard Seppälä was a dog musher that had saved Nome from a diphtheria epidemic by bringing a life-saving serum by dog sled in 1925. He is still a big name in Alaska and in the dog sledding community. Despite his surname, which is common in Finland, Seppälä was in fact Norwegian, but this of course didn’t put a damper on our pleasure in spotting a road sign with some Finnish on it.